Growing up in Springdale, Penn., Rachel Carson was an avid reader who dreamed of becoming a writer. But a college biology teacher turned Carson’s interest to the sciences. Her work at the Bureau of Fisheries led to the 1951 bestseller, “The Sea Around Us,” which was the second of three books on ocean life. But then Carson learned a Long Island, N.Y., community was suing the federal government for spraying the insecticide DDT. Inspired by that case, Carson wrote the 1962 classic, “Silent Spring,” which launched the modern environmental movement. For this month’s Environmental Outlook: A new biography of the life and legacy of Rachel Carson.

Guests

  • William Souder author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist biography of John Audubon, "Under a Wild Sky."

Read An Excerpt

“On a Farther Shore” by William Souder (2012). Copyright © The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Fifty years ago, this month Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring." The book detailed the lethal effects of the pesticide DDT and radiation on the environment.

  • 11:07:10

    MS. DIANE REHMCarson's work shocked the public and led to the passage of the Clean Water Act and later, the founding of the EPA. In a new biography, author William Souder traces the sources of Carson's inspiration, her exacting work process and her very private battle with cancer.

  • 11:07:32

    MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson." William Souder joins me in the studio. We invite you to be part of the conversation as always. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir. It's good to have you here.

  • 11:08:04

    MR. WILLIAM SOUDERGood morning, Diane, it's wonderful to be here.

  • 11:08:04

    REHMTell me how well known you think Rachel Carson is to young people today?

  • 11:08:12

    SOUDERYou know, I think young people probably know her a little bit better than people in middle age do. Rachel Carson is being taught again in schools and in universities and so there is a sort of a doughnut hole in the public.

  • 11:08:27

    SOUDERPeople, you know, baby boomers, 50 and above, tend to remember Rachel Carson, many of them. Below that age, not so much. She is sort of the invisible force behind this very visible debate that we continue to have about the environment.

  • 11:08:41

    REHMAnd that debate comes along partisan lines?

  • 11:08:47

    SOUDERIt does and one of the reasons that I wrote this book and one of the things I was curious about was to explore that question, why do we have this partisan right/left divide over the environment? Why would people on the right side of the political spectrum feel one way about the planet that they inhabit with people on the left side?

  • 11:09:10

    SOUDERAnd yet, we do have this very divisive, sometimes angry, debate. And what I found was that the roots of that debate are really embedded in the Cold War which, of course, was, you know, one of the dominant problems of the 1950s and something that really influenced the way Carson thought about pesticides and what we were doing to the environment.

  • 11:09:29

    SOUDERAnd also in the reaction to "Silent Spring," which was a book that was bitterly opposed by its detractors and...

  • 11:09:36

    REHMBecause?

  • 11:09:37

    SOUDER...because they saw it as being anti-competitive, as something that threatened the American free enterprise system. If we were to cease using pesticides, as her detractors thought Rachel Carson was demanding, then arguably that would be something that would reduce the output of American agriculture. It might bring us down to parity with Eastern bloc forces.

  • 11:10:03

    SOUDERAnd so although she was never labeled 'the Communist,' there was always this implicit threat or this implicit suggestion that she was somehow un-American and that the idea of interfering with the free enterprise system in this way was fundamentally contrary to our interests.

  • 11:10:18

    REHMAnd it was because she was trying to put restrictions or alerting the public and not...

  • 11:10:27

    SOUDERWell, I think those are two important words, one alerting the public. She felt very strongly that the public was entitled to know...

  • 11:10:33

    REHMRight.

  • 11:10:33

    SOUDER...what it was being exposed to. That it was unfair and actually un-American for people, in general, not to know what was being sprayed through their neighborhoods and on to their food crops.

  • 11:10:44

    SOUDERBut also the idea of restraint and restricting the use of pesticides, as opposed to banning them outright, was an important distinction that she always made. In "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson very clearly said that there are valid uses for pesticides, particularly in controlling human disease and that their use in that situation could often be very effective and necessary. So she never advocated a total ban on the use of pesticides.

  • 11:11:08

    REHMWhat about DDT?

  • 11:11:09

    SOUDERNow, she never insisted that it had to not be used entirely. She did say that the heedless use of DDT and other pesticides was the problem.

  • 11:11:20

    REHMHeedless, what does that mean?

  • 11:11:22

    SOUDERWell, spraying it from airplanes and helicopters where it can be dispersed across large areas without good controls, used by farmers and by private citizens, at concentrations far above what was recommended. There was very little control over the use of these compounds and DDT was only one of many that were in use in the 1950s and 1960s. So it was the carelessness, the unawareness of how much of this stuff we were putting into the environment that really troubled her.

  • 11:11:50

    REHMIt's really interesting looking back at her early life in Springdale, Pa., a town just outside Pittsburgh. She loved reading. She loved being outside. But she really didn't have her sight set on science or the environment.

