May 27th is a day that has recorded some interesting events throughout history. It was on this day in 1706 that Peter the Great of Russia announced that his newly founded city of St. Petersburg was also to be the new capital of Russia. In more recent times, May 27th marked the official opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A few years later, the British navy celebrated the announcement that the battleship Rodney had managed to send the German battleship, Bismarck, to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. However, I remember May 27th for a different reason, as it marks the 110th birthday of an American woman who really did change the world, Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was a marine biologist who spent much of her life working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she began writing extensively, and soon discovered she was a gifted author. Her bestseller, The Sea Around Us, (1951) won the U.S. National Book Award, and she followed up this work with two additional best sellers. In the mid-1950s she turned her attention to the area of conservation, with a major focus on synthetic pesticides. At the time, pesticides (especially DDT) were used extensively with little control or oversight. In 1962, she published what would become one of the most profound books of the 20th century, Silent Spring.
Silent Spring warned of a day when spring would be silent, as the songbirds of North America would be extinct due to DDT poisoning. As you can imagine, her book was attacked viciously by the chemical industry, and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture openly speculated that Carson might be a communist. Despite the attacks, Carson’s book brought the whole issue of environmental protection to the public’s attention. Before this book, many assumed that any environmental problems were simply “the price we pay for progress.” However, Carson challenged that assumption, and citizens began asking serious questions as to whether the price they were paying was becoming too high for the environment, for wildlife, and for human life. Ultimately, DDT was banned in the U.S. and the foundations of the modern American environmental movement began with Carson’s ground-breaking work.
At the time of the book’s publication, Carson was being treated for cancer, a cancer that ultimately claimed her life only two short years later. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Years ago, I was a member of the Edmonton Jaycees, a group whose motto read “One Man Can Change the World” (of course, it should have said “One Person Can Change the World,” but those were different times). Carson’s life was testament to the truth of that statement. Today, we are bombarded with discouraging news, endless lists of problems, and a sense that none of our traditional institutions work any longer. However, as the Jaycees stated, and as Carson proved, one person really can change the world. I pray that young students and young graduates take her lesson to heart. Despite all of its problems, this is still a wonderful world, a world that can be made even greater by one person. Make that person you.
Brian McLeod is a St. Albert resident.