Faculty Talk ‘Silent Spring’

Environmental leaders and Harvard faculty gathered in Sanders Theatre Thursday afternoon to discuss Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring”, and the future of environmentalism.

The panel of nine faculty and experts, organized around the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s book, included Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, as well Bill McKibben, author of “The End of Nature” and the activist behind 350.org, a climate change group.

Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, two years before her death, is often noted as the start of the environmentalist movement.

Ten years later, the book was widely credited for the federal ban on DDT, a toxic pesticide widely used in the 1940s and 1950s.

Daniel P. Schrag, a professor of geology and director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment who organized the event, called Carson’s work a “plea for a change in the course of human history.”

He added that Silent Spring introduced “a lot of lessons for the future,” noting that “[Silent Spring] is about morality as well as pesticides.”

The panel focused on how Carson’s work continues to be relevant to today’s environmental challenges.

Speaking of Carson’s legacy, Beinecke said, “she was a fearless woman…a moral crusader of her time.”

“Fifty years on we very much live in Rachel Carson’s world,” McKibben said. She was the “first person to knock the shine off modernity,” he said.

Today, McKibben said, scary statistics “force us to make choices as citizens. Our response has to boil down to the notion that we are more than simply self-interested.” The solution, he said, is “action on all fronts.”

McKibben put that responsibility specifically on the Harvard community. “The onus is all the more on [university] communities to be taking the lead and making some kind of sacrifice,” he said. “We need to make sure college campuses are central places for this fight to be held.”

Nina Sokolovic '14 attended the discussion to hear a “broader perspective” on a topic she had covered in a class taught by John D. Spengler, a professor of environmental health at the School of Public Health who was also a member of the panel.

Chloe S. Maxmin '15 said the discussion was “fantastic.”

“It was really powerful how the panelists related Rachel Carson’s message back to divestment,” Maxmin said. The takeaway for her, Maxmin said, was “investing money in ways that don’t threaten the environment.”

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