  • 11:12:11

    SOUDERNo, she didn't. She wanted to be, from an early age, a writer. In fact, she sold some stories as a child to a children's magazine called St. Scholastica, so...

  • 11:12:20

    REHMWhen she was ten or eleven?

  • 11:12:22

    SOUDERI believe she was ten when she sold her first one...

  • 11:12:23

    REHMWow.

  • 11:12:23

    SOUDER...and that would have been around 1917. And it was a story from her brother who had gone off to fight in World War I and so it's this very short little piece about an American flier. But she always wanted to be a writer and she always felt that there was no more exulted title than author. I mean, this was something she really aspired to.

  • 11:12:42

    SOUDERAnd when she won a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh, she went there planning to major in English and to become a writer.

  • 11:12:50

    REHMAnd one teacher…

  • 11:12:52

    SOUDEROne teacher set her on a different course, a biology professor named Mary Scott Skinker, who was demanding and inspiring and who saw in Rachel Carson great promise and convinced her that zoology would be something that she could actually devote her life to. And in the end, she ended up doing both.

  • 11:13:11

    REHMWhy, of course.

  • 11:13:11

    SOUDERShe combined science and writing.

  • 11:13:12

    REHMOf course, of course, but turning one's head in a totally different direction, she must have been very persuasive about what she saw in Rachel Carson.

  • 11:13:27

    SOUDERI think she was. Professor Skinker was certainly one of the most influential people on campus. All the girls who went to PCW, as they called it, looked up to Mary Scott Skinker. But I also think that biology is something that is very seductive to some people.

  • 11:13:43

    SOUDERIt has been for me, even though I'm a writer. I am fascinated by biology and have been absorbed in it for a number of years and so I think that happened to Rachel Carson, too. I think when she got immersed in the discipline of biology, she found it endlessly fascinating. It is the explanation of the life that we are living and so she was moved to pursue it.

  • 11:14:04

    REHMIt was interesting to learn that her parents had sold off part of their land and borrowed heavily to send her to school, help her pay her tuition, but eventually they couldn't afford it.

  • 11:14:21

    SOUDERWell, the Carson family was not a family of means. They really didn't have any money. Rachel went to college in 1925 and graduated in 1929 just as the stock market was about to crash and so they had mortgaged or leveraged some of the property that the Carsons owned in Springdale to underwrite Carson's tuition at college.

  • 11:14:40

    SOUDERAnd of course, after 1929, it was essentially worthless. They did sign it over to the college eventually, but it was very difficult for her to make her way through college. And then she did pursue a graduate degree, but got only as far as a master's, I think, because the Great Depression really made it impossible for her to continue on.

  • 11:14:57

    REHMSo she was working simultaneously?

  • 11:14:59

    SOUDERShe was teaching biology to college students while she was attending Johns Hopkins and earning a master's degree in zoology.

  • 11:15:07

    REHMInteresting that you titled this book "On a Farther Shore." Tell me why.

  • 11:15:13

    SOUDERThat comes from a line in a poem by T.S. Elliot that also includes a line that references the sea around us and Rachel Carson actually didn't know this poem when she wrote the book called "The Sea Around Us," which was the book that really catapulted her into fame and notoriety.

  • 11:15:31

    SOUDERIt's a beautiful poem and the idea that we are all of us embarked on a journey where we begin on the hither shore and we end up on the farther shore and that we should contemplate what happens in between just suggested itself as a good title for the book.

  • 11:15:46

    REHMWilliam Souder, he's the author of a brand new book published on the 50th anniversary of the original publication of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring." His biography is titled "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. She actually went to Johns Hopkins for her master's?

  • 11:16:31

    SOUDERThat's correct and she also worked in the summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, which is on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and which was, at the time and really still is probably, the pre-eminent biological field station in the country.

  • 11:16:45

    SOUDERAnd so it was at Woods Hole that Carson really got to sort of rub elbows with many of the promising science students and professors of science and I think a place where she found that maybe there were some limits to her talents as a scientist that perhaps caused her to rethink her interest in writing again.

  • 11:17:05

    REHMAnd it's interesting that you talk about two prominent English authors who inspired her.

  • 11:17:15

    SOUDERWell, two of her strongest literary influences were Richard Jefferies, who was a 19th century English writer, wrote about nature in a very metaphysical way. He was a philosopher of nature. Not all of his writing is terrific, it's quite uneven, but parts of it are really, really inspired. And he wrote about his relationship with the earth and the sea in a way that made you hungry for that life.

  • 11:17:43

    SOUDERAnd then one of Jeffries disciples, if you will, was a writer named Henry Williamson, a prolific writer in the 20th century who wrote most famously a book called "Tarka the Otter" and which is a book about an otter that was eventually turned into a Walt Disney movie.

  • 11:18:02

    REHMWas it aimed at children?

