11.12.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Celebrating the birth of modern environmentalism

Rachel Carson in her lab

Rachel Carson cared deeply about the natural world about her. As a marine biologist her work focused mainly on marine life and on the dangers of chemical pollution; it laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement. She explored the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths in the 50s with her Sea trilogy, "The edge of the sea", "Under the sea wind", and "The Sea around us". She warned the wider public about the possible effects of human activities on marine life, and highlighted the importance of better knowing the ocean and ocean processes because of the key role they play in the life system as a whole. When it was released in 1962, her book Silent Spring had an immediate, profound impact that still resonates today.

At a time of massive and rapid increase in agricultural productivity, when natural resources still seemed limitless to the casual eye, it changed our understanding of the environment and of our role in it. Carson argued that pesticides are more properly termed "biocides" because of their detrimental effects on the environment, rarely limited to the targeted pests. Observing that the indiscriminate use of pesticides were killing songbirds, she was inspired by a phrase from a John Keats poem—"And no birds sing" to name the book.
She wrote about technical issues in a beautiful, accessible style, thus reaching a broad audience and sowing the seeds of environmental consciousness. Silent Spring quickly became a best-seller world-wide, and the debate spread from specialized forums to the pages of the New York Times.

Silent Spring elicited a public outcry for direct action followed by a brutal backlash from the chemical industry, often tainted with sexism. Women scientists were rare and often undervalued, and critics turned to personal attacks to undermine her work, questioning her qualifications and portraying Carson as an unreasonable, hysterical woman and as a communist. In response, she channelled the simmering debate to educate the public on the impacts of human actions on the environment. As a result, environmental issues were debated in the Senate for the first time, laying the foundation for the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Through her defence of Silent Spring, Carson became something of an icon for the environmental movement that followed, especially for women activists. Charles Schulz portrayed her as a role model for girls in Peanuts as early as 1963.  

UNESCO had encouraged environmental debates since it was created after World War II. Rachel Carson challenged her readers to understand that they were a part of nature and responsible for its care in 1962, just as UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission was being established following a recommendation in 1960 to strengthen its marine science programme. It was followed by the Man and the Biosphere programme in 1970 "for the improvement of the global relationship between man and the environment; to predict the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow’s world and thereby to increase man’s ability to manage efficiently the natural resources of the biosphere", by the International Geoscience Programme in 1972 and by the International Hydrological Programme in 1975.

These initiatives aim to address the defining challenge of our age: safeguarding the Earth’s natural processes for sustainable development, supporting human and ecosystem health. The two are inseparably linked, and it was through Silent Spring that this message first reached the public. Rachel Carson may not have been the first to voice ecological concern, but she got through to the world and her voice still resonates today.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the Rachel Carson Center are organizing a special event focusing on its repercussions and Rachel Carson’s legacy. Topics of discussion include the role of women in environmental grassroots movements, the international debate on DDT, the impact of pesticides on marine life and, perhaps most importantly, a way forward based on her environmental ethic.

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