Old notions die hard. That the oceans are a handy sink or toilet. Or, that they hold endless bounty for us to chow down on with melted butter and Old Bay seasoning. Conceiving of the deep blue sea as a living, fragile, and exploited ecosystem is challenging. Changes in the oceans and the living things in them are not very noticeable to the average beachgoer.
That we care at all about what happens to the oceans is due in large part to Rachel Carson.
Fifty years after her death, Carson is best known for her brilliant exposé about the dangers of pesticides in her 1962 bestselling book, Silent Spring. Carson is also, to a lesser-known degree, the mother of the movement to protect the oceans. Trained in marine biology at Johns Hopkins and the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, her trilogy of bestselling ocean books (Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea) is inspiring and scientifically sound reading. They warn, prophetically, of our ability to destroy such a vast portion of the globe as the oceans that make up over 70 percent of its surface.
It was Carson who first described for the American public the World War II ocean research that used sonar, bathyspheres, and submarines. She later studied the biological effects of atomic bombs on marine life at Bikini Atoll in 1946 during Operation Crossroads, the first U.S. test of nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Carson was deeply opposed to these tests and remained a staunch anti-nuclear advocate until she died.
She wrote a new preface to The Sea Around Us in the 1961 edition that discussed the dangers of nuclear testing to human health, and carefully explained why dumping radioactive waste at sea (even in concrete casks) was foolhardy. (The casks would break apart and minute marine organisms would absorb the radiation and pass it, ever more concentrated, up the food chain.)
Overfishing through huge mechanized trawlers and drag nets, rising ocean temperatures and acidification, dying coral reefs, rising sea levels—all would have been seen by Rachel Carson as part of one large, connected problem. And population growth—like molten magma or massive mountains at the sea floor—lies beneath the surface of our turbulent sea of troubles—too little observed, discussed, or understood.
Carson was concerned about humankind’s penchant to try to control the natural world. She considered it arrogant and hubristic. Carson knew and corresponded with Paul Ehrlich. Had she lived until its founding in 1968, she would have loved Population Connection (then ZPG).
Rachel Carson wrote eloquently about the evolution of all life from the oceans. And she warned that, unless we change our ways, having started in the sea, life could also end there.
Robert K. Musil is Chairman of the Population Connection Action Fund, President and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, and a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (Rutgers, 2014) is his newest book.