Tag Archives: The Origin of the Species

Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), the Royal Society, and men

Silent Spring, the book by Rachel Carson, has had an extraordinary impact in Canada, the US, and many other parts of the world. The 1962 publication of the book effectively launched the environmental movement.

Carson died two years after publication with the consequences that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of her death. Britain’s The Royal Society in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature is marking this anniversary with a public lecture and panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014 (6:30 – 7:30 pm at The Royal Society, London). This is an astonishing event for reasons to be discussed after reading a description: Writing Wrongs,

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson, the American conservationist responsible for putting the environment on the political agenda. When her masterpiece Silent Spring was published in 1962, she was attacked as savagely as Darwin on the publication of The Origin of the Species, but the book spurred a reversal in US pesticide policy and led to a ban on DDT and other pesticides. But does Silent Spring persuade because of the strength of its arguments, or the beauty of its language? And have Carson’s warnings been sufficiently heeded? John Burnside FRSL is a prize-winning poet, short-story writer and novelist. A passionate environmentalist, he contributes a regular nature column to the New Scientist. Professor John Pickett FRS is Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology at Rothampstead Research, and a world authority on pest control. In a conversation chaired by Damian Carrington, Head of Environment at the Guardian, they will discuss the complementary roles of literature and science in saving the planet.

This event is free to attend and open to all. No tickets are required. Doors open at 6pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Speech-to-text interpretation will be provided at this event.

If you require British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation please contact the events team no later than 2 weeks prior to the event and we would be happy to arrange an interpreter.

A live video will be available on this page when the event starts and a recorded video will be available a few days afterwards.

You’ll note that this is an all male panel, which is astonishing, given the number of female scientists working in the fields of environmental science and female writers of all stripes, especially in light of the raw sexism Carson was subjected to at the time her book was published. Victoria Johnson in her Aug. 7, 2014 posting on the Guardian science blog network supplies some context for concern not only about this particular event but others too (Note Links have been removed),

The problem is, Writing Wrongs has an all-male panel.

Debates about gender-balanced panels at conferences and public events are not new. In 2009 the group Feminist Philosophers set up a Gendered Conference Campaign, challenging the prevalence of all-male conferences in their field. In 2011, a group of gender equality advocates and activists pledged to boycott events with all-male panels. Then, in early 2013, journalist Rebecca Rosen took the rather novel step of asking men to sign a pledge to refuse speaking at or moderating events dominated by male contributors. More than 300 people signed the online pledge. But, within hours, it had to be anonymised because of the torrent of abusive comments.

Johnson then focuses specifically on Writing Wrongs event (Note: A link has been removed),

Earlier this week I wrote to the Royal Society asking why Writing Wrongs had an all-male panel. I even offered some suggestions for female speakers they might like to ask. My argument was that Carson is not only the most famous environmentalist and nature writer of the 20th century; she was also a female scientist who faced gender-based slurs from the mainstream media and naturally, vested interests, on the publication of Silent Spring. Keen to discredit the conclusions of her detailed analysis they dismissed her as a hysterical woman, unable to conduct objective research.

Not only was it strange to see an all-male panel, especially when I knew plenty of female science writers, academics and environmental journalists who would have been equally qualified to speak, it seemed entirely inappropriate given who had apparently inspired this event.

The Royal Society responded to my email. They’d asked a female chair, but she was unavailable. I was then told they were looking into other female speakers, but had needed to proceed with promotion of the event. Is it really that hard to find a female science writer or a leading academic working on pesticides? Not if you live in the 21st century and know how to use the Internet, write an email or operate a phone. I was then reassured, that sometimes; the Royal Society does have female representation on at important events. This was followed by some blurb and a link to their Equality and Diversity policy. Unfortunately, whenever I have challenged other event organisers on the lack of gender-balance, I have pretty much had the same response.

To get a sense for the quality of the vituperation that Carson experienced in 1962, there’s this from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Carson and the others involved with publication of Silent Spring expected fierce criticism. They were particularly concerned about the possibility of being sued for libel. Carson was also undergoing radiation therapy to combat her spreading cancer, and expected to have little energy to devote to defending her work and responding to critics. In preparation for the anticipated attacks, Carson and her agent attempted to amass as many prominent supporters as possible before the book’s release.[54]

Most of the book’s scientific chapters were reviewed by scientists with relevant expertise, among whom Carson found strong support. …

American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among the most aggressive critics, especially of Carson’s analysis of DDT.[60] According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”[61] Others went further, attacking Carson’s scientific credentials (because her training was in marine biology rather than biochemistry) and her personal character. White-Stevens labeled her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature”,[62] while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson—in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower—reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”[63] [emphasis mine]

Many critics repeatedly asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides. Yet Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals’ impact on the entire ecosystem.[64]  …

In the US (and elsewhere), an accusation of being a ‘communist’ particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s could destroy your career.

Getting back to the modern day, having organized panels in the past, I appreciate how very challenging it is to get a diverse set of people on a panel but as Johnson notes, it shouldn’t be all that difficult in 2014.

Abandoning the effort to find a female speaker after what was apparently a single attempt seems a bit chicken-hearted. Were the event organizers concerned about avoiding rejection? If so, they should perhaps consider other job or volunteer activities as rejections are pretty common when trying to attract panel members.

Should the organizers try again, I have some advice: “Try to get more than one female speaker on your panel as cancellations are also common in these endeavours.” Of course, the organizers may end up with an female panel in the end as bizarre things can happen at the last minute to your carefully planned panel. I wish the event organizers good luck!