Adapted and updated from a keynote address to the Rachel Carson 75th Anniversary Jubilee Celebration and Colloquium in Washington, DC on Nov. 30.
“For many years, public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the nation. Apparently, their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction. It is one of the ironies of our time that while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.”
Those are Rachel Carson’s words, and they appeared in The Washington Post as a letter to the editor, shortly after the 1952 presidential election. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man with little political experience, had just won the White House. Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress, and a newly re-elected Joseph McCarthy was the ascendant chair of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations.
The trigger for Carson’s letter was the replacement of the long-standing director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service with a pro-business appointee whom Carson saw as unqualified. Rachel Carson, who would go on to become the inspiration for the modern environmental movement, was at the time a marine biologist employed by the agency.
Are Carson’s words relevant to us in the environmental movement now? If so, should they offer us solace in the recognition that, truly, there is nothing new under the sun — including, apparently, bitter despair on the part of environmental leaders when confronting an administration hostile to the goals of what was formerly called conservation and what we now call sustainability?