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Reviewed by:
  • Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge
  • Andrew Karvonen (bio)
Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge. Edited by Lisa H. Sideris and Kathleen Dean Moore. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. Pp. ix+287. $74.50/$24.95.

Rachel Carson is frequently cited as the principal catalyst of contemporary environmentalism, and yet there has been a surprising dearth of critical reflection on her contributions to scientific and environmental thought. This compendium, edited by religious studies scholar Lisa H. Sideris and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, aims to correct this oversight by examining the origins of Carson’s ecological worldview as well as her influence on subsequent generations of environmentalists and scientists. Seventeen essays by an eclectic mix of writers, activists, and scholars reflect the rich diversity of Carson’s work. The book is divided into five thematic sections: activism/advocacy, environmental ethics, gender and science, toxic discourses, and Carson’s legacy of wonder.

One of the strongest threads running throughout the book concerns [End Page 924] Carson’s nuanced ethical outlook, beginning with the nonanthropocentrist environmentalism in her earlier works and, most importantly, through to the eventual recognition that humans are an integral part of the natural world in her 1962 bestseller Silent Spring. Philip Cafaro argues that environmental philosophers have largely ignored Carson because her ethics were based on experiential scientific methods rather than foundational moral principles. Peter List explores her public science advocacy approach while making compelling connections between environmental ethics and the philosophy of science. And Susan Power Bratton, J. Baird Callicott, and Elyssa Back interrogate Carson’s sea ethic, with its emphasis on Darwinian competition as opposed to Aldo Leopold’s more widely cited land ethic and its underlying principle of ecological cooperation.

A second topic of interest to T&C readers is Carson’s influence on the relationship between scientists and the general public. Carson is one of the most well-known critics of the Promethean approach to scientific and technological development and its ultimate goal of completely controlling nature. Instead, she called for more modest interventions to manipulate nature while continuing to adhere to the traditional scientific stance of objectivity and detachment, a perspective that would put her at odds with contemporary ecofeminist scholars. Furthermore, she continued to advocate for the primacy of science in decision-making processes but called for the replacement of blunt chemical strategies with more nuanced biological interventions. One wonders how Carson would have interpreted contemporary biological practices such as genetic modification and cloning that have pushed the science in controversial directions.

Steve Macguire presents a framework of toxic discourse with Carson and DDT as indelibly linked symbols in public debates over environmental pollution and public health, while Michael Smith provides a fresh perspective on the gendered criticism of Carson by the chemical industry and scientific elites. Clearly, Carson’s 1960s activities were central to subsequent critiques of science and technology, particularly with respect to environmental pollution and public health, community right-to-know legislation, and the personal values embedded in scientific practice.

The book also examines the tensions between science and religion. For much of her life, Carson struggled to balance her mutual love of literature and science but had surprisingly little difficulty in reconciling her personal spirituality and her natural-science training and work. Coeditor Sideris traces Carson’s faith to her Presbyterian upbringing, her mother’s adherence to the early-twentieth-century “nature study” movement, and her admiration for Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life” philosophy. Kathleen Dean Moore furthers this connection between science and faith by arguing that Carson’s method of experiential scientific discovery allowed her to employ a sense of wonder to bridge morality and science. As such, scientific method and religious belief coconstitute Carson’s inimitable ecological outlook. [End Page 925]

While the aforementioned authors all contribute to an understanding of Carson’s legacy, the collection as a whole lacks coherence and fails to make a unified statement about her indelible influence on scientific and environmental thought. Many of the contributors are content to repeat platitudes about Carson such as her skill in combining literary and scientific writing, her success in inspiring scientific wonder among the general public, and her courage in standing...


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pp. 924-926
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