Beyond Virtuous Nature

Rachel Carson in History

Rachel Carson was a visionary. She’s a towering figure in the modern environmental movement. She’s widely considered to be its founding voice, and she has remained its conscience. In 1962, her fearless book Silent Spring, which exposed the widespread dangers of DDT and other pesticides, and forthrightly attacked the chemical industry, helped ignite widespread environmental awareness, and in the ensuing decade not only led the EPA to ban the domestic use of DDT, but also led to the EPA itself, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and Earth Day.

There’s a very sizable literature on Rachel Carson—biographies, children’s books, commemorative anthologies, and documentaries. By 1996, she appears on Time’s list of the hundred most influential people who shaped the century. In A&E Biography’s TV special on the hundred most influential people of the millennium, which they count down in order of importance, she’s #87—more significant, apparently, than Eleanor Roosevelt, Suleyman I, and Steven Spielberg and only eleven slots behind the Beatles.

When you read this literature, well, one of the things that really fascinates me is how consistently, or really wholly and entirely, hagiographic it is. Almost relentlessly hagiographic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. Certainly not for Muir or Leopold—or any other figure I can think of in environmental history. While the most prominent works ask questions about Rachel Carson, they don’t, to my knowledge, really question her decisions, her writing, her beliefs, her motives.

History is the art of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. That’s our power, right? We recognize the past as strange, and then we try to understand its logic. It seems to me, though, especially as I read about Rachel Carson’s beliefs and ideas, that we’re making the familiar familiar. Rachel Carson herself, and especially I think her ideas, aren’t quite in history.

Stop Saving the Planet

Maybe a few years ago, I started to think about a new project a new, 21st-century brand of environmentalism. On one hand, this Green Revolution seemed to move in a direction that many of us (including historian William Cronon and writer Michael Pollan, who have in particular influenced my own thinking) had been arguing for. The 20th-century focus on the preservation of wilderness as the real, authentic counterpoint to the artifice of modern life didn’t seem to define the heart and soul of this environmentalism. Rather, it paid a lot of attention to everyday life—to what we do in our everyday environments.

The wilderness ideal has been rooted in the persistent, powerful American definition of nature as a place that’s separate from humans, and as the real world and the authentic counterpoint to modern life. And while historians have tracked this idea through the heart and soul of 20th-century environmentalism, I think, and I’m dismayed to suggest, that we now really need to track it through the 21st-century movement—when we’re all, apparently, trying to save the planet. And when we all, I think, desperately need to stop saving the planet.

I think there are two really big, common rhetorics that lie right at the heart of much of the Green Revolution—and that both are rooted squarely in this definition of nature. I think they play out in both action and policy in very real ways. I’ll call these two big rhetorics the I Problem and the We Problem.

What’s the I Problem? It’s the rhetoric that emphasizes the importance of individual virtuous acts. You see the I-centered rhetoric everywhere. It’s the conviction that I, personally, can save the earth. That if only each of us, individually, can possibly find it in our hearts to care, and to do the right thing, well, then, couldn’t we save the world? It’s the “change your light bulbs now” approach.

And what do energy-efficient light bulbs have to do with the historically powerful definition of nature as a place that’s separate from humans? As the estimable critical theorist Raymond Williams has helped us understand, there’s a long Western tradition of seeing nature as a realm that’s separate from corrupt human society. And once you set a natural world apart from the human world, it can then become a realm above and outside human judgment. It becomes the ultimate source of moral authority—the “natural,” and not relative, source of truth and virtue. And if nature is the real and absolute source of truth and virtue, then what could be more virtuous than protecting it?

Individual virtue, I think, plays out in the Green Revolution very concretely. Here’s the first way—which is that acts of Greenitude to protect nature have commonly become acts of Ultimate Virtue. Green acts, in other words, can trump other values and other kinds of virtuous acts—say, refusing to let your son play on a baseball team because the nearest one is twenty miles away and that’s too much global warming entirely.

