North Carolina is in the headlines these days. A critical political battleground, it is the only state in which all three major elections – President, Governor, and U.S. Senator — are on the ballot and highly competitive. North Carolina has also been facing backlash, from the NCAA to major corporations, over SB2, its discriminatory law that restricts the rights of transgendered Americans. And on campuses, professors have been under attack, funding has been slashed, and black activists have expressed their anger over the lack of response to their concerns about racial discrimination and police violence.
With this background, Rachel Carson Council President and CEO, Dr. Robert K. Musil arrived in Asheville, NC on September 12 to speak and organize at UNC just as one attendee was pummeling a 69-year-old woman protester at a rally featuring Presidential Donald Trump. Musil was in Asheville to lecture and engage with administrators, faculty and students at the University of North Carolina – Asheville (UNCA) and at Mars Hill University.
Speaking at UNCA on “Rachel Carson and Her Legacy for North Carolina,” Musil described Rachel Carson’s environmental ethic of deep concern for all creatures and human beings – what she called a reverence for life. Carson believed that feeling — imagination, wonder, empathy, awe – was essential to preventing the arrogance of humans from abusing and ultimately destroying the planet. Musil also pointed out that Carson deeply loved North Carolina, developed her love of the ocean, the seaside, and all its creatures at the beginning of her career visiting and researching at Beaufort, North Carolina – now the site of a Rachel Carson Reserve. Carson also sought solace and solitude recovering from a breast cancer operation by the ocean at Nags Head.
Carson would have been disturbed by recent developments in North Carolina, Musil said, and the failure of its legislators to face the realities of global climate change, including increasing sea-level rise to which North Carolina is especially vulnerable. Best-known for her exposé of DDT in her 1962 best-seller, Silent Spring, Musil told his audience that Carson was also opposed to nuclear weapons, testing and waste, and knew about early warnings of climate change. Surprisingly, Carson was also an outspoken and early opponent of industrial animal production. In her Foreword to Ruth Harrison’s 1964 Animal Machines, a pioneering critique of confined area feeding operations (CAFOs), Carson decried the computerized, inhumane treatment of the animals, the routine use of antibiotics, and the health effects of all this for consumers.
CAFOs now are widespread in North Carolina, holding 10 million hogs and 29 million chickens in horrible conditions. As a result, Musil explained, the RCC has been organizing across North Carolina, and has produced a major report, Pork and Pollution, on industrial hog production and its environmental, climate, and human impacts. The report highlights the environmental justice impacts of pork pollution, since those living near and suffering from the adverse effects of CAFOs are disproportionately people of color. Researching and advocating for environmental justice has its risks, however, as Musil explained. One of the key environmental researchers working with the RCC, Dr. Steve Wing of the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Public Health has been subpoenaed by the Smithfield Corporation — which owns most of the hogs in North Carolina CAFOs — to produce all his research materials — including data, emails, interviews with residents near CAFOs, and more in an attempt to intimidate him.
Musil called on the academics present to defend Wing, basic academic freedom, and fundamental civil rights. UNCA professors Jeff Wilcox and Sally Wasileski face similar harassment and even possible prosecution for their work examining soil and water quality at a Superfund site in Asheville owned by the CTS Corporation. CTA closed the site three decades ago leaving behind a site contaminated laced with toxic chemicals. Despite CTS threats of prosecution for entering the site, UNCA professors and students have rallied around Wilcox and Wasileski.
Rachel Carson was not just a fine writer and scientist, Musil reminded his UNCA audience. She was also deeply political and involved in the movements of her time. Quoting Rachel Carson in her only campus commencement address at Scripps College in 1962, Musil called on UNCA students and faculty to carry on Caron’s legacy and to act boldly on the environment and other issues. As a result, nearly 100 students and faculty signed up with the Rachel Carson Council campus network and the University of North Carolina – Asheville has become the thirty-second campus to join the RCCN network.