Widgets Magazine


Seeing Green: Tirelessly Telling the Truth

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wondering what I’d like to do with my life – professionally, that is. It’s hardly a unique problem: I know plenty of people graduating this year from university, defending their Ph.D.s, or finding that it’s time to move on from their current job. As we fumble through cover letters and grant applications, it can be easy to forget what’s motivating us.

When I lose perspective, I sometimes think back to a childhood memory from the shores of Monterey Bay. I was giddy over the marine life my vacationing family had spotted in the kelp beds and tidepools along the coast. My mom was giddy over what might have been my first real interest in a scientific career.

“If you want to be a marine biologist,” she told me, “You have to go to Woods Hole. That’s where Rachel Carson worked.”

It’s hard to underestimate the influence that Rachel Carson had on my family. My dad read her natural history accounts of the sea while he was growing up, and almost had a career in marine biology because of them. And Carson’s fearless environmental and conservation reporting won over my mom’s heart.

But there’s a reason that Rachel Carson is a household name in more than just our scientifically-fixated one: Her work changed the entire world.

After decades of writing about science for the public, Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. The book exposed the dark underbelly of the chemical pesticides that had become wildly popular after World War II. Though obviously immediately effective at, for example, killing off disease-spreading mosquitoes and crop-devouring locusts, pesticides have some major problems. First, they aren’t a long-term fix: insects (and other things we like to fight with chemicals, like bacteria) can evolve resistance, so that over time, the pesticides stop working. Second, pesticides can do tremendous environmental damage: they’re rarely specific in their toxic effects, so they can pose poisonous danger to other animals, including humans. For example, DDT, highlighted by Carson in Silent Spring, works its way up the food chain, accumulating in the fatty tissues of long-lived top predators, like the osprey and eagles whose populations were decimated by DDT-induced nest failure, and even us humans.

Silent Spring sparked an uproar. The book was published at a time when America’s confidence in its scientific prowess was high. After all, science – in the form of an atom bomb – won the war for us in Japan. Tremendous government investments in other technologies were pushing industry forward. And a woman with a 300-page book had just thrown a wrench into the works.

It must have been a scary thing to do. And given the amount of preparation Carson and her publishing team did before Silent Spring’s public release, she knew what was coming. The endless interview requests. Testifying before Congress. Personal attacks calling her a bad scientist, and even a Communist (quite the loaded term in those Cold War days).

And she did it all while she was fighting terminal breast cancer, which would ultimately claim her life less than two years later. Rachel Carson died at age 56, before she could see many of the lasting effects of her work come to fruition, like the nationwide ban of DDT, the passage of the Clean Air Act, and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last July, more than fifty years after Silent Spring, I stood by the sea in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, as the town dedicated a statue of Rachel Carson, looking out over the water as she must have so often during her time there. The Reverend Deborah Warner gave a closing blessing, calling on the scientists there to “rededicate ourselves to the service of stewardship to this burdened, yet bountiful beckoning blue planet,” and thanking Rachel Carson, for always “tirelessly telling the truth.”

When I think about my career, my writing, my life – from political debates with friends to deliberating over organic vegetables and fair trade chocolate to struggling over scientific publications and grant-writing – I think about those moments by the sea. I think about Reverend Warner’s words, and my mother’s. I think about Rachel Carson, and doing the right thing. I think about the beauty of the scientific method, my own call to honor it, and the value of tirelessly telling the truth.


Holly truly welcomes reader feedback at hollyvm “at” stanford.edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).
  • John

    Holly, Holly, Holly, PLEASE–the purpose of life is to SEEK the truth. No one, especially you, can “tell” the truth. “Silent Spring” was proven false years ago—yawn. Your writing is like lisetning to hornets drone on and on and on….ZZzzzz.

  • KoolaidKid

    HA HA HA find it over the top funny that you ignore that right there at good ole Stanford they proved there was absolutely NO BENEFIT TO ORGANIC FOOD, VEGGIES! HA HA jokes on you girlfriend! You and/or your family has spent how much on your schooling to getting a Ph.d(dumb) degree in what– stupidity? Like has it been around 500,000 dollars and how much did we the taxpayers pay for “education” in stupid?

  • Andrew Nager

    Awesome article Holly. Looking forward to next week.

  • Z

    “The Reverend Deborah Warner gave a closing blessing, calling on the scientists there to “rededicate ourselves to the service of stewardship to this burdened, yet bountiful beckoning blue planet,” and thanking Rachel Carson, for always “tirelessly telling the truth.”–IRONIC–no truth being told— One Magical thinker(ReverendDeb) blesses another magical thinker(RCarson.)

