Though it has been more than 50 years since Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book Silent Spring was published, the issues it dealt with, especially conservation, are still very important and hotly debated, as they were in Higley Hall on Thursday, Jan. 24. Four professors from across departments gathered, offering perspective on Carson’s legacy from the women’s studies, biology, environmental studies, and English departments.
As part of the Spectrum Series, the event included professors from different disciplines, who made the experience “interdisciplinary” and “unexpected,” according to senior Beth Armitage, an environmental studies major from Vienna, Va. The panel began with a short summary of Carson’s contributions and the environmental climate of her time from Andy McCall, a professor from Denison’s biology department.
A main issue Carson dealt with was the rampant use of DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a chemical used as an insecticide since 1939. This was a problem because DDT is hydrophobic, so it doesn’t dissolve into the body as easily as other chemicals. It also has a long half-life of 15 years . Instead of dissolving, it accumulates in fatty tissues, becoming more concentrated as it moves up the food chain, called “bioaccumulation”. In addition to realizing this threat, Carson saw that the environment is connected by the flow of water, so pollutants like DDT can be easily dispersed.
We still overuse pesticides and herbicides, according to McCall. These may have consequences we are not aware of. “There’s an awful lot we don’t know about things we put into the environment,” said McCall.
Clare Jen, a professor of women’s studies and biology, explained Carson’s legacy with regard to women in science, especially the three aspects of the relationship. The number of women earning bachelor’s degrees in scientific fields has recently declined, a surprising trend considering the steady upward swing of the past few decades. She also mentioned feminist science, which is about “asking different questions” than traditional scientific methods of inquiry. Finally, she mentioned the relationship between government and women, with the government “wielding science” to achieve its desired results. Carson’s main influence on science, Jen said, was her method of investing her own personal passion in it.
English professor James Weaver read a memoir-styled piece of his own work, bringing the same first person honesty into environmentalism. He related stories of his own childhood, telling how he rode his bicycle through clouds of gas sprayed to kill mosquitoes in his Mississippi hometown.
Finally, Olivia Aguilar, a professor from the Environmental Studies department, related Carson’s work to the annual theme of Creativity and Courage. She compared courage to activism, and said that Carson was both an environmental scientist and an environmentalist. Aguilar also placed Carson in historical context, noting how Carson was the boundary between the conservationism movement and modern environmentalism. Her legacy, according to Aguilar, includes a heavy influence on the formation of the EPA. Carson’s achievements centered on her ability to find a middle ground between activism and science.
After the four professors spoke, a question and answer session brought up many different topics, from the amount of objectivity necessary in science to the consequences of Granville’s ice treatment processes. These discussions showed how Carson’s passion for the environment is still alive at Denison and in the surrounding community.
The next event in the series will be “Rachel Carson and Environmental Science,” a Denison Science Association talk by Andy McCall on Wed. Jan. 30, at 4:30 p.m. in Olin 114.