  • 11:18:03

    SOUDERWell, that's the question, you know. Williamson's work -- he also wrote a book about a salmon called "Salar the Salmon," which was the direct inspiration for Carson's first book. And with both of those books and with Carson's initial book, the question of who the target audience is, is an open one.

  • 11:18:19

    SOUDERI suspect if they were being published today, they would fall into what we would call the young adult category, but I don't know.

  • 11:18:23

    REHM"The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson," a new book by William Souder. I hope you'll join us. I know many of you know of the work of Rachel Carson and will want to comment.

  • 11:20:06

    REHMWelcome back. If you're just joining us William Souder is my guest. His last name is written "S," like "Sam," O-U-D-E-R and he's the author of two previous books, "A Plague of Frogs" and "Under Wild Sky." He lives in Grant, Minn., but his newest book is all about the life and legacy of Rachel Carson. It's titled "On A Farther Shore."

  • 11:20:44

    REHMHere's our first email and apparently it represents a number of emails that have come in. It's from Laurel in Michigan who says, "Rachel Carson used phony science to say that DDT caused cancer because DDT saved the lives of so many children of malaria in other countries. Cancer instead of malaria became the leading cause of death in those countries. So she said DDT caused cancer. Carson and her supporters stopped DDT from saving lives."

  • 11:21:30

    SOUDERWell, Laura, thanks for the comment and this is one that you hear all the time about Rachel Carson. And it actually goes back to 1962 when -- even before the book was published when it was serialized in the New Yorker magazine people were complaining that if we banned the use of DDT entirely that malaria deaths would rise throughout the world because malaria is a serious problem. And DDT had been effective in addressing in a number of areas.

  • 11:21:56

    REHMIn the mosquitoes that cause the (word?) .

  • 11:21:59

    SOUDERExactly, controlled the mosquitoes which are the vector for malaria and been very successful in southern Europe, in northern Africa, in southern Africa, in India, even parts of the United States DDT was used to wipe out the visages of malaria. It was not heavily used in sub-Saharan Africa which remains the hotspot for malaria in the world today. Carson's claims about cancer in DDT have never been fully explored. We still don't know the answer. The National Toxicology Program lists DDT as a probable human carcinogen but we don't know that with absolute certainty.

  • 11:22:35

    SOUDERWhat we do know is that although DDT use was banned in the United States in 1972, it was never banned for use overseas. And that rule had no effect anywhere. And, in fact, the United States continued to manufacture and export DDT well into the mid 1980s and it has always been available in other countries.

  • 11:22:56

    SOUDERSo the response to "Silent Spring" in this country, certainly was to look at DDT much more harshly and was definitely involved in the EPA getting rid of DDT and a host of related pesticides in the early 1970s. But it really had nothing to do with the use of DDT in sub-Saharan Africa, which is the charge that is made against Carson.

  • 11:23:16

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:23:17

    SOUDERI actually wrote about this today in Slate magazine. If anyone wants to read a more thorough discussion they certainly can but it's simply not accurate to say that Rachel Carson is to blame.

  • 11:23:27

    REHMAnd we'll put a link to that on our own website so that people can follow up a little more.

  • 11:23:36

    SOUDERWe should say that the World Health Organization in 2006 reiterated its backing for the use of DDT in combating malaria. And virtually every environmental group agreed with that ruling and I'm sure that Rachel Carson would if she was around.

  • 11:23:50

    REHMDo you think that should a plague like malaria come to this country that you would see DDT used once again?

  • 11:24:03

    SOUDERI wouldn't be surprised. I would think that would be likely. DDT has been used on a very limited basis in very specific situations since its banning in the United States. There are exceptions that have been made already I believe in southern California back in the 1980s. But, yeah, I think it's likely that we would.

  • 11:24:21

    REHMHere's another email from Virginia in D.C. who says, "Big biotech now puts pesticides everywhere on our lawns, in our paint, and genetically engineered in our food, not just on our food. Dow," say says, "wants to bring back Agent Orange to genetically engineer it into the corn we eat and feed our meat supply. "Silent Spring" has been silenced."

  • 11:24:57

    SOUDERWell, I can't speak specifically to Dow or to Agent Orange, although I believe Agent Orange is related to some of the herbicides that are still in common use. It's certainly the case that we use a lot of pesticides these days and in many cases we are engineering the crops to be specifically resistant to certain pesticides. So there's no escaping...

  • 11:25:16

    REHMCertain pests you mean.

  • 11:25:18

    SOUDERCertain pesticides so corn, for example, can be made to be resistant or immune to Roundup which is a type of herbicide. So farmers can then use Roundup to control weeds in cornfields without killing the corn.

  • 11:25:33

    REHMHere is a third from Dan and Beth who say, "Thanks for having this show. I've been rereading all of Rachel Carson's books over the summer. Her writing is informative from what cloud formations tell us in the edge of the sea to her wakeup call on the effects of what we're doing to our own environment and continue today. This should be required reading in our schools."

