Rachel Carson and ‘Silent Spring’ are Back in the News Thanks to PBS

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Michelle Ferrari says that when she told anyone between school age and 60 that her newest documentary was about Rachel Carson, she got blank stares.

There’s a serious information gap about just who this important woman was, a gap that is particularly troubling considering the issues that continue to pervade the world of environmental science and agriculture. Ferrari’s new documentary for PBS, part of the American Experience series, is here to give all viewers a sense of this incredible woman, author, and activist.

rachel carsonFor those unfamiliar with her, Rachel Carson was the author of “Silent Spring,” the 1962 phenomenon that unleashed an extraordinary national debate about the safety of the then-brand-new pesticide DDT.

The film, Ferrari notes, is an “origin story” – this is true in more ways than one.

The early part of the film displays the origin of one of the first synthetic pesticides: DDT. Shocking images of soldiers spraying what was first used as a method of controlling lice-borne typhus all over the faces and bodies of people in war-torn Naples give way to the pesticide coming home, to farmers spraying it all over their crops without giving a second thought to their own health.

But more than the story of DDT’s misguided rise to popularity, this film is the story of the woman who noticed – and who did everything in her power to draw attention to this nationwide misstep.

“It’s an origin story of our ongoing national debate about the benefits and hazards of technology,” says Ferrari. “And Carson started that conversation.”

The film artfully shows both the enormity of the effects of Carson’s work and the intimacy of this very private, soft-spoken person.

“She was a very determined person. She had strong ethics, and she really, really cared about the natural world,” says Ferrari. “She was a pretty shy person, a pretty solitary person, and I think that was the place she felt most comfortable, and she was afraid it was going to disappear.”

This fear makes sense given the tools that the film gives the viewer; after all, it is also Carson’s biography, her origin story.

As a young woman, Carson loved to explore the woods and dreamed of being a writer. Once at college, Carson became enthralled by biology, but she was forced to cut her studies short to help care for her family. After taking a job as an information specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she, almost accidentally, became the translator of the wealth of scientific research to which she had access for the masses, writing print articles and, later, two popular books about the sea, something that taught her that “everything was connected to everything else.” Carson hoped that everyone would understand this sentiment, some day.

While the sea is painted in the film as something that she loved, the subject of her third book is more of a mission: “Silent Spring” was a story that Carson felt responsible to tell, despite the misgivings of her closest friend and confidante.

“She just thought that there was information that was missing, and she wanted to supply it,” says Ferrari. “She felt a responsibility.”

Ever the scientist, Carson’s work was not inflammatory, but rather cautious. For Carson, the question of pesticides was not a simple dichotomy: technology in agriculture was neither all-good nor all-evil. This point of view, Ferrari feels, is one that most people share.

“I think that the average person is conflicted and feels a little bit both ways,” she says. “They want the birds and the trees, but they want their cars, too. And it’s hard for most people to imagine stepping back from the trappings of civilization in a way that would preserve the environment. And so I think it’s a really hard conversation to have.”

And yet Carson was determined to have it. Hiding the terminal cancer she was battling, Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962, and it became an instant bestseller. Two years later, when Carson died, the environmental movement had already been sparked.

“In the ’60s, chemicals provided solutions to complex, often devastating challenges like famine and disease. Carson was the first person to point out there’s a price to be paid for that world,” says Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience. “She guided us towards an understanding of the interrelatedness of nature, and challenged us to think about our impact on the world around us.”

This, of course, is one key reason that this documentary is so timely, more than 50 years after Rachel Carson’s book was first published.

“I think that in many ways, we’ve been having that conversation continuously since the early 1960s,” says Ferrari. Maybe we’re no longer talking about DDT, but we are still discussing neonicotinoids, fracking, climate change, and often in the same terms. A talk that Carson gives in the film seems eerily contemporary, as she describes, in detail, the reactions of the farm bureaus in two Pennsylvania counties to “Silent Spring” and then – quoting journalists – says that, “No one we had spoken to had read the book but all disapproved of it.”

“I think she’d be extremely dismayed because while there’s a different manifestation of the problems, I think the problems are actually the same,” says Ferrari. “Because I think that the lesson — the overall lesson from Silent Spring, was not that DDT should be banned, but that we should approach our environment with caution and care. And that lesson has not been learned. I wouldn’t say that it’s been totally ignored; an entire environmental movement has grown up since that book. But it hasn’t been learned.”

“Rachel Carson” premieres on American Experience Tuesday, January 24, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, featuring the voice of Mary-Louise Parker as Rachel Carson.

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