Who is today's Rachel Carson?

Plants growing between old glass windows (Photo: S. Boon).

Rachel Carson is often seen as the driver of the modern environmental movement. But who stands in her shoes today?

If I had to pick one person as a hero, it would be Rachel Carson.

I love her quiet determination to get the word out about the problems with pesticides, I love her persistence in experiencing being “under” the sea, even if she only lasted a few minutes in the diving outfit she borrowed and didn’t go down very deep. I love her writing about the natural world, so heavily informed by scientific research but not bogged down by it.

I see Carson as the original science communicator. She collated information from a range of government research articles (and others) and turned them into something the public could read. This was particularly important in an age where science was just starting to become a major driver of western society, for everything from pesticides to the nuclear bomb. People didn’t really understand what science was or what it did – but they were willing to learn. Carson was probably one of the few people who publicly shared a more nuanced view of science, as opposed to the science boosters who promoted science and its benefits for modern civilization with little thought for its dark side.

But who is today’s Rachel Carson?

With the growth of science communication as a discipline, and the use of the internet and social media to spread the news about environmental issues, I don’t think we have a single environmental champion anymore. We have many, all focusing on different aspects of the environment and our connection to it.

There are still big names, but there are more of them:

  • Robin Wall Kimmerer, who combines her Indigenous knowledge with her scientific training to re-animate the natural world.
  • Rob Macfarlane, who writes about the environmental history of the UK.
  • All of the women in my latest piece for LitHub: Elizabeth Kolbert, Sandra Postel, Elizabeth Rush, Emma Marris, and Kathleen Dean Moore.
  • Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science who studies climate change and society, and who exposed fossil fuel company’s use of misinformation to muddy the debate on climate change.
  • Katharine Hayhoe, an academic and Canadian expat in Texas, and a climate change expert who engages not only the general public, but particularly evangelical communities.

I know there are many more that I’m missing here – please add them in the comments section!

Given the seriousness and breadth of climate change, particularly the warning from the IPCC that we have approximately a decade to drastically reduce fossil fuel emissions, we owe it to ourselves and to society to learn from these people by reading their books and essays, and really thinking hard about the issues and ideas they bring to light, and how they impact on our personal lives.

We can start with Carson’s Silent Spring, and maybe Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (which I’m reading right now, along with Gavin van Horn’s The Way of Coyote, and loving the synergy between the two). They’ll give us a baseline of how the environment and society were connected in the 1940-1960s.

Then we can decide what we want to really dig into: water, sea level rise, conservation…and select more readings that will help us understand our situation.

We don’t have one single Rachel Carson anymore. But we have a broad range of people and resources to help us understand what’s happening to the environment today.


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