Meticulously pieced together at the height of Cold War aggressions and in the aftermath of McCarthyism, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was an unlikely best seller when published in the fall of 1962. It was a book about the unintended consequences of pesticide use that became the talk of the nation, sparking a revolution in environmental consciousness. In the wake of Silent Spring, public debate and protest led to laws and federal agencies to protect our air, land, and water, and a new appreciation for what Carson called “the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusions of poisons applied by other persons.”
In an era of federal environmental retrenchment and dismantling of the very environmental protections that Carson’s work helped to bring about, what lessons might we learn from this brilliant biologist and science writer now? What passages from her books and private letters—about the importance of practicing unbiased science, taking collective action, exposing conflicts of interest within government policymaking, and cultivating a reverence for life—can serve us now in a time of climate emergency? How did Carson’s voice open a space for other women in science to speak?
Biologist and author Sandra Steingraber explores the legacy of Rachel Carson for our time. Serving as the editor for Library of America’s new collection, Rachel Carson: Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, Steingraber will trace the influences of Carson’s life and career and describe some of the contemporary science and activism for which Carson blazed a trail. Of special interest will be the ways in which Carson broke a cultural silence about urgent environmental problems even as she hid her own identity as a cancer patient and her intimate relationship with her beloved, Dorothy Freeman.
Biologist, author, and cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. writes about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. Steingraber’s highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment was the first to bring together data on toxic releases with data from U.S. cancer registries and was adapted for the screen in 2010.
Sandra Steingraber will also present the keynote address at our annual Great World Texts student conference on April 9. Great World Texts in Wisconsin connects UW faculty with high school teachers across the state, through the shared goal of encouraging high school and university students to read classic world texts, both ancient and modern. This year, high school students will explore Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as part of the 2017-2018 Great World Texts program.
Presented in partnership with the Wisconsin Union Directorate Distinguished Lecture Series.