  • 11:26:07

    SOUDERWell, I think that's a wonderful thought, you know. Because it's the 50th anniversary of "Silent Spring" and because that book had such a legacy it's easy to forget that she wrote three other Best Selling books that were very, very different from "Silent Spring." "Silent Spring" is an angry dire book and -- but her other books are these lyrical odes to the sea, to the ocean. All three of her other books are about the ocean in one way or another.

  • 11:26:30

    REHMShe began writing about DDT in 1945?

  • 11:26:36

    SOUDERWell she worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which was engaged in testing DDT. They wanted to find out if DDT and these other insecticides would cause problems in wildlife. And so there was an ongoing testing program at the Fish and Wildlife research station at Patuxent, Md. which was near where Carson worked. And one of her responsibilities was to put out press releases on findings like this. So she actually was drafting reports on the potential dangers of DDT as early as 1945.

  • 11:27:06

    REHMSo how much of a role do you think Rachel Carson actually played in the evolution of the environmental movement?

  • 11:27:17

    SOUDERWell, you know, the environmental movement of course is a term that you can kind of define in whatever way will suit your purposes. From my vantage point she's the founder of the modern environmental movement. And in my book I make a distinction between the conservation movement that sort of dominated the first half of the 20th century and which was about being good stewards to the earth, protecting our resources, protecting the plants and animals that everyone wants to be able to enjoy.

  • 11:27:43

    SOUDERAnd environmentalism is a somewhat more pessimistic, somewhat more urgent call to protect ourselves from ourselves. Human beings sort of become the species of concern in the environmental movement then. And so again these terms are flexible but I think it's a useful way to think about what came before Rachel Carson and what came after.

  • 11:28:03

    REHMAnd...

  • 11:28:03

    SOUDERShe clearly is the fault line, the dividing point between these two ideas.

  • 11:28:07

    REHM...what about the EPA and its creation?

  • 11:28:11

    SOUDERWell, there had been talk during Carson's lifetime -- and we should say she died in 1964, two years after "Silent Spring" came out at the age of 57 from cancer. There had been talk during her lifetime of setting up some sort of a conservation agency within the federal government. People had wanted to do it for a long time. And it wasn't until President Nixon authorized the formation of the EPA in 1970 that that finally happened. And one of the first things that the EPA did was to line up DDT and a bunch of related insecticides and pesticides and ban their use.

  • 11:28:44

    REHMHow did she spend her life aside from writing? Did she marry, did she have family?

  • 11:28:53

    SOUDERShe did not marry. She spent her life quietly, most of it with her mother. Her mother died in 1955. They lived together throughout Carson's life going back to right after she got out of graduate school. She owned cats. She liked to spend time by the seashore, was an avid collector in the tide pools near a cottage that she owned in Maine. She divided her time between Maine in the summer and Silver Spring, Md. the rest of the year. And she lived a very quiet, very private existence, even though she was, as of 1951 with a book called "The Sea Around Us," one of the most famous writers in the world.

  • 11:29:31

    REHMBut she managed to keep to herself nevertheless. I mean, even her fame did not drive her outward.

  • 11:29:40

    SOUDERNo. She turned down most opportunities to go out into the world and to give speeches and do interviews and appearances. She did do some and she was actually quite capable at it but she much preferred to stay home and to work and to write and to spend time with her friends and her mother. She eventually adopted her grand nephew who was orphaned at the age of six. And so for the last several years of her life, you know, in her 50's Carson was an adoptive mother.

  • 11:30:10

    SOUDERShe also had a long and very meaningful relationship with a woman named Dorothy Freeman who was a neighbor of hers in Maine. And they had a very, very close intimate romantic, but I think probably not sexual relationship that was by far the most important nonfamily relationship in Carson's life. Dorothy was the great love of her life. And we have a hard time now understanding exactly what that relationship was but they were devoted to each other.

  • 11:30:39

    REHMHow lovely...

  • 11:30:40

    SOUDERBeautiful, yeah.

  • 11:30:40

    REHM...that she had that.

  • 11:30:41

    SOUDERAnd if you read the correspondence between Dorothy and Rachel, you'd think, well this is more intense and more romantic than people that do have, you know, a more overt relationship.

  • 11:30:50

    REHMWell, think of the letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hickok and the extent to which people speculated about that relationship. But it was of a certain time.

  • 11:31:08

    SOUDERIt was of a certain time and we look back, you know, 50 years after the fact and we probably want to attach all kinds of significance to that relationship that wasn't there.

  • 11:31:14

    REHMCourse, yeah. How old was she when she discovered she had cancer?

  • 11:31:21

    SOUDERWell, that was in 1960 so she would've been 53. And unfortunately, her doctor wasn't completely honest with her about her...

