Something a bit different today, I will be reviewing not a current event but a 10 month old article about a 50 year old book. The article chronicles the life of Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring”. Here are some highlights of the article (I guess this really isn’t so different from what I usually do 🙂
SHE was a slight, soft-spoken woman who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power. And yet Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring,” played a central role in starting the environmental movement, by forcing government and business to confront the dangers of pesticides.
Carson was a scientist with a lyrical bent, who saw it as her mission to share her observations with a wider audience. In the course of her work, she also felt called upon to become a leader — and was no less powerful for being a reluctant one.
She was a classic introvert who exhibited few of the typical qualities associated with leadership, like charisma and aggressiveness. But as people like Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” have pointed out, leadership can come in less obvious forms. Carson’s life shows that individual agency, fueled by resolution and hard work, has the power to change the world…her story is a reminder that one person’s quiet leadership can make a difference.
IN early 1958, she began working intently on “Silent Spring” while serving as both a breadwinner and a caregiver. The previous year, her niece died after an illness and she adopted her 5-year-old grandnephew. Unmarried and living in Silver Spring, Md., she also cared for and financially supported her ailing mother.
For the next four years, she gave all the time and energy she could spare to researching and writing “Silent Spring.” A diligent investigator, she reached out to a network of scientists, physicians, librarians, conservationists and government officials. She found colleagues, clerks, whistle-blowers and others who had studied pesticide use and were willing to share their knowledge.
Her research, she wrote, “has taken very deep digging into the realms of physiology and biochemistry and genetics, to say nothing of chemistry. But I now feel that a lot of isolated pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have suddenly fallen into place.” I now feel that a lot of isolated pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have suddenly fallen into place,”
Health problems, including breast cancer, were a constant obstacle for Ms. Carson. In early 1961, she began radiation treatment, which sapped her strength. A staph infection, a flare-up of her ulcer and the onset of phlebitis in her legs added to her problems, leaving her too debilitated to work. At times, she despaired over “the complete and devastating wreckage” of her writing schedule and the “nearly complete loss of any creative feeling or desire.”
EARLY in 1962, Carson sent most of the manuscript to her publisher and The New Yorker. The end in sight, she took stock of her motivation for the book. As quoted in Ms. Lear’s book, she wrote to the conservationist and author Lois Crisler: “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind — that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.”
The book, combined with the New Yorker serialization, created a sensation. In summer 1962, President John F. Kennedy, citing the book, appointed a committee to study pesticide use. During the next two years, various government units called for increased oversight of and reductions of pesticides.
Small wonder that chemical makers counterattacked. A biochemist with American Cyanamid called Carson “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” Invoking cold-war language, the general counsel for another chemical company suggested that Carson was a front for “sinister influences” intent on restricting pesticide use in order to reduce American food supplies to the levels of the Eastern bloc.
Later that year, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations; in 1972, DDT was banned from use in the United States. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Looking back at such events, scientists like Paul Ehrlich and E. O. Wilson have credited “Silent Spring” with a pivotal role in starting the modern environmental movement.
RACHEL CARSON’S story offers many leadership lessons, including the importance of persistence in pursuing an objective. When I discuss her with business executives, many are struck by her ability to stay focused on goals in the face of obstacles including severe illness.
Another lesson involves the importance of doing thorough research and taking the long view. A sense of context based on hard facts, along with a knowledge of history, is essential to understanding what’s at stake in difficult and uncertain situations. It also confers a sense of authority on the person who has acquired this knowledge.
A third insight concerns the juggling of personal demands and professional ambitions. Carson understood the challenge — and satisfaction — of dealing with our obligations to others even as we follow our professional drive. And she saw that this can rarely be navigated smoothly. For her, and for many executives with whom I have worked, times of great productivity were followed by fallow periods when ambitions had to be put aside for personal reasons.
There continues to be debate about the use of DDT and its relation to Carson’s conclusions. Regardless, her story underscores the power of calling others to thoughtful action. At a time when Americans’ confidence in their business and government leaders is low, her journey offers a forceful example of one person’s ability to incite positive change.
Such an inspirational article, I could not help sharing it with my audience. Even though it is a bit old, its messages are timeless, and truly resonate with me on a personal level.
First and foremost, I am inspired by Ms. Carson’s desire to share her knowledge with a wider audience. Ms. Carson saw beauty in the world, both in nature and in people. Injustices fueled her desire to get her message out there.
Second, Ms. Carson understood the importance of a multidisciplinary and long term investigative approach to solving complex problems (way before a relatively modern multidisciplinary movement in academia). She was not to proud to enlist the help of other like-minded people. No matter how talented a person may be, nobody can tackle the truly complex problems in the world by themselves. Ms. Carson’s work shows what can be accomplished when people work together.
Third, and arguably most remarkably, is how Ms. Carson remained focused in the face of her illnesses. Ms. Carson was determined to see her work finished; she did not retreat to more selfish concerns in light of her own deteriorating health. While surely not exactly the same, as someone who has dealt with debilitating depression, Ms. Carson’s perseverance and selflessness is truly inspirational.
Furthermore, Ms. Carson never backed down from powerful vested interests. Despite her deteriorating health, she remained steadfast in the face of personal and professional attacks from people who stood to lose from her work. As someone who is constantly rallying against vested interests, Ms. Carson’s experience is a warning to expect resistance, and to continue to stand up for what you believe in the face of that resistance.
Last but not least is the most obvious lesson; one person’s ability to incite positive change. For those who visit my Facebook page, the Ghandi quote “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” is one Ms. Carson lived by (whether she knew it or not). In a world where people are so cynical, it is important to tell stories about how hard work and determination can lead to real change. It is also notable that Ms. Carson was not particularly outspoken; “traditional” leadership qualities are not a prerequisite for making a change in the world.
Ms. Carson’s battle was waged in the context of a much less globalized and post-materialistic world. Despite technological and ideological obstacles, gender bias and personal illness, Ms. Carson never wavered in her fight for what she believed was right. Her legacy is the world we live in today; the best way to celebrate her accomplishments is to put in the work needed to shape the world we want.