Friday, April 22, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Rachel Carson's "A New Chapter to Silent Spring"

It's Earth Day, and this week, we'll look at one of my earliest heroes, scientist and writer Rachel Carson. Her first book The Sea Around Us, had me toying for years with the idea of becoming a marine biologist, just like her. Carson worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--at one point, one of just two women in a professional role at the agency--and caused a stir with her 1962 book Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of pesticides for plants and animals. The book launched the environmental movement, and eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where I was proud to serve many years later.

Most of her work was conducted in the field or in writing, but Carson's book and the controversy around it led her into public speaking...reluctantly. Her 1964 obituary in the New York Times reveals her public speaking fears--and how she spoke, anyway:
People remembered Miss Carson for her shyness and reserve as well as for her writing and scholarship. And so when she received a telephone call after the publication of “The Sea Around Us,” asking her to speak in the Astor Hotel at a luncheon, she asked Miss Rodell what she should do.
The agent counseled her to concentrate on writing. Miss Carson nodded in agreement, went to the phone, and shortly came back and said somewhat helplessly: “I said I’d do it.”
There were 1,500 persons at the luncheon, Miss Carson was “scared to death,” but she plunged into the talk and acquitted herself. As part of her program she played a recording of the sounds of underseas, including the clicking of shrimp and the squeeks of dolphins and whales. With the ice broken as a public speaker, Miss Carson continued with others sporadically.
That's the earliest reference I've heard of a scientist playing undersea noises. Sounds like an early TED talk, doesn't it? Many years later, Vice President Al Gore, in a speech about Carson, highlighted the ways she was attacked as a woman in efforts to diminish her impact:
....because Carson was a woman, much of the criticism directed at her played on stereotypes of her sex. Calling her "hysterical" fit the bill exactly. Time magazine added the charge that she had used "emotion-fanning words." Her credibility as a scientist was attacked as well: opponents financed the production of propaganda that supposedly refuted her work. It was all part of an intense, well-financed negative campaign, not against a political candidate but against a book and its author.
Her speech, "A New Chapter to Silent Spring" addressed the Garden Club of America in 1963, the year after Silent Spring was published. The club--largely comprised of activist women gardeners--was a savvy audience choice for Carson, who was bringing her message directly to public audiences with speeches such as this one. And her message warned that citizens could not rely on many of the authoritative sources of information on the dangers of pesticides, from the federal government to professional organizations.
It is my conviction that if we automatically call in the spray planes or reach for the aerosol bomb when we have an insect control problem we are resorting to crude methods of a rather low scientific order. We are being particularly unscientific when we fail to press forward with research that will give us the new kinds of weapons we need. Such weapons now exist -- brilliant and imaginative prototypes of what I trust will be the insect control methods of the future…. Research men at the Department of Agriculture have told me privately that some of the methods that they have developed and tested and turned over to the insect control branch have been quietly put on the shelf. 
Here's what you can learn from this pivotal speech:
  • Give the audience your inside view. What's the real problem? Yes, eagles were dying and food crops were tainted. But after years of working in government and armed with her scientific knowledge and observations, Carson knew that a major barrier to change was a system full of conflicts of interest in the production and regulation of pesticides--conflicts that benefited industry. She told her listeners that the American Medical Association was referring its physician members to a pesticide trade association when they needed answers to patients' questions about the harmful effects of insect sprays, and raised questions about scientific societies and universities taking donations or research funding from the same industry groups. Those conflicts would otherwise have been invisible to her listeners.
  • If your topic is technical, make your words universal: There's not a word in this speech that dumbs down the topic, yet it's understandable and clear. Carson doesn't resort to her profession's jargon, but puts the issue in terms anyone can understand.
  • Make a bold call for action that solves the problem: Carson significantly called for an independent environmental agency, since pesticides in her day were regulated by the Department of Agriculture, which also had a mission to support the industry and the farmers that used its products. Today, the EPA has no parent agency, an important accomplishment that came a decade after Carson called for it. Getting citizens to understand why that independence is important made this speech a first step toward the goal.
  • Give your listeners something they can do: Carson, ever the scientist, gave her listeners the best tool to guard against these conflicts: Questions they should ask.Her conclusion for the speech: "As you listen to the present controversy about pesticides, I recommend that you ask yourself--Who speaks?--And Why?"
There's no recording of this speech that I could find, but here's a video tribute to Carson that will show you more photos of her at work, and give you a sense of her accomplishment. She died of breast cancer the year after this speech was given, in her late 50s, but her words still shape our world: As I was writing this post, I heard a report on new research showing that women's exposure to pesticides can impact their children's IQs.

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