On June 12, 1962, Rachel Carson delivered the Commencement address to the next generation of Scripps women. Carson was a biologist and author of one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, Silent Spring. Only a few days later, sections of the book were published in The New Yorker.
In her book, she criticized the overuse and abuse of pesticides, especially DDT, during and after World War II. Carson never called for a ban on all pesticides, but she still faced opposition from chemical companies, government officials, book critics, even the American Medical Association. She was called “hysterical” and “emotional.” But her calm composure in the face of attacks on both her character and her work made her an appealing public figure. She was a shy, courageous, intellectual woman who had majored in biology at Pennsylvania College for Women. Carson’s speech at Scripps was a significant turning point in her personal career and reflected her faith in the power of women to change the world.
Before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, she was a well-known nature writer. She was invited to speak at Scripps as early as 1954 by Dr. Frederick Hard, then president of Scripps College. Carson’s busy schedule and diagnosis of breast cancer in 1960 prevented her from making the long journey to California from her home in Maine.
Carson did not want to be attacked for personal bias in Silent Spring , so for the next four years she kept her struggle with cancer private. Her diagnosis put her own life into perspective, and by 1961 she knew that there was a substantial possibility she would die in the next few years. She wrote to a friend:
I can see many reasons for a hopeful attitude, but you also know that I have faced all the possibilities. Out of that has come, I think, a deepened awareness of the preciousness of whatever time is left.and a desire to live more affirmatively, making the most of opportunities when they are offered.So when the California invitation was renewed, it seemed to me this was the time to accept.
The commencement speech Carson gave was titled, “Of Man and the Stream of Time.” Her words are both poignant and relevant 42 years later. Carson stated:
We now wage war on other organisms, turning against them all the terrible armaments of modern chemistry, and we assume a right to push whole species over the brink of extinction.So nature does indeed need protection from man; but man, too, needs protection from his own acts, for he is part of the living world. His war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. His heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth, and in time return to him.
This speech is a significant turning point in Carson’s personal development from nature writer to social critic and advocate of ecology. For the next three years, Carson dedicated her life to fighting for the natural world she loved so much.
Rachel Carson’s health continued to deteriorate until she died on April 14, 1964. Her bravery and courage to stand up and break the silence surrounding pesticide misuse inspired others to take action. On April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans participated in Earth Day to push for environmental legislation and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In our technologically dominated society, Silent Spring continues to be an inspiration and example of the power of one person to open the eyes of many and create change. Rachel Carson’s revolutionary call for sustainable technology and personal action has continued to thrive in environmental activism around the world. At the end of her speech at Scripps, Carson spoke directly to the Scripps Class of 1962 and every subsequent generation of graduates:
Your generation must come to terms with the environment. Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and a sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery-not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny. In today already walks tomorrow .
Rachel Carson’s powerful message of hope lives on, as the Class of 2005 dons their caps and gowns this May and walks down Elm Tree Lawn.
Sara Fingal ’05 is writing her senior thesis in history on the development of revolutionary agricultural technology in the 20th century and the counterrevolution of environmentalists, Rachel Carson, in the early 1960s, and Dr. Vandana Shiva, 1980 to the present.