Rachel Carson: This Particular Instant of Time

Sunday was the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, the science writer who more than anyone else awakened the world to the risk of what the New Yorker once called our "effluent society."

The U.S. Senate was prepared to honor her this year, but that effort was blocked by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, because Carson spoke out against DDT and other pesticides. In a nice post sent in Deborah Byrd of the big and extremely informative Earth and Sky science radio program, Carson’s biographer, Linda Lear, points out on the show’s site that Carson never called for a ban on DDT or any pesticide.

And as the great E. B. White put it, in an appreciation written after Carson’s death in l964:

American justice holds the accused person innocent until proved guilty; somehow this concept has crept over into industry, where it doesn’t belong, and has been applied to products of all kinds. Why should a poison dust or spray, however greatly it may advantage a grower or a housewife in a private project, enjoy immunity while there is any reason to suspect that it may endanger the public health or damage the natural scene? Rachel Carson posed this question and spent years of hard work documenting her thesis. She was not a fanatic or a cultist. She was not against chemicals per se. She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man. No contributor to these pages more effectively combined a warm passion for nature’s mysteries with a cool warning that things can easily go wrong. We take her words seriously, and we’d like to see government departments set aside their jealousies and declare poison guilty until proved innocent.

We might add that for her efforts, Carson was hounded by Monsanto, American Cyanamid, and (according to Time) the whole American chemical industry, and called "probably a Communist" by a former Secretary of Agriculture.

White also includes a lovely quote from Carson, in which she contrasts her perception in "this particular instant of time that is mine" against the overwhelmingly vast sweep of the sea. A true naturalist, her thoughts inevitably go to the bigger picture…


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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