Rachel Carson, the new PBS documentary about the author of Silent Spring — the book that launched the modern environmental movement — begins by evoking the mood of the year it was published, 1962. It was “the height of the cold war,” the narrator intones. “A moment when unrelenting anxiety about the future was leavened by an abiding faith in the power of science to secure our safety and prosperity.” Then Rachel Carson published her book, and people began to doubt.
Rachel Carson, which airs on Tuesday, is a document of the resounding echo of a single person’s passionate cry and a much-needed reintroduction to this dogged citizen-scientist. It’s the story of an ambitious, fiercely intelligent woman who was dogged in her pursuit of the truth and undaunted by her critics — the powerful chemical companies that stood to lose profits as a result of her revelations about the harms of their products, the sales of which were entirely unregulated.
Carson’s passion for nature and its creatures was matched only by her ability to synthesize information and communicate it effectively to a broad audience. Silent Spring was her third and last book — she died of cancer just two years after its publication — and it was a full-blown phenomenon, flying off shelves and inspiring follow-up news reports like the 1963 CBS special, The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson, which nearly 15 million people watched. That year, Carson testified before a Senate subcommittee of John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee, which had just issued a report largely confirming her book’s warnings about the dangers of pesticide use.
Carson grew up on a farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania, a setting that allowed her to explore nature from an early age. Her mother encouraged the habit with daily educational walks in the woods. Carson was a solitary girl who loved to write and loved the natural world. Her mother was intelligent and curious but had to give up her ambitions when she married and had children, and she desperately wanted her daughter to get the college education she never had, even selling the family china to help pay for her daughter’s tuition. This allowed Carson to attend the Pennsylvania College for Women, where she studied biology, and later, Johns Hopkins, where she enrolled as a graduate student — sadly, she eventually had to abandon her studies when her father died, leaving her the family’s sole breadwinner.
Drawing on Carson’s letters and scholarship, as well as interviews with scientists, science journalists, Carson biographers, and her family and friends, Rachel Carson paints an illuminating portrait of its subject while skillfully contextualizing her work. During Carson’s time working as a science writer, from the mid-1930s until her death, the dominant “gospel” was that nature was something over which humans were meant to prevail and control. World War II introduced the widespread use of the synthetic pesticide DDT, which had first been synthesized in the late 19th century but sat on lab shelves until 1939, when a Swiss chemist discovered that it was an effective insecticide. The U.S. military began sprinkling the stuff over entire islands in the South Pacific, where soldiers were quickly contracting malaria. A 1944 Time article declared DDT “one of the great scientific discoveries of World War II.”
The rise of DDT was seen as yet another triumph of human ingenuity over the savage natural world. But little was known about the long-term effects of pesticides on the environment and wildlife, which Carson attempted to rectify with an article she wrote for Reader’s Digest. The magazine decided not the publish the piece; it was gloomy and icky and it would upset housewives.
This was certainly not a concern for Carson, who never married and spent most of her adult life caring for her mother, siblings, and eventually the son of her niece, who died of pneumonia at the age of 31 when her son was five years old. She maintained just one intimate, though platonic, relationship — mostly through letters — with her friend Dorothy Freeman, a summer resident of Southport Island, Maine, where Carson moved with her mother in 1953.
When the New Yorker published the first excerpts from Silent Spring, in June 1962, the USDA was flooded with letters from Americans who were horrified by what they’d read. In 2016, the challenge of environmentalism is more difficult. Now, we know the harm that pesticides do to the environment; we know, because Carson was shrewd enough to capitalize on the contemporaneous anxiety over nuclear war, that their effects are similar to those of radiation fallout. We know that we can “master” nature, if to “master” something is to annihilate it.
But Carson wanted people to see that they are a part of nature, and that their attempts to dominate it are not a triumph of the human spirit but a mucking up of a system that works pretty well as long as people keep their greasy paws off it. (Working titles for Silent Spring included Man Against the Earth and Man the Destroyer. Carson was angry.) Carson, a loner till the end, loved the sea because it was “beyond the controlling hand of man,” one talking head explains in the documentary. She wanted people to see how everything is connected to our shared environment. She wanted people to understand that humans had gotten in our own way.
In a speech before the National Women’s Press Club in 1962, Carson cautioned that industry was “becoming a screen through which facts must be filtered” so that uncomfortable truths are obscured and only “harmless morsels” are acknowledged and made public. “The screening of basic truth is done to accommodate the short-term gain, to serve the gods of profit and production,” she said.
After the publication of Silent Spring, the chemical industry saw government regulation like never before. Now, the industry’s PR machine has convinced millions that climate change is a hoax, the political will to intervene is nonexistent, and campaigns to discredit science and objective fact run rampant. Immediately after Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20, the White House website was scrubbed clean of references to climate change. If there’s a solitary little girl out there reading this on her phone in the woods — send help.
Rachel Carson airs Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. on PBS.