Tuesday, August 4, 2009 - 9:50 AM

SYMP 4-4: From sea to land: The evolution of Rachel Carson's environmental ethics

Lisa Sideris, Indiana University


Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is best known for Silent Spring, the book that exposed the public to dangers of chemical pesticides. Yet Silent Spring was a departure for Carson, whose previous three books were devoted to the sea and sea-life and contained, at best, only an implicit call for protection of marine environments. What motivated Carson to make the transition from sea to land, from nature writer to environmental writer? How did Carson’s familiarity with sea life and its processes prepare her to think about the impact of chemical pesticides in the environment and on the human body? How did Carson translate this information to the public in ways that would effectively motivate citizens to action?


Carson was especially influenced by Elton’s account of food chains and webs, and invasive ecology. Carson took a key idea from her sea writing, a doctrine she termed “material immortality,” and used it in conjunction with Elton’s food chain concept, in order to portray how toxins could be concentrated and passed on from one organism to another. Her idea of material immortality maintained that elemental components of marine organisms “live on” in the bodies of predators who eat them and are eaten in turn. In her sea writings and personal correspondence, Carson invested this idea with spiritual, not just scientific significance, sometimes referring to the process as “reincarnation.” “In the sea, nothing is lost,” Carson writes. “The precious elements of life are passed on and on in endless chains.” But material immortality took on sinister, rather than hopeful meaning when Carson realized that not just physical elements of creatures “live on” but the poisons they ingest. Her first explicit discussion of this idea appears in the added 1961 Preface to The Sea Around Us (1951) where Carson discusses irreparable damage done by marine dumping of atomic wastes. The idea of “immortal” toxins, not lost but captured and magnified, became a central theme in Silent Spring. There Carson also drew parallels between chemical pesticides and nuclear fallout. Carson’s sea writings trained her to understand all lifeforms, not just marine creatures, as utterly permeable to their environments. Her long habit of thinking about sea creatures absorbing into their bodies the materials in their immediate environment, and then distributing those materials, through sea migration, to regions far beyond their point of origin, prepared her to apprehend the same dynamic and fluid dispersal of poisons occurring on land.