William Souder’s new biography, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, offers a nuanced study of the environmentalist on the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring.
How did you come to be interested in Rachel Carson as a subject?
My interests in science, history, and storytelling all come together in Rachel Carson’s life. And despite her fame, first as a popular writer and later as the author of Silent Spring, Carson is unknown to many people today. So I saw an opportunity to introduce her to a new audience.
Your expansive treatment of subject matter, such as the section on Henry Williamson’s life and the discussion of nuclear weapons and pesticides, makes the book as much a biography of an era as of Carson herself.
I don’t think biography comes alive without historical context. Not many American readers know Henry Williamson—a brilliant and prolific English writer whose experiences in WWI later propelled him into fascism. But you can’t understand Carson as a writer without Williamson. The parallel development of nuclear weapons and synthetic pesticides during and after WWII is another essential element in Carson’s story. Most readers will be shocked by the extent of nuclear testing that took place during the cold war. The result—widespread contamination of the planet and the tissues of all living things by radioactive fallout—matched what was happening with pesticides like DDT. Nuclear war was the great fear of Carson’s age, and she realized how instructive this could be with respect to the poisoning of the environment with pesticides. One reason people got the message of Silent Spring was that it came out just weeks before the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962. Whether from hydrogen bombs or from synthetic pesticides, mankind now had to confront existential questions. This is the foundation of environmentalism.
What lessons can today’s activists draw from Carson’s methods? How have attitudes and struggles around environmentalism changed since her lifetime?
Carson believed that every affront to the environment sprang from the same failing: human arrogance. The belief that humans are apart from and above nature is much the same now as it was in her time. But our problems, especially climate change, are even greater. Carson was a courageous woman, but I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t see a measure of defeat in the way science is so routinely dismissed now by people who are clueless or politically motivated, or both. I think Carson would be gratified that there is an environmental movement today—but mortified at how ineffective it is. As might we all be.