REVIEW: On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

By William Souder

Fifty years ago, Carson published Silent Spring, about the environmental dangers of widespread, unregulated pesticide use. It would be morally satisfying to add, “And things have never been the same,” but that would be a half-truth at best. Carson was able to have an immediate impact on public policy by the array of evidence she marshalled; she would be appalled, Souder reasonably speculates, by American culture’s “newly virulent resistance to science that now clouds issues such as evolution and climate change.”

And Carson herself, a heroine to millions before her death in 1964—and a dangerous Communist agitator according to the chemical industry—is still preposterously accused of killing millions of children in the developing world by having anti-malarial DDT spraying banned. In fact, Carson never opposed the insecticide’s use for that purpose, only its unrestrained use. Anyone unaware of what she was up against should examine a 1945 photo Souder includes in his book: a truck sprays a thick fog of DDT on a public beach, while children play on it.

On a Farther Shore is illuminating in the historical context it provides for Carson’s story. The public was, in part, prepared to be receptive to Carson’s warnings because it was already terrified by another invisible and insidious product of modern technology. At the height of the Cold War, the parallels between radioactive fallout and DDT were obvious to everyone. Souder hardly needs to mention the horrific birth defects of supposedly safe Thalidomide—a scourge kept from the U.S. by the stubborn actions of another female bureaucrat, Frances Oldham Kelsey.

It’s individuals who matter in history, and Souder offers an engaging portrait of a woman who grew up dirt-poor and who throughout her time in the limelight struggled with the breast cancer that would kill her. But Carson loved nature with a stubborn passion, and she could write. She withstood a vicious attack campaign against her, and her ill heath, long enough to become one of the most influential Americans ever.

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