Rachel Carson Meets James Madison?

One of Rachel Carson’s keenest insights in Silent Spring is about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. She speaks directly about our right to be free from pesticides, herbicides, and other poisons spread across the nation:

If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.

image of James Madison statueRachel Carson did not ever get to meet James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution. But they were joined in spirit when Dr. Robert K. Musil, President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, spoke passionately at James Madison University (JMU) about “Rachel Carson, Environmental Justice and Her Legacy for Virginia Today.” Musil was originally invited to speak at Earth Day 2020 by JMU President Jonathan Alger, but the outbreak of the COVID pandemic led to the need to reschedule Musil’s speech and campus visit until 2023.

Located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background, JMU, a public university with some 21,000 students, has been named #27 in the top 50 green colleges and universities ranked by the Princeton Review, has gained a STARS Silver rating and recognition as a Tree Campus and a BEE Campus, and has garnered numerous other sustainability awards.

During his visit, Musil was hosted by Dr. Christie-Joy Broderick Hartman, Professor in JMU’s Integrated Science and Technology Program (ISAT) and Executive Director of the Institute for Stewardship of the Natural World that takes an interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues. During his 3-day stay at JMU, Musil was given a tour by Dr. Wayne Teel, Professor of Geography and ISAT, of JMU’s Edible Forest Garden, a rooftop research garden, and other green features including naturalized meadows to replace lawns, a restored stream channel and riparian buffer, and solar arrays. Musil also met with ISAT and Geography Professor Carole Nash, JMU’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and professors in Religion and Climate Change, Education and the Environment and the ISAT Environmental Management Team. Dr. Musil also spoke in a number of classes ranging from a senior capstone course with professors Rob Alexander and Tobias Gerken on solving environmental problems, to an introductory course on chemistry and the environment, and the first-year immersive Environment and Sustainability Residential Learning Community that includes workshops, field work, and a long-term service project.

In his plenary speech at JMU’s Rose Library, with the campus wind tower visible outside, RCC President Musil explained that Rachel Carson should be known for more than simply exposing the dangers of DDT in Silent Spring, since she was also concerned with the threats of global climate change, factory farms, nuclear weapons testing, and the destruction of forests.

Carson’s environmental ethic that informs the work of the Rachel Carson Council today, Musil said, is based on empathy and respect for all living things, including creatures as different from us as the Atlantic mackerel and the American eel, the central characters in her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. Such concern for the “other,” whether an eel, mackerel, or human beings far removed and different than ourselves, is at the heart of environmental justice, Musil stated.

It’s why the RCC has carried out environmental justice campaigns and work in Virginia and neighboring North Carolina to prevent the construction of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley natural gas pipelines, has aligned with frontline communities and organizations to prevent harm from hog and chicken factory farms, and currently leads work in the South and on Capitol Hill against the clear-cutting of forests and the production of industrial-scale amounts of wood pellets that are shipped overseas to be burned for the production of electricity.

Musil, a long-time senior environmental leader, is proud, he told the assembled students and young faculty, that much of RCC’s environmental justice work has been carried out by his key staff – all in their twenties – and by RCC Fellows who have produced blogs and social media, written major reports, protested along pipelines, lobbied at state capitals, and worked to include environmental justice in campus curricula. The Rachel Carson Council currently has a 2022-2023 cohort of 30 RCC Fellows at campuses across the country. Musil invited JMU students already engaged in environmental projects and campaigns to apply for RCC Fellowships and to join in the nationwide movement for environmental justice.

Speaking with emotion, Musil said “You are the environmental leaders that we need so badly.” Given cancer and other illnesses, Rachel Carson was able to give only one commencement address in her life, he continued. “In it, Carson called on the undergraduates of Scripps College in California to make protecting the environment central to their lives. She said that is the responsibility you must face, and that is your shining opportunity. That is what I ask of you tonight.”

Following his speech, numerous JMU students signed up to be activists with the Rachel Carson Council, vowed to apply for RCC Fellowships and carry on the work of environmental justice. At the conclusion of President Musil’s visit, James Madison University became the 64th member of the Rachel Carson Council Campus Network.