  • 11:31:32

    REHMWhat type of cancer?

  • 11:31:34

    SOUDERShe had breast cancer. And about ten years before that, she had had a benign cyst in one of her breasts removed. And she assumed that this was going to be the same situation when she discovered another mass in one of her breasts. But she came out of the operation with a mastectomy and was told by her doctor that she was cured, that it hadn't spread and that the mastectomy had really been a precautionary move. And in fact, that was not true. The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes.

  • 11:32:01

    SOUDERAnd this was also a function of the times that Carson lived in because in the 1950s and 1960s it was more common for a doctor to discuss this kind of diagnosis and prognosis with the husband. And because Carson was unmarried she simply wasn't told the truth. And the tragedy is that for someone who had a master's degree in biology and who was more than capable of understanding the biology of her disease and how it could be addressed she could've controlled her own treatment in a way that might have, if not cured her, at least kept her alive much longer.

  • 11:32:33

    REHMAnd until George Crile came along and developed the lumpectomy it was sort of the thing to do, a total mastectomy.

  • 11:32:47

    SOUDERYes, and George Crile was one of the doctors that Carson saw. She eventually got radiation treatments and they slowed the progress of her cancer but they never really stopped it entirely.

  • 11:32:56

    REHMInteresting. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers so we'll open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Hanover, Pa., good morning, Tim.

  • 11:33:15

    TIMGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Mr. (word?) .

  • 11:33:19

    REHMGood to have you.

  • 11:33:20

    TIMI'm one of those folks who's over 50 who has quite a fascination with Ms. Carson. And really her message -- a couple of questions I have is has her message continued to resonate of us being careful with the use of chemicals in different parts of the world?

  • 11:33:43

    SOUDERI think the message of "Silent Spring" does still resonate. I think people are more sensitive now to the idea that we can contaminate the environment with chemicals. When Carson wrote "Silent Spring" this was really not an idea that had occurred to people before. And that was one of the reasons that she drew such an explicit link between chemical contamination and the contamination that was then happening from nuclear testing around the world.

  • 11:34:08

    SOUDERBack in the 1950s and 1960s we had fallout from nuclear explosions raining down on North America on a regular basis. And by the time "Silent Spring" came out in 1962 people were alert to that problem. And I think that's one reason that baby boomers got "Silent Spring." They had grown up in the Cold War, they had a vision of what could happen to a world if fallout were unleashed upon it. And so I think they could draw the parallel between that and chemical contaminants.

  • 11:34:39

    SOUDERSo to answer your question, Tim, yeah I think there is a legacy of "Silent Spring" that is very much with us still but we ignore it when it's economically or politically convenient to do that.

  • 11:34:49

    REHMTim, how does it continue to resonate in your own life?

  • 11:34:55

    TIMJust being careful, you know, with our kids and we are an adoptive and birth family as well. And just for our kids to really be more aware of the world around them and not live in some self serving, you know, microcosm. And one of the things I think of her writing, instead of a question but just a comment to you, thank you for bringing more of a message that we need to take seriously.

  • 11:35:27

    REHMI'm glad you called. Thank you. Let's go now to Alexandria, Va. and Steven. Good morning.

  • 11:35:36

    STEVENYes, good morning, Diane and guest.

  • 11:35:39

    REHMHi.

  • 11:35:41

    STEVENI really appreciate this radio program. In the comments of Tim I think we're the similar age. I'm almost 60. As a young child 12 years old or so I became interested in biology and the books of Rachel Carson were among the first that I read, "Silent Spring" and "The Sea Around Us." As those were really profoundly influencing on me. I became a biologist, went on to graduate school and work now internationally in public health and biology. And the things that I learned from those books and from the education that I received at university and, you know, studying the themes of pesticides and public health over the years have really had a major influence.

  • 11:36:29

    STEVENAlso her writing was indeed very beautiful. And I think I must've picked up on that because I enjoy a writing about biology myself. And she was one of the first, you know, I think -- I suppose one of the first, you know, women writers biologists who had a major influence worldwide. And for that, too, she deserves great respect and I'm grateful for this program.

  • 11:36:54

    REHMThank you so much, Steven.

  • 11:36:55

    SOUDERThank you, Steve. And very interesting, you know, one of the things that was said about Carson when she was first enjoying big success with her writing was that it was surprising that a woman would write so well about scientific issues and about the deep ocean. This was surprising to people and it was always part of her cache. She -- the one word that always got applied to Carson's writing was poetic. That seemed to come up time and time again. But the fact that she was a woman always caught people off guard.

  • 11:37:23

    REHMWilliam Souder. His piece on Slate is now up on our website. It's titled "Rachel Carson Didn't Kill Millions of Africans." We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your questions, comments. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMWilliam Souder is my guest. His new book all about the life and legacy of Rachel Carson is titled, "On a Farther Shore." Here's an email from Mark who says, "Decades ago it was quite common for Americans who identify with the right to also embrace environmental causes. They were committed members of the Sierra Club. What happened to make environmental issues so unpopular with the right today?"

