E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, once wrote that ‘we would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciably instead of sceptically and dictatorially.’ Instead, ‘our approach to nature is to beat it into submission’. These words feature in the epigraph of arguably the most famous environmental text of all time - Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring - and appropriately echo the primary message of Carson’s work. That is, the question of ‘whether any civilisation can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself’.
But who was Rachel Carson and why is her seminal work not studied more often in today’s schools and universities? I was personally surprised when I found myself halfway through a degree in both literature and science with little to no knowledge of this woman and her role in kick-starting the modern environmental movement. It is clear that her influence has perhaps had more of an impact in the U.S. than here in Australia. However, I believe that now more than ever do we need to utilise her work to implement positive change within our nation’s environmental perspectives.
Carson was a marine biologist who took a keen interest in literature and writing from an early age. Prior to the success of Silent Spring, Carson worked at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries where she analysed fish population data. She began to publish various articles in her personal time relating to marine biology, eventually expanding her ideas into a book titled Under The Sea Wind, which would later become the first in a trilogy of ocean-themed books.
Most significantly, Silent Spring is one of the best modern examples of how the power of words can change social and political perspectives. The text focuses on the dangers of pesticide chemicals such as DDT within homes, farms and the natural environment, and was one of the defining arguments against the use of such chemicals. Following its publication in 1962, Silent Spring and its incredibly novel ideas came to the attention of American President John F. Kennedy. The work began to encourage the expansion of grass-roots environmental campaigns and instigated governmental investigations into the use of pesticide spraying. Carson passionately believed that it should be the ‘right of the citizen to be secure in [their] own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons’. The resulting ban on agricultural DDT is testament to the power of both Carson’s words and the groups that fought for the appropriate legislation. However, the fact that DDT was even an issue to begin with is also testament to the terrifying dangers that humans can inflict on the environment and themselves.
Carson had an immense love for the ocean and a passion for Marine Biology.
Perhaps one of the most vital messages of the book is the role that seemingly “inferior” species can play in the larger ecological sphere. Insects are poisoned, birds are poisoned, waters are poisoned and, subsequently, nature as a whole is left without some of its most vibrant and integral inhabitants. In Australia, it is difficult to imagine a morning without the birdsong of magpies and wattlebirds, or a garden without our beautiful Christmas beetles or unusual stick insects. Although the DDT debate is naturally more relevant to the “pest” species found in farm settings, the view of almost all non-human species as such “pests” – especially if they threaten our own livelihoods - is one that is worldwide. Possum species, in particular the Common Brushtail, are perhaps one of the most prominent examples here in Victoria, the accepted perspective on them being that they are pests in our homes and backyards, and not vice versa. Carson suggests that actions to eradicate each and every pest highlight the vital ‘interrelationships’ of ecology. Although such a concept is viewed as solely an issue of the non-human world, it indeed affects us all. For example:
‘We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison travelled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm-robin cycle.’
Carson's seminal text has been published in various editions since its release in 1962.
With the Australian Spring beginning and the allure of Summer just around the corner, I believe it difficult for any Melbournian to experience the sunnier portion of our year as one without the playful behaviours of our familiar endemic fauna, or the vibrantly blooming flowers of our unique native plants. The natural world is a part of everyday life, even for those of us who view it as a separate entity to that of the human.
Although the issue of DDT appears to be a thing of the past, Carson’s words do not stop being relevant in a modern age of climate change, unrenewable energy, habitat destruction, the use of other dangerous chemicals, and the general consensus that human beings are and will always be “above” other animals. Carson appropriately quotes the Canadian entomologist G.C. Ullyett who firmly believed that “we must change our philosophy, abandon our attitude of human superiority and admit that in many cases…we find ways and means of limiting populations of organisms in a more economical way than we can do it ourselves.”
To reiterate Carson’s own message, can we as Melbournians – citizens of a thriving city of green parks and fascinating wildlife; of unique landscapes and sublime ocean waters – live with the knowledge that many anthropogenic behaviours may lead to the destruction of exceptional habitats and the disappearance of countless species? Can we live in this city whilst knowing that what once made our state beautiful is gone, possibly forever? Carl Sagan once said that ‘an organism at war with itself is doomed’ – let us hope that this organism does not continue to be the human.