I was hiking in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk, remembering Neil Armstrong on TV descending the ladder of the lunar landing module.
My thoughts shifted when I picked up a rock that held a fossil of a brachiopod sea shell. I was standing more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The fossil reminded me that in earlier times, most of North America was under ocean water.
I learned this from a book I received for my 13th birthday in 1969, Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us.” The book provides a geophysical history of Earth and describes the development of life upon it, picking up where Darwin left off in linking life to its physical environment.
Analyzing numerous scientific sources, Carson saw Earth as a blue biosphere, similar to the view Apollo astronauts had of our planet from the moon. With no less wonderment than ancient peoples who created myths to explain weather phenomena, land forms and celestial bodies, Carson comprehended the pervasive interconnection of life with atmosphere, terrain, sea and positioning of the Sun and Moon.
Few people I meet have ever heard of “The Sea Around Us.” Many, however, are aware of a later book Carson published in 1962, “Silent Spring,” which also dealt with the connectedness of life and its physical surroundings, and exposed the danger of the unregulated use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).
Carson’s research showed how insects adapted to the overuse of the pesticide and became even more impervious pests, while DDT harmed livestock, birds and fish. Evidence mounted on its toxicity for humans. DDT was just one of a growing number of synthetic chemicals contaminating the environment.
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“Silent Spring” met with an onslaught of negative propaganda and threats of lawsuits by the chemical industry. But Carson was resolute and unflappable, as she demonstrated in testimony before a congressional committee. Her remarkable courage arose from her confidence in factual, objective truth.
It was President John F. Kennedy who in 1961 challenged Americans in a speech before Congress, with “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of the decade. The following year in a press conference, Kennedy brought Carson’s “Silent Spring” to the attention of the American people. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee eventually validated its findings. “Silent Spring” became a best-seller and unleashed wide concern for the environment.
Kennedy was assassinated two years after his moon-shot speech, and never saw his vision realized at the end of the decade. Carson died two years after the publication of “Silent Spring,” and never saw the environmental movement she inspired come to fruition, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Carson’s preface in “The Sea Around Us” warned of the consequences of polluting our oceans: “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
Men walking on the moon marked 1969 as one of the greatest years in human progress. But back on Earth, 1969 brought tragedy to the California coast that reasserted Carson’s warning. Oil gushed from an ocean platform into the Santa Barbara Channel. The spill, the largest ever in U.S. waters at the time, impacted life on shores from Pismo Beach to San Diego.
Carson’s prescription for environmental activism especially suits contemporary society, which faces a looming deadline for slowing pollution-accelerated climate change. If there was ever a time when we needed a factually grounded and courageous response to this global challenge, it is now.