  • 11:40:40

    SOUDERWell, thanks for the question, Mark. And it's a great question. It's absolutely true. And again, I talked earlier about the conservation movement. This kind of came out of the idea of protecting mainly game animals. And it was hunters and fisherman who initially wanted the government to step forward and do something to preserve the natural environment. And for a long time the environment was a nonpartisan issue. What happened in 1962 with the publication of "Silent Spring," for the first time, is that we began to talk about the government needing to reach out proactively into an economic activity and regulate it.

  • 11:41:20

    SOUDERAnd regulation is in the view of some people an overreach on the part of government. And restriction in the use of economically important class of compounds was seen as interference on the part of the government. So it began this subtle shift in which environmentalism becomes identified with the left.

  • 11:41:45

    REHMAnd how would you characterize it today?

  • 11:41:50

    SOUDERAs nonsensical. I mean we all inhabit the same planet. My concern should be identical to anyone else's concern about the environment, regardless of our political perspective. But the realities are that there are economic forces and political forces that keep us divided over this. Now, my own hunch is that the big problem we have today, which is climate change, is going to eventually force us to confront the environment on a non-partisan way so that we can address some of what's happening, but so far it hasn't.

  • 11:42:22

    REHMI don't think we heard anything about the environment at the Republican National Convention. Do you think we're likely to hear more from the Democrats?

  • 11:42:37

    SOUDERI suspect we'll hear more. I don't know how genuine it is. I mean I'm sure that their hearts are in the right place, but the reality is that there's just not a political constituency to take the kind of hard steps that we often need to take.

  • 11:42:49

    REHMAll right. To Grand Ridge, Ill. Good morning, Dave.

  • 11:42:54

    DAVEGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:42:56

    REHMHi.

  • 11:42:56

    DAVEGreat show you got today.

  • 11:42:58

    REHMThanks.

  • 11:43:00

    DAVEMy question is how has the chemical industry influenced this argument, then and now? And why does it seem like the right seems to be more influenced by them? And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 11:43:14

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:43:15

    SOUDERWell, thank you, Dave. When "Silent Spring" came out in 1962 the chemicals industry collectively put together a war chest. At the time I think it was about $250,000 -- which doesn't sound like much, but it was a substantial sum back then -- that they were going to devote to discrediting the book and arguing with its author. And this argument took a number of different forms. "Silent Spring" was parodied in a magazine that was widely distributed. There were all kinds of fact sheets…

  • 11:43:45

    REHMParodied how?

  • 11:43:47

    SOUDERThe first chapter of "Silent Spring," in which Carson imagined this American town that had gone silent because of the overuse of pesticides, was parodied by the Monsanto Corporation in their company magazine in an article they called, "The Desolate Year." And it basically flipped the argument around and depicted an American town devastated by insects and overrun by vermin and pests because insecticides and other pesticides were no longer in use. So reversing Carson's argument in a kind of ironic way. Now, it was actually a pretty interesting piece. The problem with it was that those guys didn't write nearly as well as Rachel Carson did.

  • 11:44:27

    REHMHow many other companies came out swinging?

  • 11:44:32

    SOUDERThere were probably, oh, at least a dozen. And I forget all the names, but many, many prominent chemical companies were engaged in the manufacture of pesticides. One in particular actually did threaten to sue Houghton Mifflin -- that was Carson's publisher-- if "Silent Spring" was released. And in the end they did not sue, partly because Rachel Carson said let them sue. I don't care, it's right. And partly because they just sort of ran out of steam. Several months after that that company was actually found to have contributed to a massive fish kill in the Mississippi River where it was dumping some of its byproducts.

  • 11:45:09

    REHMHere's an email from Joan, "What do you think Rachel Carson would say about hydraulic fracking and the problems with people's wells?"

  • 11:45:24

    SOUDERWell, she'd be very concerned about fracking. Water and groundwater were a big concern to Carson. One of the things that she emphasized in "Silent Spring" was that there are certain ways of contaminating the environment that tend to contaminate the total environment. When you have something like DDT that is very persistent, that can linger in soil, for example, for years or even decades or that can become volatilized and distributed throughout the atmosphere, what happens is that you might use these products in one location and they end up distributed throughout the total global environment.

  • 11:46:00

    SOUDERAnd that's exactly what happened with DDT. I think the worry with fracking -- which I'm not an expert on, but I understand the controversy -- is that despite the claims that this can be unsafely and that all of the sort of hazardous intrusion of compounds and fluids into the Earth is contained and controlled, we're not really confident that that's the case.

  • 11:46:23

    REHMAnd to Huntsville, Ala. Good morning, Hester.

