Rachel Carson’s Brave and Prescient 1953 Letter Against the Government’s Assault on Science and Nature
By Maria Popova
In 1953, nearly a decade before she catalyzed the environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring, trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) found herself with no choice but to embody the ethos that would come to animate her life: “To sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men.”
After Eisenhower took office, the Republican administration swiftly began instituting policies that effected the destruction of nature in the name of business. The Fish and Wildlife Service — of which Carson was editor in chief — was atop their target list. (Remember, there was no Environmental Protection Agency at the time; the EPA was created in 1970, largely on the wings of Carson’s work — a triumph tragic in its timing, for cancer took her life before she could savor its fruits.)
Since its inception in 1938, the Fish and Wildlife Service had been the government agency responsible for the protection and preservation of nature. Albert M. Day — a trained field scientist and a passionate conservationist — had been with the agency since the very beginning and became its visionary director in 1946. After appointing a businessman as Secretary of the Interior, the Republican government removed Day and replaced him with a nonscientist political pawn, who would sign off on removing hard-won environmental protections in order to turn natural resources into a profitable commodity — a decision Carson believed “should be deeply disturbing to every thoughtful citizen.” She poured her splendidly sobering rhetoric into a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which was picked up by the wire of the Associated Press, syndicated widely across the country, and reprinted in Reader’s Digest — the era’s equivalent of going wildly viral. By that point, Carson had already surmounted the towering cultural odds against her gender and her underprivileged background to become the most respected science writer in the country. Her voice was a booming clarion call for resistance.
Later included in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library), the letter emanates astonishing pertinence to our present predicament as we are reminded of history’s cycles in the face of another administration ready to exploit the fragility of nature and the precious finitude of its resources for ruthless commercial and political gain.
With an eye to what it would really take to make America great again, as it were, Carson writes:
The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.
By long tradition, the agencies responsible for these resources have been directed by men of professional stature and experience, who have understood, respected, and been guided by the findings of their scientists.
For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.
A century after Walt Whitman remarked in his abiding treatise on democracy that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Carson adds a remark of searing prescience:
It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.
Although Carson’s courageous outcry made little political difference in the immediate term, it adrenalized and awakened the public consciousness in a powerful way — a germinal wakefulness she would further fertilize a decade later with Silent Spring, which became a catalyst not only for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency but for the modern environmental conscience that is our only hope for the long-term survival of our Pale Blue Dot. Carson’s legacy is a reminder that the payoffs of courage and resistance aren’t always immediately obvious, but they work as a mighty tectonic force that can shift the future in fundamental ways.
There is an indispensable trove of Carson’s timeless, timely wisdom collected in Lost Woods. Complement it with the courageous story of why and how Carson wrote Silent Spring, the powerful 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to speak inconvenient truth to power, and her touching, deeply humane farewell to her dearest friend, then revisit Carl Sagan on science as an invaluable tool of democracy.
UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.
Published February 8, 2017