Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -- man -- acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.
Perhaps the finest nature writer of the Twentieth Century, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is remembered more today as the woman who challenged the notion
that humans could obtain mastery over nature by chemicals, bombs and space travel than for her studies of ocean life.
Her sensational book Silent Spring (1962) warned of the
dangers to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT,
and questioned the scope and direction of modern science, initiated the contemporary environmental movement.
Carson was a student of nature, a born ecologist before that science was defined, and a writer who found that the natural world gave her
something to write about. Born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, upstream from the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh, she became a marine scientist
working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, DC, primarily as a writer and editor. She was always aware of the impact that humans had
on the natural world. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941) was a gripping account of the interactions of a sea bird, a fish and an eel -- who
shared life in the open seas. A canny scholar working in government during World War II, Carson took advantage of the latest scientific
material for her next book, The Sea Around Us (1951) which was nothing short of a biography of the sea. It became an international best-seller,
raised the consciousness of a generation, and made Rachel Carson the trusted public voice of science in
America. The Edge of the Sea (1955) brought Carson’s focus on the ecosystems of the eastern coast from Maine to Florida.
All three books were physical explanations of life, all drenched with miracle of what happens to life in and near the sea.
In her books on the sea Carson wrote about geologic discoveries from submarine technology and underwater research -- of how islands were formed,
how currents change and merge, how temperature affects sea life, and how erosion impacts not just shore lines but salinity, fish populations,
and tiny micro-organisms. Even in the 1950's, Carson’s ecological vision of the oceans shows her embrace of a larger environmental ethic which
could lead to the sustainability of nature’s interactive and interdependent systems. Climate change, rising sea-levels, melting Arctic glaciers,
collapsing bird and animal populations, crumbling geological faults -- all are part of Carson’s work. But how, she wondered, would the educated public
be kept informed of these challenges to life itself? What was the public's "right to know"?
Evidence of the widespread misuse of organic chemical pesticides government and industry after World War II prompted Carson to reluctantly
speak out not just about the immediate threat to humans and non-human nature from unwitting chemical exposure, but also to question government and private science's assumption that human domination of nature was the correct course for the future.
In Silent Spring Carson asked the hard questions about
whether and why humans had the right to control nature; to decide who lives or dies, to poison or to destroy non-human life. In showing that all biological systems were dynamic and by urging the public to question authority, to ask "who speaks, and why"? Rachel Carson became a
social revolutionary, and Silent Spring became the
handbook for the future of all life on Earth.