  • 11:46:29

    HESTERGood morning. Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the work of Miss Carson. It's so very important and so relevant even today, 50 years later.

  • 11:46:37

    REHMI do agree.

  • 11:46:40

    HESTERMy question is to Mr. Souder. For example, this morning alone I was dismayed to hear that now we have a study that says organic versus non-organic produce has the same nutritional value and the takeaway for some commentators has been, oh, well, you see, then we don't need organic produce. To me it's not about the nutrition, it's about the pesticides and the chemical use and the battle of, you know, what's good for you, what's good for the planet. It's gotta be the same thing. What's good for us needs to be what's good for the planet.

  • 11:47:12

    HESTERSo my question to Mr. Souder is, who today is writing about these issues, perhaps not as eloquently as Miss Carson, but someone who is continuing that work and can point us to a direction in the future where we'll have a more harmonious existence with the Earth?

  • 11:47:30

    SOUDERHester, thank you. That's a great question. You're talking about the study that Stanford just released.

  • 11:47:36

    REHMIn the New York Times this morning.

  • 11:47:37

    SOUDERNew York Times had a report on it today.

  • 11:47:38

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:47:39

    SOUDERI don't know too much about the study, but it was a meta-analysis. That means they didn't do any fresh experimental work. They basically reviewed all the existing scientific literature and drew a conclusion based on that, that nutritionally there is a not a big difference between organic and inorganic. But you make exactly the right point. The nutrition value, which may still be debated, isn't necessarily the central issue. What's more important is the use of pesticides…

  • 11:48:09

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:48:09

    SOUDER…on crops and on the local versus non-local production and consumption of farm products. I don't know that there's anybody writing today who's quite like Rachel Carson, but I'll tell you somebody's who's terrific on the subject is Michael Pollan. And he's written, you know, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and other books that address the American food supply and I think puts his finger on a number of problems related to non-organic farming that have nothing to do with nutritional value.

  • 11:48:37

    REHMBut that is the key with organic versus non-organic, is it not? Not the nutritional value at all.

  • 11:48:48

    SOUDERWell, I guess we don't know. You know, according to this Stanford study we can't separate, you know…

  • 11:48:54

    REHMRight.

  • 11:48:54

    SOUDER…organic from non-organic. But again, I think the point is it's everything else that comes with organic farming that…

  • 11:48:59

    REHMRight.

  • 11:48:59

    SOUDER…we should value. And that includes local production…

  • 11:49:03

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:49:04

    SOUDER…and many other things.

  • 11:49:05

    REHMAll right. Thanks for your call, Hester. Let's go to southern Ohio and to Phil. Good morning.

  • 11:49:14

    PHILGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Mr. Souder. We have recently had a fish kill here in Ohio in the Tuscarawas River along 13 miles of that waterway. And I was wondering -- they haven't determined yet what that pesticide or chemical might be that caused that -- is there something new on the horizon that people haven't heard about yet that is similar to DDT and its problems with killing fish?

  • 11:49:49

    SOUDERPhil, I don't know if there's anything new that is comparable to DDT. DDT was particularly lethal to fish. It basically was about 100 percent mortality in fish that were exposed to any level of DDT at all. Fish kills are always difficult to evaluate. They can arise from chemical contaminates, but they can also be caused by natural conditions in the body of water. And I don't know anything about your river there. I do know it has been extraordinarily hot this summer in the middle of the country. There may be a heat-related, oxygen-related explanation for the fish kill.

  • 11:50:22

    REHMWhat do you think she would say about environmental change and whether the planet is warming or cooling?

  • 11:50:34

    SOUDERI think she'd say we're having the same argument that we were having 50 years ago. That we don't want to admit that we need to restrict our own activities in our own self interest, which is an odd thing, but yet we seem unwilling to do it. I think Rachel Carson would be most disturbed by the dismissiveness of science these days by how little regard people have for science if it gets in the way of their ideology or their political perspective.

  • 11:51:02

    SOUDERThe idea that climate-change science, which is endorsed overwhelming, it's a massive consensus scientifically, gets so routinely just set aside as a hoax or unimportant by people who simply have a different agenda. I think Rachel Carson would find that very, very disturbing and not a good sign for the future.

  • 11:51:21

    REHMTo Johnny in Hickory, N.C. Good morning.

  • 11:51:26

    JOHNNYGood morning. How are you this morning?

  • 11:51:28

    REHMFine, thanks. Go right ahead, sir.

  • 11:51:31

    JOHNNYWell, one of the things that I've noticed in some of my research and reading is that one of the major chicken producers -- and I don't remember which one -- will not feed soybean, soy-based products or corn-based products that glyphosate resistant or the Roundup is what everybody knows. And I was wondering what your guest's comments were on that.

  • 11:51:52

    SOUDERJohn, I believe it was, a chicken producer that won't feed glyphosate-resistant grains to his chickens? I don't know what to say about that. It sounds like a good idea. I mean the less adulterated the feed is probably the better off it is. And if nothing else, if there's resistance to using those products then there gets to be a reduction in the amount of those pesticides that get applied.

