Rachel Carson in Miami?

Rachel Carson grew up on a small farm near Pittsburgh, not far from Ohio. But, as far as we know, she was never present at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio until Rachel Carson Council President & CEO, Dr. Robert K Musil spoke there at the invitation of Carson scholar, Dr. Michele Navakas. Carson, the marine biologist and best-selling author of ocean books like The Sea Around Us, did, however, go to Miami, Florida, where she donned a diving helmet and plunged into Biscayne Bay to gain the perspective of the creatures who inhabit the underwater world.

But Miami University, one of the top-ranked “public Ivies” in the nation, would have impressed Carson, especially its commitment to sustainability and its numerous programs, centers, and institutes devoted to the environment. Miami’s Climate Action Plan has committed the university to carbon neutrality by 2024. Miami has won repeated STARS Gold ratings, has 31 LEED-certified building (32% of the entire campus) including the new Clinical Health Sciences and Wellness facility.

Dr. Musil spoke as part of the year-long FOCUS program which, in tandem with the John W. Altman Program in the Humanities, has environmental justice as its theme. Miami, in fact, was one of the earliest graduate programs in the environment in the nation, represented today by its Master’s degree (M.En.) offered through the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability.

And Michele Navakas, President Bob Musil’s host, is now working on a book on Rachel Carson and literary influences on her writing and thought. Navakas’ research led her to connect with Musil and Rachel Carson’s personal library owned by the Rachel Carson Council and housed in the RCC archives on the campus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Musil and Navakas compared notes on Carson’s reading of literary figures like Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, poets like Tennyson, Swinburn and Masefield, and various women nature writers like Anna Botsford Comstock and Florence Merriam Bailey. Both agreed that Carson’s imagination, awe, wonder and empathy, nurtured by literature, form the key to her environmental ethic.

In his FOCUS lecture, “Rachel Carson and Environmental Justice: Her Legacy for Today,” Musil described how Carson’s imagination, literary bent, and careful scientific observations gave rise to her first and favorite book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941,1952) a dramatic, yet lyrical, even poetic, narrative of the lives of marine creatures like Scomber, the mackerel, and Anguilla, the eel. We feel for these “heroes” of the book and develop empathy for them as they migrate, are attacked by predators, and are nearly caught and killed in human trawling nets.

Such empathy for the “other,” Musil explained, is at the core of Carson’s belief in the unique worth of each person and each species, no matter how different from ourselves. Such empathy is key to environmental justice – the deep caring and concern for those harmed as a result of environmental hazards and social inequities.

Such a sense of environmental injustice infuses Carson’s life and work, Musil said, citing her reference in Silent Spring, for example, that California farmworkers suffer the most from exposure to herbicides and pesticides like DDT. The same is true for the exposure of Eskimo (Inuit) mothers to radiation from nuclear testing that Carson denounced in her new (1961) Introduction to The Sea Around Us.

Before her death from breast cancer, Rachel Carson asked her friends and colleagues to form an organization to carry on her work. The Rachel Carson Council (1965) is the result and carries out Carson’s legacy of environmental justice today through education and publishing, organizing, and advocacy. Musil described the RCC’s major research reports and organizing campaigns against the pollution, climate damage, and adverse health effects on people of color living near industrial-sized factory farms for hogs in North Carolina. Rachel Carson first warned the American public about these dangers in her powerful Introduction to the 1964 book Animal Machines. Today, the RCC continues that advocacy, including most recently, an investigation of the current status of hog farms carried out with photography from a light plane by RCC Fellows Francesca Cetta and Lucy Goldman.

Musil also described one of the RCC’s biggest EJ campaigns against the clear-cutting of forests in the American Southeast to produce industrial scale wood pellets which are then shipped to Europe to be burned for energy in former coal-fired utilities. Exposés of wood pellet production like RCC’s comprehensive report Clear Cut have helped to build a growing movement against a practice that until recently was little known and hidden from the public and policy makers. As opposition to the wood pellet industry has begun to grow, corporations like Enviva and Drax that are major players have mounted large campaigns of their own to convince the public that wood pellet production is renewable and even good for carbon emissions. Such misleading PR campaigns are the subject of the RCC’s latest major report, Greenwashing, which exposes industry lies and offers solutions and advocacy advice.

In concluding, Musil emphasized that building upon Rachel Carson’s 1962 call to the college students of her day to become involved with the environmental movement, the RCC is dedicated to finding and engaging the next generation of environmental leaders through a campus network of thousands of students and faculty and RCC Fellowships that provide mentoring and financial support for some thirty Fellows selected each academic year. In fact, Musil told his Miami audience, much of RCC’s work – research, writing, organizing, and advocacy – is carried out by students just like them. He urged Miami students (and faculty) to join the RCC and its thousands of nationwide advocates. That he said, is the true legacy of Rachel Carson.

Musil’s visit to Miami University resulted in the addition of large numbers of students and faculty to the Rachel Carson Campus Network (RCCN), applications from a number of Miami’s best environmental students for RCC Fellowships, and the entrance of Miami University into the RCCN as its 68th member.