Dr. Linda Lear
1. Carson has left an extremely widespread legacy behind, but what do you feel is the most important part of this legacy that is still relevant today?
Carson was not responsible for the US banning of DDT in 1972 nor did she ever advocate its banning. Her work, her writing of Silent Spring was in response to the over-use and the mis-use of powerful organic and synthetic pesticides before there had been enough research on the impact of these chemicals on soil, water, air, birds, mammals and humans. You must be very careful not to overstate her position as she has been incorrectly criticized and held responsible for the near worldwide ban on DDT. Carson’s legacy is far beyond a simple pesticide controversy.
Similarly, Carson died in 1964 at least a decade before there was anything resembling an “environmental movement”. So be very careful how you link her to that post 1970s movement.
She died before Earth Day, before NEPA, before the Clean Air or Clean Water Acts. I believe that through her writing and her congressional testimony Carson laid the ground work of an eventual popular movement to protect the earth and humans from themselves and their own science and so should be considered to have laid the foundations for an environmental movement.
Through her life and her writings she led the way insisting that the public had the right to question the belief that all science was right and good. She was a prophetic voice for the ideas we now call ecology; that the earth and all its creatures were living in one biosphere that any alteration of one part impacts and affects all the others for good or for ill. This is her primary legacy.
Her legacy also includes the idea that the public has a right to know what government and science are doing to the earth and to have the right to question it. Before Carson, (the atomic age and the Cold War) the public assumed that science was a “near-god” and that they had no right or need to question public officials. Silent Spring changed that.
Her most important legacy is the personal: the individual obligation to care for the earth, for its creatures, its air, water, soil, its life! Her posthumous book “The Sense of Wonder” says it all very clearly – if a child learns to look at the wonders of nature, that child will have an abhorrence of doing harm to the natural world and will cherish it instead.
2. How was Carson considered a leader in this environmental movement?
Carson was not a leader in the environmental movement for reasons stated above. Rather she was the prophetic voice of the later environmental movement; asking questions of “who speaks and why”? How money and power impact choices of what happens to the earth and to the planet? Making sure that because humans have the power to destroy the earth that they think about how they choose to live on it.
The impact of Carson’s work could be considered “worldwide” if you include the emergence of an environmental ethic. She wrote about “climate change” because she was a student of the sea and worried about what the impact of human carelessness, including population explosions and disease, could do.
That many countries have banned the agricultural use of DDT is one of the outcomes of the US actions in the 1970s. But DDT is still manufactured and exported by the US, and by several other countries, and malaria is still a deadly disease because mosquitos have become resistant to all sorts of “later age” pesticides including DDT. Those pesticides it only works against malaria in quarantined environments, and only until those insects become resistant.