  • 11:52:19

    REHMJohn, did you wanna comment further?

  • 11:52:22

    JOHNNYNo, ma'am. Thank you very much for…

  • 11:52:23

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:52:24

    SOUDERThanks for the call.

  • 11:52:24

    REHMAnd thanks for the call. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Oklahoma City and Roger, it's your turn.

  • 11:52:36

    ROGERThank you very much, Diane. Enjoy your show.

  • 11:52:37

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:52:38

    ROGERYeah, I wanted to ask about the relationship between Rachel Carson's work and the work on air quality in Southern California, specifically the California Air Resources Board and the beginning of auto pollution devices. Smog was terrible in California up to the early '60s. In 1962, 1963 was the first year for the first automobile engine antipollution devices. Was there any relationship there in terms of people and thinking and studies or were these factors quite independent?

  • 11:53:13

    SOUDERI don't think they're totally independent, Roger. All these things were related. And I think the Clean Air Act comes along shortly after Caron's death. I forget the exact date. I wanna say that's mid-1960s. But certainly it's interesting that you mention smog because, you know, people in their 20s and younger today probably have no idea what you're talking about. Smog really doesn’t occur in the same way that it used to a half a century ago. But in 1962, when "Silent Spring" was published it was unusually hot in California and the smog levels in San Francisco were the highest ever recorded.

  • 11:53:45

    SOUDERSo it's not surprising that there would be an effort to address that problem in the early 1960s 'cause it was a big one.

  • 11:53:50

    REHMAnd one last caller from Pikesville, Md. Good morning, Tom.

  • 11:53:55

    TOMHi, good morning, Diane.

  • 11:53:57

    REHMHi.

  • 11:53:58

    TOMI was just wondering, being someone well over 50, I remember Dennis and Donella Meadows and a huge book called "Limits To Growth," which was also -- I think is probably about a decade later. But I wondered whether Rachel Carson had an effect on people like that, Jay Forrester at MIT and the establishment of a lot of the environmental studies programs that began to proliferate in the '70s.

  • 11:54:28

    SOUDERTom, I think Carson probably did have an influence on some of that thinking. There's another book called, "Small Is Beautiful," that was in kind of similar vein.

  • 11:54:38

    REHMAnd Stewart Brand's work.

  • 11:54:39

    SOUDERI don't know Stewart Brand's work, I don’t think. Oh, "The Whole Earth Catalog." Yeah, of course, oh, sure, sure.

  • 11:54:43

    REHMExactly, yeah.

  • 11:54:44

    SOUDERYeah, all of that stuff feeds into similar kinds of ideas, many of which are still with us today. Bill McKibben who was very active on the climate change front is someone that I think still endorses the idea that we're better off when we do things on a smaller scale.

  • 11:54:59

    REHMYou know, I'm interested as to why you believe she kept her illness so secret.

  • 11:55:07

    SOUDERTwo reasons, I think. One, she was a very private person. And this was a battle she wanted to have in private. And so she talked to her friends and not many other people. But she was also extremely concerned that if the public knew that she had cancer they would attribute that as a motivation writing "Silent Spring," because "Silent Spring" did address the question of whether pesticides could cause cancer. And so she was afraid that she would be perceived as someone who was just kind of acting out of her own self interest in writing the book.

  • 11:55:39

    REHMWas she herself working with these chemicals?

  • 11:55:46

    SOUDERI don't think so. Not any more than anyone was. I mean, again, these were chemicals that it was very hard to avoid being exposed to. In 1962, particularly in parts of the central United States, if you drank a glass of milk you were almost certainly consuming radioactive materials from fallout that had landed in pastures, been consumed by cows. And those same pastures were very likely to have pesticide residues on them. So you were probably, with your milk, getting both DDT and something like strontium-90 or iodine-131. And so everyone was exposed in that way, but Carson didn't have any particular involvement with pesticides, either as a researcher or user.

  • 11:56:30

    REHMAnd what do you hope this book might do, William Souder?

  • 11:56:36

    SOUDERI hope it reminds people who Rachel Carson was and introduces her to a whole new readership that will now, I hope, understand a little bit more about the environmental movement and where it came from because if you don't know Rachel Carson and you don't know "Silent Spring," then you don't get this whole argument.

  • 11:56:53

    REHMWilliam Souder, his new book on the life and legacy of Rachel Carson is titled, "On a Farther Shore." And we do have an article that he's just written for Slate Magazine, titled, "Rachel Carson Didn't Kill Millions of Africans." You can go to our website, drshow.org. Thank you so much.

  • 11:57:25

    SOUDERThank you for having me, Diane.

  • 11:57:25

    REHMGood to talk with you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Comments

comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows