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Sustainability 49: Rachel Carson
A woman whom many consider to be a founder of America’s environmental movement, and an advocate for sustainability, Rachel Carson began as a precocious 8-year-old Pennsylvania farm girl, writing stories of animals in settings not unlike those encountered on her family’s 65 acres.
Though always an avid and gifted writer, Rachel, by the age of 19, had switched her college major to biology. Her interests in animals, particularly marine creatures, stayed strong as she studied zoology and genetics, earning a master’s degree in zoology, then in 1936 becoming only the second U.S. Bureau of Fisheries’ female professional, an aquatic biologist.
After further years spent honing her writing skills on leaflets, promotional pieces, radio spots and articles for the Bureau as well as the popular periodicals and newspapers of the day, Rachel emerged in 1951 as a best-selling author with The Sea Around Us. Rounding out a marine trilogy with The Edge of the Sea and Under the Sea Wind, she became a very popular author.
But it was Silent Spring, published in 1962, which would seal her fame. For most of my fellow baby boomers, rising through high school in the latter 1960s, that book was our first exposure to such concepts as fragile ecosystems, habitat destruction, conservation, environmentalism, and industrial pollution.
Silent Spring grew from Rachel’s increased concern over synthetic pesticides and their potentially harmful effects on ecosystems. The book’s title, a reference to forests and orchards devoid of birds felled by poisons, became a metaphor for man’s potentially destructive impact on the natural world.
Succumbing to breast cancer at age 56 in the spring of 1964 — just two years after the publication of Silent Spring — Rachel Carson was unable to build upon that book’s success. However, with that manuscript alone, she had raised the awareness of countless Americans to the potential dangers of chemical pollution on our natural world. She had also, for the first time in popular literature, touched on many of the topics that would in coming decades concern environmentalists the world over: bioaccumulation of toxins; resistance to pesticides; invasive species; biotic pest control; and conflicted interests among industrial, chemical and agricultural companies.