I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s biography this summer. It’s the story of how a reserved yet ambitious scientist slowly embraced her role as a national leader.
Rachel Carson was an award winning author years before Silent Spring’s arrival in 1962. Her previous books and articles, some excerpted in the New Yorker, made her a household name. The nation wanted to hear from her, and she was besieged with public speaking requests.
At first, she played it safe. Her speeches featured descriptions of biological findings leavened with jokes about her awkward transition from scientist to celebrity. But the more speaking she did, the braver she became. Pretty soon she was tackling big questions about why science matters and how that meaning should be shared.
Here she is in 1952 accepting an honorary doctorate of letters from the Drexel Institute of Technology after publication of her book, The Sea Around Us.
“Scientists are often accused of writing only for other scientists. They are even charged with opposing any attempt to interpret their findings in language the layman can understand. Literature is merely the expression of truth. And scientific truth has power to improve our world only if it is expressed. You have given your blessing to one of the most important functions of the writer today. This is to describe and to interpret, for the average man, the world that lies about us.”
In a speech in 1954 to the thousand members of the Theta Sigma Phi Matrix Committee, she went even further.
“I am not afraid of being thought a sentimentalist when I stand here tonight and tell you that I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.”
Before the speech, she had been afraid to talk about such things. She needn’t have worried. The Matrix Committee told her it was the best speech in their 30 year history. Gaining confidence, Rachel embraced a public voice that melded scientific insight with conviction about what the world should be. As we know now, that message, expressed in Silent Spring, changed the world.
Recent studies show why her approach worked. Put simply, she talked about what mattered to people: health, safety, security, fairness. And she did so with exactitude and calm.
During a TV interview for CBS filmed at the height of controversy about Silent Spring, Rachel was unflappable. The film shows her sitting in her living room, quietly explaining her project:
“We’ve heard the benefits of pesticides. We’ve heard a great deal about their safety, but very little about the hazards, very little about the failures, the inefficiencies and yet the public was being asked to accept these chemicals, was being asked to acquiesce in their use, and did not have the whole picture, so I set about to remedy the balance there.”
One would never know that she was under attack for being a hysterical alarmist.
Science communicators are seeing the value of this approach when talking about climate change. Ten years ago, we focused on scare tactics, making far flung projections about ice sheets and polar bears. Instead, we should have brought the message home, spoken about people’s lives and values. Rachel still has much to teach us.
Having grounded her message in the practical, Rachel closed her CBS interview with a challenge we have yet to meet.
“We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Now I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.”