A spring without songbirds? Rachel Carson film commemorates “Silent Spring”

Recent sustainability efforts at the College of William and Mary channel the same ideals Rachel Carson, the woman commonly credited with starting the environmental movement, promoted 50 years ago.

A documentary on Carson’s life was presented Tuesday, Sept. 25 in Earl Gregg Swem Library’s Botetourt Theatre and was followed by a discussion proving that interest in sustainability is very much alive at the College.

Following the 50-minute film, professors, students and community members discussed issues raised by the movie with assistant professor of English Melanie Dawson M.A. ’90, assistant professor of government Mark Buntaine and professor of economics, public policy and law Sarah Stafford. Professor of chemistry Lisa Landino was also slated to participate but was unable to attend due to illness.

Rachel Carson influenced such fields as environmental science, public policy and women’s rights, most prominently through her book “Silent Spring.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of the book’s original publication.

“We thought it would be nice for us to put together an event where we could bring to the forefront some of the work Rachel Carson did across a variety of disciplines,” College Sustainability Fellow Patrick Foley ’12 said. “We didn’t want it to just be environmental sciences and policy. We wanted to incorporate the hard sciences, social sciences, public policy, as well as women’s rights.”

Following the film, Dawson commented on the movement of ecofeminism, a response to the dual domination of nature and of women. Carson is a figure often mentioned in the study of this movement.

“If you look at the research she did, Rachel Carson was so victimized by the press for being a woman,” Foley said.

Carson’s main area of research for “Silent Spring” was the effect of pesticides on the natural world. Despite evidence that pesticides, specifically DDT, were deadly to wildlife, they were still used widely, often sprayed over entire towns. Children even played in the pesticide spray as it covered their streets or playgrounds.

“There were dangers inherent in pesticides that people didn’t realize were there,” Foley said. “Her work laid the groundwork for a variety of issues that people are looking at today within the sciences, specifically in air quality, wildlife preservation and the field of ecology.”

Carson argued that humans have a fundamental right to a healthy environment. The only reason this was not in the U.S. Constitution, she said, was because “our forefathers could conceive of no such problem.”

“Prior to ‘Silent Spring’ being written, there were regulations regarding pesticides, but they were pretty minimal,” Stafford said. “After ‘Silent Spring,’ there was a push to think more about how the pesticides were disposed of in particular.”

“Silent Spring” was serialized in The New Yorker in 1962. Upon its release, 60,000 copies of the book were sold. It became a bestseller in two weeks.

“If you [study] when governments adopt new policy, oftentimes it is in response to what we call focusing events — there is some highly public, sensational event that causes some policy change,” Buntaine said. “Finding leaders that can really spotlight events that capture people’s imagination, get people interested in topics, and generate an emotional response to topics is still a very important part of generating policy change.”

Carson entered Pennsylvania College initially as an English major, but ultimately studied biology. She received a scholarship to study zoology in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. Carson worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of all its publications. “Silent Spring” was her fourth book.

“She was trained in science,” Stafford said. “She had that understanding of the environment she was writing about and the scientific method. She knew what a science journal looked like and how to get information from it. She was also just a wonderful writer. She did combine the disciplines, which was what we wanted to mimic in our panel.”

Following the documentary and discussion, a reception was held in the Botetourt Gallery. One of the sponsors of the event — along with Swem, the department of environmental science and policy and the Jefferson program of public policy — was the committee on sustainability. This committee has a number of other initiatives, including lending recycling kits to organizations that request them, science librarian Karen Berquist ’83 said.

The Student Assembly collects “green fee” money from students each year, which is used to fund student projects relating to sustainability. For example, the water bottle refilling stations seen around campus were funded through these fees. Additionally, the gardens located behind the Integrated Science Center and the Commons Dining Hall received funding from the Student Assembly.

Other sustainability projects include an eco-village plan that will make the lodges and the Daily Grind energy-independent from the rest of campus. A solar garden will provide the energy needed to sustain the lodges in the future.



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