In 1962, after pioneering a new aesthetic of poetic writing about science and the natural world, the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring — a courageous exposé of the pesticide industry, illuminating the profound interconnectedness of nature. It stunned and sobered humanity’s moral imagination, effecting a tidal wave of unprecedented citizen concern, with consequences reaching across popular culture and policy, leading to the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Carson had been following the science of pesticides and their grim effects on nature, meticulously glossed over by the agricultural and chemical industries, for more than a decade. Already the most esteemed science writer in the country, she used her voice and credibility to hold the government accountable for its abuses of power in the assault on nature. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” she wrote to her beloved. Fully aware that speaking out against the pesticide industry would subject her — as it invariably did — to ruthless attacks by corporate and government interests, she saw no moral choice but to defend what she held dearest by catalyzing a new kind of conscience.
Carson’s aim with Silent Spring was threefold — to transmute hard facts into literature that stands the test of time, to awaken a public hypnotized into docility to the perils of substances so mercilessly marketed as panaceas by chemical companies, and to challenge the government to rise to its neglected responsibility in regulating these perils. She admonished against the fragmentation, commodification, and downright erasure of truth in an era when narrow silos blind specialists to the interconnected whole and market forces sacrifice truth on the altar of revenue. When citizens protest and try to challenge those forces with incontestable evidence, they are “fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.” In a sentiment of striking resonance half a century later, Carson exhorted: “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts.” Above all, she countered the pathological short-termism of commercial interests with a sobering look at “consequences remote in time and place” as poisons permeate a delicate ecosystem in which no organism is separate from any other and no moment islanded in the river of time.
In June 1962, five days before the first installment of Silent Spring made its debut in The New Yorker, the terminally ill Carson summoned the remnants of her strength to take her very first cross-country jetliner flight and deliver a long-awaited commencement address at Scripps College in California, excerpted in Figuring (public library), from which this piece is adapted. She titled it “Of Man and the Stream of Time” — hers, after all, was an era when every woman, too, was “man.” It was a crystallization of Carson’s moral philosophy, a farewell to the world she so cherished, and her baton-passing of that cherishment to the next generation.
She told graduates:
Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars.
The stream of time moves forward and mankind moves with it. Your generation must come to terms with the environment. You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.
Therein lies our hope and our destiny.
Couple with Carson’s contemporary and admirer Lewis Thomas on our human potential and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, Neil Gaiman’s stunning tribute to her legacy, and the story of the writing of Silent Spring.
For more tastes of Figuring, savor Emily Dickinson’s love letters, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf and the fate of technology, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s beautiful reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.