Examining Her Footprint

One writer’s personal reflections on environmentalism in America, and how to leave a meaningful footprint

“The ‘control of Nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance...”

These are the wise words of Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring,” about the dangers of spraying DDT and other pesticides, changed the face of environmentalism as we know it. Her eloquent prose and compelling scientific studies convinced the public to forge a path to sustainability, albeit a winding one filled with potholes and roadblocks. By the end of her life Carson had contracted cancer, yet she bravely testified before President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee, defending the wildlife that couldn’t defend itself.

On Sept. 27,  a panel of individuals at the forefront of the environmental movement gathered in Sanders Theater for “Science and Advocacy: The Legacy of Silent Spring,” commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the book’s release.

When I first saw the line-up, learning that the discussion would involve everyone from Bill E. McKibben ’82, environmental activist and author of “The End of Nature,” to James McCarthy, former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I knew I had to attend.

The moderator was Daniel P. Schrag, Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, who studies climate change and currently serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Under his guidance, the panelists discussed questions that echoed Carson herself, resonating with a need for change. I couldn’t have agreed more.

I’d been feeling a little angsty lately, slightly unfulfilled by being back on campus this fall. It’s not as if I found direct fault with the University, but I couldn’t help wondering if my time here was better spent doing something more concrete, something in “the real world” as opposed to academia. Sure, I was learning a lot from lecture, yet I still felt like a cog in a wheel rather than a student with a vision. There was clearly something amiss. The answer came to me at the end of the discussion.

The panel took the audience’s questions, written down on index cards and passed to ushers standing in the aisles. I saw one of them shuffling through the thick stack of cards and wondered, doubtfully, if my question would be selected. After Schrag asked the panelists to comment on a few general questions, he paused for a moment and his tone became more serious. For this final question, he didn’t paraphrase or extrapolate on the audience member’s wording—he read, straight from the index card, my simple question in earnest scrawl:

“How do you suggest that we—as college students—avoid the moral decisions made by previous generations—how do we alter the path we’re on?”

A silence followed, after which the first panelist—William C. Clark, ecologist, author, and Kennedy School professor—cleared his throat and said, “I think I just teared up.”

He continued, saying, “Be outraged. A lot more than you are. And master something that will let you turn that outrage into effective action.”

One by one, each panelist took a turn answering my almost child-like question that, although a natural one for me, obviously struck a chord with these experts so used to the highbrow speech of the professional world.

The panel ended with McKibben saying, although he wished he could tell me to have a good time and enjoy the next four years, that the ice shelf is already broken and that college campuses will be a central place for this fight to take place.

I wish that more students had gone to the discussion. Vain as it may sound and self-evident as it was, I wish more of my peers could have heard my question and asked themselves the same. So much of college is figuring out what we want to do with our lives. So much of the learning we do here is learning about ourselves. Yet how much of that is centered around what we should be doing, not just as citizens, but as students—students at arguably the most prestigious and powerful university in the world?

Many of us will graduate with very little clue of what we want to do long-term, and that’s okay. I’m not suggesting that we become household names by the time we receive our diplomas (although this will inevitably be the case for some of our peers). What I am suggesting is that we think about how we want to leave this place—what sort of footprint we leave. Indirectly, I suppose that could mean our carbon footprint, but also the footprint we leave on each other’s consciousness. This is an incredible campus filled with brilliant people, but unless we learn how to think and act with longer time-horizons in mind, how do we expect to shape the future in a sustainable way?

What does it take to start a movement? Just one person. That’s all it took in Rachel Carson’s time, and the same holds true today.

—Staff writer Anneli L. Tostar can be reached at annelitostar@college.harvard.edu.

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