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Inventing environmentalism

If changing the way mankind thinks about the world in which we live qualifies as an innovation, Pittsburgh’s Rachel Carson may be counted as an innovator-supreme. Born in 1907, on an idyllic 65- acre homestead along the banks of the Allegheny River in the village of Springdale, the precocious child was destined to bring the word ecology into the popular lexicon.


An omnivorous reader, serious student and gifted writer, Carson entered Chatham College as an English major intent on becoming a professional writer, but found biology while taking a mandatory science course. She went on to graduate magna cum laude, win a summer appointment at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, and gain early acceptance to Johns Hopkins’ graduate program, where she intended to earn a Ph.D. in marine biology, only to suffer the financial realities of the Great Depression. As a matter of necessity, Carson took a job writing for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1936. Following 16 successful years working for the government, in 1952 her first best-selling book, The Sea Around Us, enabled her to quit her job to write full time. By 1955 she had a best-selling trilogy of books about the sea to her credit. In 1958 she began work on her opus major, Silent Spring, a book that incited controversy beginning several months before its actual publication and continues to do so today.


In order to translate complex science into popular terms, Carson used real-life examples of the dismal failures of the aerial application of broad-spectrum insecticides, which frequently resulted in the evolution of newly resistant pests that thrived in spite of subsequent chemical applications and proliferated as a consequence of the unwitting extermination of the pest’s natural enemies. She chronicled the failed attempts to eliminate fire ants in the South; Japanese beetles in the North; Dutch elm disease in the East and sagebrush in the West, all with data extracted from scientifically respectable government and scholarly documents. Reluctant to burden readers with footnotes as they read, Carson ended Silent Spring with more than 50 pages of citations.


Preceded by a serialization in the New Yorker, the publication of the book was met by both laudatory acclaim and vociferous condemnation. On one hand the book made the New York Times bestseller list, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, received praise from President John F. Kennedy and a formal endorsement by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The book precipitated a special report by CBS and congressional hearings on the effects of chemical pesticide use. On the other hand, Carson endured an organized campaign to discredit her qualifications to write such a book. To their dismay the campaign’s supporters found their efforts served only to increase public interest in Carson and awareness of the emerging environmental movement.


Today, Rachel Carson’s legacy resides in such noteworthy achievements as the establishment of the EPA and the celebration of Earth Day. But her greatest impact is most salient in the way we view the world in which we live. Recent claims that Carson may have been inadvertently responsible for a failure to eliminate malaria in third-world countries, as well as for the outbreak of West Nile Virus here fly in the face of the fact that she never called for a total ban on chemical pesticides, only for their scientifically judicious use.


Rachel Carson’s life work may not have resulted in any scientific breakthrough, but she changed the way we think about the world in which we live. That’s innovation enough for me.  


This story first appeared in Tom Imerito’s TEQ column, Innovation Chronicles.

©Copyright 2006 Thomas P. Imerito/ dba Science Communications

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