Rachel Carson’s Legacy
When Rachel Carson testified before the Senate in 1963 she was roundly hailed, as Harriet Beecher Stowe had been by Abraham Lincoln, as “the little lady who started it all.” Carson’s huge 1962 best-seller, Silent Spring, had revealed to the public the dangers of DDT and other pesticides to birds, animals and human health. Early press accounts and biographies painted Carson as a lone genius whose single book sparked the environmental movement.
Rachel Carson disagreed. Carson was an active and proud participant in politics and the environmental movement that had already been warning about pesticides, early signals of global warming, habitat loss, species decline and more. The launch of Silent Spring, in the manner of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, was carefully strategized and supported by Rachel with her politically savvy literary agent, Marie Rodell and included special editions by the Audubon Society, the Consumer’s Union and selection by the Book of the Month Club with extravagant praise from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the leading environmentalist on the court, and a popular nature writer in his own right.
Carson also worked closely with President Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall and his chief of staff, Paul Knight, in crafting legislation and environmental strategy, helping with speeches and, backed by the pre-Earth Day movement, working to get an environmental department that eventually would become the Environmental Protection Agency.
Carson’s close friend and confidante, Marjorie Spock, was a central figure in the lawsuit attacking aerial spraying of DDT and served as a social media organizer for the growing movement. Spock, the sister of noted anti-war pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, sent out a steady stream of updates, research, requests for help and more from her early model, smelly thermofax machine.
Today, fifty years after Rachel Carson’s death from breast cancer in the spring of 1964, Carson’s influence is intense, her legacy a living one. She continues to be attacked by right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh who hope to tarnish her reputation and hence her political heirs.
But, more importantly, Rachel Carson has inspired new leaders and a stronger movement. Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that worked closely with Carson, has been the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where Carson started her career. Clark proudly shows where Carson sat, and has named her son Carson. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), the son of Stewart Udall, recalls meeting Carson in his youth and is now an environmental leader in the Senate. The Sierra Club, that has a Rachel Carson Society and received royalties from Silent Spring, today fights coal, fracking and air pollution — all of which Carson would have opposed.
New writers carry on Carson’s legacy of luminous prose, scientific training, the ability to reach and inspire large audiences and political activism. Terry Tempest Williams, Sandra Steingraber, Devra Davis and Theo Colborn, among others, directly claim Rachel Carson as their hero and their continuing motivation to write and act. They have testified before Congress, appeared at international treaty negotiations and organized against the environmental causes of cancer, endocrine disrupting chemicals, global climate change and more.
After Rachel Carson’s death fifty years ago, her estranged brother, Robert, arranged the equivalent of a state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington against her expressed wishes. Her closest friends and colleagues, Marie Rodell, Shirley Briggs, Irston Barnes and others, held instead a quiet, moving memorial at All Souls Unitarian Church. They read from her work, spoke of continuing her legacy, and then went back to writing, organizing and building a movement.
By Albert Robles
Councilmember from the City of Carson, California and Constitutional Attorney
Environmental Pioneer’s Efforts Continue In Prophetic Coincidence
Today, Monday, April 14, 2014, we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the passing of Rachel L. Carson. She is credited by environmentalists and concerned citizens around the world as the Mother of the Environmental Movement for her pivotal role in raising awareness of man-made threats to the environment. Her seminal work, Silent Spring ignited a grassroots environmental consciousness that led to cleaner air, cleaner water and ultimately to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Needless to say, Silent Spring remains required reading in environmental courses and the environmental movement she started continuous.
Carson’s contribution was recognized posthumously with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Moreover, in addition to having numerous schools and international environmental centers and institutes named after her, the United States Postal Service has issued a stamp in her honor, a recognition also bestowed upon her by other countries.
In her final public speech titled The Pollution of the Environment, Carson warned of contamination and the need to fight for a cleaner and safer environment for our children and future generations.
It is ironic that Pennsylvania, Carson’s birth state, is ground zero for today’s greatest environmental challenge, unregulated fracking – formally known as hydraulic fracturing – that employs a concoction of proprietary secret toxic chemicals and highly pressurized water to break-up rock formations deep underground so that oil and gas may be extracted. Environmentalist and concerned citizens everywhere fervently oppose fracking because it (i) injects unknown toxic chemicals into the ground that are inexplicably exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, (ii) utilizes an unregulated technique that is susceptible (in the best of circumstances) to major hazardous spills, and (iii) exposes nearby residents to potentially significant adverse health effects, all to extract a product that further contributes to pollution and is the direct cause of the world’s worst environmental disasters, e.g., the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon Valdez running aground in Alaska, and the Shell Oil Carousel calamity in Southern California.
In a coincidence that is nothing short of prophetic, a working-class city of 100,000 residents located in Southern California, almost 3,000 miles from
Pennsylvania, ground zero for the fight against fracking and the birth state of the pioneer of the environmental movement, will tomorrow consider approving a highly anticipated municipal report that supports the extension of the first-in-the-state moratorium banning any new or expanded oil and gas drilling, which includes fracking and other fracking-like applications. The report calls for the moratorium to remain in effect until such time studies are conducted regarding the use of any “oil and gas stimulation methods” and appropriate regulatory standards are in place to protect the environment and residents. It is perfectly fitting that this environmentally-minded city by pure happenstance named Carson, shares the name of the environmental movement’s pioneer – Rachel L. Carson.
The City of Carson first took its courageous action to impose a moratorium last month, in response to a swelling public outcry opposing the proposed project by Occidental Petroleum to construct over 200 new oil and gas extraction wells located less than a few hundred feet from Carson homes. The Carson City Council voted unanimously to impose the first-in-the-state moratorium banning all oil and gas well stimulation applications, because – depending on who and when you ask at Occidental Petroleum – this proposed project may or may not utilize fracking or fracking-like applications,.
Oil and gas extraction in the City of Carson predates the City’s incorporation, and some oil and gas extraction continues today, albeit at significantly reduced levels. But “experts” believe that a previously productive oil and gas reserve field located in Carson has billions of dollars worth of oil and gas remaining that can now be extracted using fracking and fracking-like application.
Ms. Carson would be proud to once again be associated with a pioneering environmental effort, this time to ban questionable and potentially dangerous oil and gas extraction applications that could wreak tremendous harm to our environment. So, on this day when we commemorate the departure of a strong advocate for environmental justice, we are reminded that her legacy is alive and well, especially in a city that is deeply proud to coincidentally share her name.
Albert has over 20-years of experience in the environmental and water field.