“Environmentalism” and “going green” are so pervasive today it’s hard to imagine a time when those concepts were largely absent from popular discourse. When Rachel Carson released Silent Spring 50 years ago, it changed everything; not just for Carson, whose already-successful career took a dramatic turn, but for the emergence of the modern environmental movement.
William Souder’s insightful portrait of Carson, On a Farther Shore, is an account of her life and work, but it’s also a vital addition to our understanding of the current environmental crisis. Silent Spring is clearly situated in a specific time period in our history, and seemingly focused on a singular issue, the use of insecticides, but the work has proved timeless.
Carson’s shocking account forced the government to take action, despite the backlash (against the book and against Carson, personally) from the chemical industry. As Souder shows, even Carson’s life fit the archetype: an unassuming government worker turned muckraker. The tensions that support the book — industrialization vs. sustainability, the people and the planet vs. corporate power — have only become more taut with time.
As I read Souder’s work, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could Carson do this today? Or perhaps a more pressing question: Can we fill her shoes? Is climate change our current silent spring?
Carson’s work was released in a non-internet age when book publishing (and the printed word, more generally) had a different power. And as environmental issues have taken a place in the popular discourse like never before, they have also been watered down through corporate greenwashing and attempts to dilute the urgency in Carson’s call to action.
As Souder writes, Silent Spring was a “cleaving point.” The “gentle, optimistic proposition called ‘conservation’ began its transformation into the bitterly divisive idea that would come to be known as ‘environmentalism.’” Now that transformation is complete. Or is it? Where do we go from here?
I’m excited to join William Souder for a discussion of his thoughtful and beautifully-crafted narrative about the life of Rachel Carson. On a Farther Shore offers an opportunity to not only look back at Carson’s life and work in a new light, but to look forward at the increasingly dire environmental crisis we are facing, and how it can be addressed.
Will Potter is the author of Green Is the New Red: An insider’s account of a social movement under siege.(GreenIstheNewRed.com)
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