The Legacy of Rachel Carson: ENST Lecture


If you’ve ever doubted the value of an English major, the story of Rachel Carson is an example worth citing in your defense for the fine art of writing. Carson began her environmental activism by writing pamphlets and radio scripts for the US Fish and Wildlife Services, but impressed her boss so much that he encouraged her to submit one of her research texts to The Atlantic. Thus began her legacy of confronting environmental issues through writing, a legacy maintained by the Rachel Carson Council for the Environment.

On September 22, Robert K. Musil, President and CEO of the Council, delivered the lecture titled “Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: How Extraordinary Women Have Shaped America’s Environment” as part of The Environmental Citizenship Speaker Series. The lecture emphasized the fact that Carson’s impact on environmental science was not just a result of her work alone, but also of the women who surrounded and supported her. Musil emphasized Rachel Carson’s relationship with Jacqueline Kennedy and her role in defending her work from chemical companies who resisted its publication.

Musil noted the multidisciplinary nature of Carson’s work– how the poetic voice and emotional connection to nature rooted in her upbringing helped her reach a broader audience than the researchers and scientists of her environmentally conscious sphere. Musil emphasized the Council’s mission to carry on Rachel’s legacy, a goal she established just before her death in 1964.

Musil’s talk also detailed the current priorities of the Council and their alignment with causes that Rachel Carson fought for within her lifetime. The Council still confronts issues of pesticide use, nuclear waste, and global warming, but also includes issues that have gained public attention more recently, particularly involving the intersection of environmentalism and civil justice.

One of Musil’s colleagues, Nathaniel MacNell, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, conducts research related to environmental justice. His research involves the prevalence of factory farms in “low income communities of color.” This is a problem because, according to a Rachel Carson Council publication titled “Pork and Pollution,” factory farms, “…produce one million pounds of manure every four seconds.” The runoff from these operations contaminate the water, soil, and air where they’re located. The emphasis that Robert K. Musil and the Council place on the relationship between environmentalism and social justice follow suit with Rachel Carson’s broad, interdisciplinary approach that led her work to reach the public sphere.

Musil ended with a call to action for students on college campuses, saying that Carson was not “alone on the mountaintop” in her fight to improve the environment, emphasizing the nature of her work as collaborative and inclusive, involving researchers and working closely with the Kennedy administration. Rachel Carson wrote, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” The assurance that there will be a next generation of environmental activism, and a legacy carried by the Rachel Carson Council, is infinitely heartening in the struggle to eliminate environmental injustice.