ELC Reflects on the Contributions of Rachel Carson

Wild horses of Carrot Island in the Rachel Carson Reserve, North Carolina

Wild horses of Carrot Island in the Rachel Carson Reserve, North Carolina

By Maura Condon


“Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!”

-Henry David Thoreau


Earth Law supports establishing fundamental rights for nature and acknowledges the inherent values of ecosystems and their rights to exist. Earth Law argues for a balanced approach of legal initiatives and awareness can pave the way for the future where humans and nature can live harmoniously.

Environmental ethics have existed since the beginning of culture. Our present ethics have been shaped and evolved over generations of people interacting with their known world. For some, nature is seen as resource that must be protected and preserved, but to others, nature is something to harness. As we navigate the future we should consider the power of technology and knowledge in moderating our relationship with the Earth and use historical examples to shape our actions towards current issues.


Arriving at modern thinking about the rights of nature has been an ethical movement. In the United States, classic nature writers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir excited readers about the beauty of the country and the wholesome power of nature. Thoreau believed simple lifestyles could best experience nature. Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, was a preservationist who thought that if people could experience the natural world and its beauty then they could respect it, ultimately protecting it. 

In the early 20th century, forester and politician, Gifford Pinchot, forged the conservation ethic where he regarded nature as controllable natural resources. Pinchot’s conservation involved the planned use and renewal of resources, often forests, to balance profitability and benefit. Pinchot’s ethics are linked to those of modern day sustainability.

Aldo Leopold, an environmental professor and to many the founder of wildlife ecology, supported wildlife management and his ethics involved understanding our life as part of the biotic community. To Leopold, people will value nature if they extend themselves to it and understand the interconnectedness of life. 


Environmental ethics became a philosophical discipline in the 1970s as concerns grew about the effects of technology and industry on the environment. Popular writers during the 1960s were able to disseminate scientific information to the public by raising awareness about toxic chemicals, natural resource depletion, and destruction of wildlife. Rachel Carson was one such writer, as detailed below, she informed readers of toxic pollution that directly affected humans. 

We owe these writers and other naturalists for shaping our ethical understanding of nature today. Advances in technology means reading and sharing information about Earth Law, rights of nature, and environmental ethics is more accessible than ever before. As we advocate for Earth Law we should ask ourselves: what responsibilities we have as humans towards nature, and why it is important to us.


Environmental thinkers like Rachel Carson are role models we can reflect on today as we face increasing environmental challenges. Born in 1907, Carson was an avid young writer, eventually working as a science editor with the Fish and Wildlife Service for fifteen years. During her time with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson became aware of many issues which later shaped her environmental writing and values about nature. 

Rachel Carson, writer and conservationist

Rachel Carson, writer and conservationist

In the early 1950’s her naturalist and writing background helped her find success as a popular nature writer. Carson’s first two books about ocean formation and ecology drew great reviews from the scientific and public spheres. As the decade wore on she turned her eye to the detrimental use of chemical pesticides, specifically DDT. 

Silent Spring was one of the most controversial books in the early 1960’s because of it documentation of environmental damage caused by highly toxic compounds. Carson reveals how synthetic pesticides, like DDT, can go beyond killing pests, the compounds may bioaccumulate in other organisms like birds and fish. Carson further argues that these poisons can move through the food chain, threatening animal populations and potentially harming people, linking it to health issues such as cancer. 

Chemical companies staunchly opposed Carson’s research and supported the soundness of new technology. But it was too late, the scientific community backed the research and now it was in the public domain. President John F. Kennedy acknowledged the national concern, and in 1963 Carson appeared before the President’s Science Advisory Committee and a Senate subcommittee investigating pesticides. 


Today Silent Spring stands as testimony that without environmental advocacy, the chemical companies of the mid-century may have carried on using DDT and other toxic chemicals to the devastation of many ecosystems. By 1975 most of the toxic chemicals Carson wrote about became banned or heavily regulated in the United States. 

Rachel Carson poses her Silent Spring readers with a moral dilemma: to act upon the knowledge she shares about toxic chemicals or accept the chemical industry's solution to deal with pests. Illuminating her book with case studies readers can relate to, Carson illustrates a common community and the dangers of passiveness. Carson’s work urged for precautions in our relationships with ecosystems and to understand the interconnectedness of nature. 

Rachel Carson’s environmental ethic is driven by awareness and sharing knowledge, so that we can live harmoniously with nature. Carson teaches us to not blindly accept assurances for safety when it comes to applying chemicals like pesticides and the importance of regulations and enforcement measures. Silent Spring challenges the thinking that nature is to serve people and is to be controlled, and implies our moral responsibility to nature, that we must not cause unnecessary loss of non-human or natural life and reminds us we share the same environment. 


The legacy of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring is remembered in the modern environmental movement. Carson had a gift of translating scientific material to general readers, arming concerned citizens with knowledge which empowered people around the world to ask questions and strive for better environmental protections. This same movement inspires Earth Law Center to fight for rights of nature. 

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, U.S.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, U.S.

Natural resource depletion, climate change, waste disposal, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, deforestation and many other environmental crises are all cultural crises. These issues are all contentious and complex, but there is no hiding the indications that our shared Earth is facing an ecological crisis that only humans can resolve. To create an ethical earth we must engage in dialogue and actions that provide rights for natural systems such as rivers, forests, oceans, lakes, and land ecosystems. The Earth Law Center and its partners are shaping an ethical future with a mission of advocacy for “nature’s rights at local and international levels.” 


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