In a society in which we readily identify ourselves and our values by what we consume, and in which we consume to be virtuous, well, we consume to be virtuous Greenies. And consume and consume. So we buy the new light bulbs and throw out the old ones. We junk or trade the old car (or the three old cars) and buy Priuses. If you junk your perfectly good Toyota Corolla for a new Prius, for example, you’ll have to drive 41,630 miles just to erase the carbon debt that manufacturing that Prius creates. The light bulb or the energy-efficient car can actually be a marker of virtue as much as or more than a purchase that will actually make a real difference.

The obsession with personal virtue flat-out encourages an overemphasis on the actual importance of individual action, especially compared to systemic or regulatory action. It emphasizes changing your light bulbs versus transforming the national energy grid. It focuses on buying nontoxic paints and carpets versus banning toxic paints and carpets. Not that individual action can’t be important, but there’s a lopsided faith in its effectiveness, and in personal versus more collective kinds of virtue.

What is the We Problem? It’s captured by the mantra, We are all in this together. The We Problem is very obviously rooted in the vision of nature as separate from the human world. Man has screwed up that world, the Real world. The Planet, or the Earth, really means Nature—the Real and enduring part of the World. It means the World that’s not us. This Man-&-Nature rhetoric of course encourages us to think of the environment as one unitary thing.

The We rhetoric—or seeing nature as unitary— encourages a decidedly weird fungibility. In other words, it can encourage us to see all Green acts—no matter what you do or where you do it—as accomplishing the same goal. So perhaps I own an SUV, but I recycle, and I’ve got an energy star DVR, and I eat local broccoli. These actions may all address very different sets of problems—but they all save the planet, which is to say, we’re screwing things up there but we’re madly saving the planet over there. There’s a kind of geographic cluelessness to the Save the Planet environmentalism—by which anything you do here or there benefits absolutely the whole planet everywhere.

Contextualizing Rachel Carson

The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind—that, and anger at the…brutish things that were being done. I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could—if I didn’t at least try I could never be happy again in nature.

—- Rachel Carson, from a letter she wrote to friend and nature writer Lois Crisler in the wake of Silent Spring, 1962—published in Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature

Carson is one of our great apostles for the oh-so-problematic idea of nature as a timeless refuge from the relativism and vicissitudes of the human world. But this idea of nature as timeless disguises that it in fact has a history. It has served both general social needs throughout American history, and specific social needs for every generation, and, I think, fulfilled very specific and very personal needs for Rachel Carson.

Here’s the thing. We know that being a woman opens Carson and Silent Spring to attack—but it also deeply informs the defense. Carson is single. She never marries. Her closest relationship is with her mother. Her other major close relationship as an adult, apparently non-sexual, is with a woman, her friend Dorothy Freeman. And yet, she still raises children. Lovingly. She sacrifices dearly to do so. She dies of breast cancer.

She’s the paragon of a virtuous woman—through no intent or fault of her own.

That women are the caretakers of a society’s virtue and morals might be one of the few ideas historically that can rival, in power and persistence, the idea of nature as the authentic source of virtue. It’s as if Rachel Carson stands between the meanings of women and the meanings of nature, and both radiate virtue towards and around her in a kind of closed system.

And this powerful vision of nature, as the central environmentalist trope has gotten us far. But it is long past time to move it away, to dislodge it, from the center of environmentalism. We owe so much to Rachel Carson. But I don’t think that her vision of nature can ultimately sustain a culture of environmentalism that will effectively arm us to create the clean, healthy world, full of healthy wild things and places, as well as healthy people.

And shouldn’t we fight as fiercely as we can to change them—with all the skill, passion, and rock-solid integrity that Rachel Carson brought to the cause?

The full version of this essay was presented to the American Society for Environmental History in March 2012, and was published in the Rachel Carson Center's journal Perspectives.

Jenny Price is a writer and historian, Los Angeles Urban Ranger, and Research Scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women.

Photo Credit: Adapted from Flickr user Naomi & Matt