  • GoBears

    Why does this particular article elicit such a response? Holly’s written far more controversial articles previously…

    Anyways, is there really any doubt that DTT (through it’s related metabolite, DDE) results in reproductive deficiencies in egg-laying animals? It’d be worthwhile debating whether these costs outweigh the benefits of DTT in preventing malaria and other insect-borne diseases, but simply stating there is no cost is disingenuous at best. Weighing these costs against the value as an agricultural insecticide may give a different result. Indeed a quick look at Holly’s link shows that the current limitations on DTT use include an explicit exemption for the control of mosquitos – seems reasonable.

    John, do you really fall asleep with hornets buzzing around you? that doesn’t seem safe – maybe we can get you some netting. KoolaidKid, that study compiled/analyzed other works, which indicated that the nutritional content of organic vs. non-organic food was similar. This says nothing about the environmental impact of wide-scale pesticide use; the point of silent spring and holly’s article. As an aside, that was very cleaver what you did there with the Ph.D (dumb) – really solidified your argument. Whatever the case, I suppose this sort of a response should be expected at Stanfurd. I mean really, if they let Drew work there, that place must be desperate.

  • this WWW

    Almost certainly none of these commentors is from Stanford.

  • Terri

    11-author study, Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, reexamines Carson’s historical context and science, as well as the policy consequences of Silent Spring‘s core ideas. We assembled scholars from different disciplines and asked them to evaluate Carson’s work given the state of knowledge at the time she was writing. What information was available that she ignored? Where did she deviate from accepted science of the day?

    Our findings are unsettling. Carson made little effort to provide a balanced perspective and consistently ignored key evidence that would have contradicted her work. Thus, while the book provided a range of notable ideas, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance.

    Despite her reputation as a careful science- and fact-based writer, Carson produced a best-seller full of significant errors and sins of omission. Three areas are particularly noteworthy:

    · Carson vilified the use of DDT and other pest controls in agriculture but ignored their role in saving millions of lives worldwide from malaria, typhus, dysentery, among other diseases. Millions of deaths, and much greater human suffering, ultimately resulted from pesticide bans as part of disease-eradication campaigns. Carson knew of the beneficial effects of DDT, but never discussed it; her story was all negative.

    · Far from being on the verge of collapse, American bird populations were, by and large, increasing at the time of Silent Spring’s publication. Although Carson was active in the Audubon Society, she ignored Audubon’s annual bird count, which had long been the best single source on bird population. Instead she relied on anecdotes claiming bird population was collapsing. It is inconceivable that Carson did not know about the annual bird count–some of which occurred in the locations she asserted were in collapse.

    · Cancer rates, exaggerated in the book, were increasing largely because far fewer people were dying from other diseases. Further, once statistical adjustments are made for population age and tobacco use, the apparent rise in cancer rates that so alarmed Silent Spring readers disappeared. Although writing at a time when scientists had come to agree that tobacco was a major cause of lung cancer, Carson ignored tobacco and relied on peculiar theories about its origins. She specifically ignored Public Health Service data on this point.

    Silent Spring presented nature as a benign happy place that was “in balance.” Man was guilty of upsetting the balance and causing environmental catastrophes. As shown in the chapter on that issue, nature is far more nuanced and resilient than Carson understood. Her view that “natural” pests, such as wasps, could be used to control other bugs that were harmful in crop production, was not only short of the mark for agriculture, but overly optimistic about how benign such “natural” pests can be.

    Carson’s “you can’t be too safe” standard is seen today in the “precautionary principle” that helps to retard the adoption of superior technology that would benefit people and the environment. Her simplified view of risk appears to have impacted the drafting of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act that set impossible standards in some areas not remotely related to human health or technical feasibility.

    An intellectual, and public policy reconsideration, of Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring is long overdue.

  • Jon

    Maybe it is your title Holly that just raises ire in people. OBVIOUSLY everyone you write about is NOT tirelessly telling the truth. Next time do a little more “tireless” research!

  • It’s ok

    Stanford is a private institution that pays its graduate students from it’s own endowment. You pay nothing to benefit from the research that occurs there. The study you are referencing is Bravata et. al 2012 in which the authors conclude that the nutrient lode is similar. Personally I buy organic produce to minimize the societal costs of nitrogen intensive farming, but that’s my personal choice. I hope some additional information has taken the edge off your anger. Being irrationally mad is bad for your health.

  • Russell Tuffery

    The reviews of the Cato Institute study on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Silent-Spring-50-Crises-Rachel/dp/1937184994 are quite divided according to environmentalism and chemical industry arguments.