Rachel Carson and the Power of Science Writing

Is the pen mightier than the sword? Fifty years ago this month, one of those rare books was published that seems to have proven the famous saying true. Powerful industries opposed the book, but only succeeded in increasing its renown. President Kennedy appointed a commission to investigate; the commission reported that the author’s findings were correct. The book galvanized an environmental movement, led to laws and regulations that protected the country’s air and water, and brought treasured species like the bald eagle back from the edge of extinction.

The book, as you might have guessed, was Silent Spring, and the author Rachel Carson. Today we might wonder how such an influential writer could ever have emerged, but in the 1950s and ’60s Carson was a celebrity. And it wasn’t for writing scary books about pesticides; her main beat was the ocean. Carson became most famous for The Sea Around Us, which told the public about the stunning advances in scientists’ understanding of marine life. “With that book Carson not only became an international superstar, she became the most trusted voice in public science,” says Linda Lear, who wrote a biography of Carson. “She never wrote any article for the academic community. She wrote for the public, because she wanted the public to understand the world they lived in, the natural world.”

The Book of the Month Club edition of Silent Spring, with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s endorsement. Source: wikipedia

Carson was able to write authoritatively about science in part because she came from the academic science community; she earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. Today she might have moved naturally over to that university’s science writing program (where my co-bloggers and I now reside) and launched her career that way, but in her day she was forced to blaze her own trail. She attempted freelancing, which was apparently no easier then than it is today, but also got herself noticed by the Bureau of Fisheries (now the US Fish and Wildlife Service), where she was hired to translate marine science into accessible prose. Though she excelled at this job and moved up through the government bureaucracy, she was also setting herself up for an independent writing career. “What she really wanted to do is publish her way out of government,” says Lear.

So Carson was a science writer who started out, like many, as a celebrator of science. But because of her scientific training, she recognized the dangers that certain scientific advances—especially those in atomic physics and chemistry—posed to the ecosystems she loved. However, Silent Spring is not anti-science; rather it uses science to questions humans’ use of scientific knowledge in the post-World War 2 period. In answering these questions, Carson makes full use of her prodigious writing skills, eloquently synthesizing the best government and academic science of her time.

It would be nice if we could say Carson’s pen had vanquished the overuse and misuse of toxic pesticides, but with a few notable exceptions like DDT, most of them are still around. And as anyone who reads the news knows, the world is awash in all kinds environmental threats—endocrine disruptors, farm runoff, greenhouse gases. So where are the next generation (or two) of Rachel Carsons—writers who bring a scientific issue to the public’s attention and inspire citizens and politicians to act? Nancy Langston, environmental historian and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says part of the problem is the sheer amount being written. “Every time another book comes out such as…Our Stolen Future—that was the first really popular account of endocrine disruptors—people say, ‘Oh, it’s the next Silent Spring,’ but there are dozens of these each year. And I think a lot of people get overwhelmed.”

I’m particularly curious what Carson would have done with climate change, the most pervasive environmental threat today. After all, many talented science writers have taken up their pens (or more likely their computer keyboards) in the hope of overcoming the ignorance and inertia surrounding this issue. One who stands out for me is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose brilliant book Field Notes from a Catastrophe (which, like Silent Spring, was first serialized in the New Yorker) places climate change in its terrifying, civilization-destroying historical context. But did Field Notes lead to a presidential commission? Has legislation been passed? Have most Americans even heard of this book? Unfortunately, the answer to all three of these questions seems to be no.

It isn’t the fault of Kolbert or any other writer. The industries and groups opposing action on climate change are far more organized and sophisticated than those Carson was up against. “With climate change this isn’t just a debate, there’s a well-oiled machinery that actively propagates doubt, and is invested in that, and is tied up in the fossil fuel industries, and in making sure that legislative inaction is perpetuated,” says Rob Nixon, an environmental writer and Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nixon does point to Bill McKibben’s recent Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” where he writes that enough fossil fuel reserves are already on the books of major oil companies to warm the planet far beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the limit of what scientists believe might not be catastrophic. McKibben “has committed himself very squarely to this topic, very single-mindedly, so I think he’s the closest we come” to Carson today, says Nixon. Without question, McKibben’s article earned a lot of attention; for a week or two I found myself in conversations about it almost daily. But only for a week or two. The article also has the danger of doing exactly the opposite of what he probably intended: making the problem look so massive, and the industries driving climate change so mighty, that there is nothing we who have only our pens can do.

So can we still earnestly go around saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”? This famous line, from a now-obscure 19th-century play, encapsulates a sentiment that has probably given succor to many an idealistic writer, perhaps even Carson. And it would seem to follow that with the rise of the Internet and self-publishing, the daily avalanche of words would be enough to overpower any opposing force. But the opposite is true: with more words published than at any time before, each one seems to matter less. It’s hard to break through, and even harder to last: trending today, gone tomorrow. Will anyone recapture Carson’s gift for cutting through the fog? I don’t know, but for the sake of all members of the community of life, I certainly hope so.

* * *

Postscript: for my own amusement, I decided to try updating the famous line for the bureaucratic age. Let’s see if this proverb catches on: “Writing is a more effective means of advancing change than military action.”

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3 Comments on “Rachel Carson and the Power of Science Writing”

  1. Denise says:

    As someone who has been in the field of nature and environmental interpretation for many years, I have often asked myself these same sort of questions. How do you get people to pay attention, much less change any of their behaviors? It’s hard enough to get people to pack out their trash from a wilderness area, much less change the way an entire nation of people live their lives!

    I think that science interpretation is such an important field, but it can be depressing. The information going out is overwhelming to the general public, and the future looks so bleak, people naturally don’t want to face it. And, the corporate interests don’t want us to face it, so they continue to tempt us with reasons to keep on consuming. It’s like trying to scold someone into eating their broccoli in a room full of smiling people holding out trays of sugar doughnuts.

    Crafting an environmental message that will help move us toward sustainable living will not be easy. But if your audience is the general public, then I think the basics of interpretive communication work well: keep it simple, make it personal, and above all, give a vision of the future that is something people will want to work toward—rather than a dystopia we will have to fight against. If necessary, sprinkle a little sugar on the broccoli. And smile a whole lot more.

    You guys have a great blog…I’m looking forward to seeing more!

  2. [...] my devoted readers no doubt realize by now, I’m on a bit of a Rachel Carson kick. I wrote a blog post and produced a radio show about her last fall, and I’m working on an article about her for [...]

  3. […] Rachel Carson and the power of science writing (the-sieve.com) […]


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