Nancy Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School, recently wrote a stunning piece about Rachel Carson in The New York Times (October 28, 2012). Koehn had been creating a course on “history of leadership” when she became aware of the depth of Carson’s work.
We know Carson as the author of several sea books, including the award-winning The Sea Around Us, and then she published Silent Spring, a courageous book that called attention to the consequences of rapidly expanding technological developments, especially chemical pesticides like DDT. She became a key leader in starting the environmental movement.
But Koehn, the business professor, points out that Carson was not your typical leader. She was quiet and low-key, but she was also informed and resolute. She did meticulous research.
And she did it against amazing odds!
She had a breast tumor removed in 1950, and then took in her five-year-old grandnephew when her niece died in 1958. Unmarried, she also took in and cared for her ill mother until she died. In 1960 Carson was diagnosed with an ulcer and pneumonia, and then had two more breast tumors removed. More complications from the breast cancer, ulcers, and other health problems wreaked havoc on her writing schedule, but she persevered to publish Silent Spring in 1962. The book was 50 years old this past year.
Koehn quotes one of Carson’s early statements from Silent Spring, “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”
She faced a strong backlash and attacks from the chemical companies who portrayed her as a hysterical woman. One biochemist called her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”
Diligent and determined, but facing the ravages of her cancer, she chose public appearances carefully, appearing in venues where she thought she could do the most good, like testifying before Congress on pesticide use. She died in 1964 at the age of 56.
I particularly liked this reflection from Koehn:
“Carson’s life shows that individual agency, fueled by resolution and hard work, has the power to change the world. In this election year, when so much influence seems concentrated in ‘super Pacs,’ lobbying groups and other moneyed interests, her story is a reminder that one person’s quiet leadership can make a difference.”
I’m making a resolution, before this old year slips away, to re-read Silent Spring. In the meantime I have read one chapter from it, published in the book of essays, Sisters of the Earth (1991, Lorraine Anderson, editor). “Earth’s Green Mantle,” the chapter that is re-printed there, gently but very resolutely challenges the reader to action.
May many more of us today be accused of being “fanatic defenders of the cult of the balance of nature.”