The Mythology – and Potential – of the Public Intellectual. Learning from Rachel Carson

litbonanza.jpg“It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks…the public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can only do so when in full possession of the facts…”[1]

In her crusade to galvanize the American public against what she considered an insidious enemy masquerading as progress, Rachel Carson combined rigorous science and compelling prose to convey her message. Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962, sparked public interest in, and outcry over, the growing use of chemical products for controlling plants and insects. Her work is considered a key catalyst of the second wave of environmentalism in the United States[2], and has had a profound and lasting effect.

What is remarkable about Carson’s approach is not just that she used science to support her claims, but that she successfully combined complex scientific findings with a public action message in a campaign that swept across a predominantly non-scientific audience. Chapter by chapter, via the New Yorker – a literary magazine – she released a call to arms against the rampant use of pesticides. She countered the chemical industry’s metaphors of societal protection and advancement that justified their work, by adopting their imagery and using the language of nuclear threat and reckless destruction. She challenged her audience to become aware of the concerns and to understand the issues. She emphasized individual impacts, and focused on making her arguments straightforward and comprehensible, but did so without oversimplifying the message; Carson took her readers seriously and treated them as capable of making reasoned and responsible choices.


The persona of Rachel Carson has taken on archetypal significance within the modern environmental movement. Carson is seen as a pivotal character in the process of raising social awareness about the environment, and represents the power of individual action in changing public attitudes and policy directions. Her legacy in the environmental movement was the product of her success as a public intellectual, and she successfully tapped into powerful imagery to convey her message to a skeptical public. Carson’s message overcame its opposition because of her ability to frame her arguments in the language of its critics combined with her capacity to capture accessible and personalized stories.

One lesson to be learned from Carson’s work is the power of the integration of information and narrative – our science has value only to the extent that we use it wisely, while our policies have merit only when we understand the nature of the world to which they apply. Carson’s work is an illustrative case of the critical importance of interdisciplinary thought and communication across sectors, and is particularly valuable as an example to those of us who wish to effect global change.

Public Intellectuals and Activism

Public intellectuals are symbolic figures in society, who represent social ideas and utopic visions rather than individual perspectives. Their influence and power comes from their ability to channel public fears and desires in specific directions, and to portray problems in personally affective ways. Rachel Carson made a shift from scientist to public intellectual through her writings, particularly with the release of Silent Spring. She created a powerful and lasting legacy by awakening the public imagination to the potential threats of government-approved chemicals and sanctioned pesticide programs.

Carson did this by appealing not only to intellect, but also to emotion. She said:“[I]f facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” For the uninitiated, Carson transformed scientific inquiry into something fascinating, exciting, and mysterious, but not incomprehensible, nor unreachable.

Fuller invokes powerful mythological images by comparing the role of the public intellectual to that of Eris, in Greek mythology, who “who provided the prized apple that occasioned Paris’s judgment of the most beautiful Greek goddess, thereby unwittingly sparking the Trojan War”[3]. He states that “[i]n a phrase, the public intellectual is a professional crisis-monger,”[4] a label that highlights their role as one of social provocation and disturbance. Carson fulfilled this role with her uncommon attack on an accepted and comfortable paradigm. However, Alcoff warns that “the purpose of reason, after all, is to establish belief and justify claims of certainty, not simply to destabilize”[5]. Challenging accepted norms and beliefs is an important element of the role of a scholar and researcher in the public domain, but as there is also a productive element to the role of the public intellectual. Carson’s attacks moved beyond an exposition of the problems to prescriptive advice. She offered constructive advice to her audience, by suggesting avenues for action.

Multiple possible roles have been suggested for the public intellectual, including acting “as independent harbingers of moral truths, as ‘priests’ guiding and pricking the nation’s conscience, and as ‘prophets’ bearing witness to the sins of the nation and pointing the road to redemption”[6]. This suggests that there is a prophetic role for the individual, and takes the academic out of the sphere of positive research and into the realm of normative prescriptions and judgments. Cushman similarly talks about the “civic duties of intellectuals”[7] to not just popularize academic work by translating its jargon, but to actually influence public action. We may shy away from the messianic role alluded to in these accounts, but should not consequently abandon the project of reaching out beyond our disciplines and institutions. This is a role not widely accepted by academics within the current establishment – but it is to our detriment, as academics and as citizens, to ignore this public role.

There is, in our society, a hunger for connection, a readiness of so many people to be helped in reconnecting to something that has been distanced. Intuitive curiosity is not an elite sentiment; although the research we undertake may require specialized skills, knowledge, and intellect, the product of this work should not remain cloistered. As scientist and as thinkers, we share a moral imperative to communicate this knowledge, with each other, across disciplinary boundaries, and outside the academic and research spheres. This is true not only of the natural sciences, but also of the social sciences and humanities – we must strive to explain the phenomena of the world into which we gain insight, as they have an impact on the unfolding of our existence on the planet.

The Power of Rhetoric

Carson’s success was based in part on her ability to communicate in the language of the dominant scientific paradigm. As someone trained in the sciences, she had more credibility in her contestation of the science of chemicals than an activist from outside the discipline. Her work, as noted earlier, reflected meticulous research and careful documentation, and she excluded even potentially powerful images if she lacked adequate scientific substantiation[8]. Moreover, her claims were based on human health and safety from a biological perspective, rather than outlining only a moral objection to chemical use.

However, the power of her message came equally from her ability to capture the public imagination as from her carefully documented research. De Neufville and Barton wrote of the power of myth – which they defined as “stories which draw on tradition and taken for granted knowledge”[9] – in defining the understanding of policy problems. Interpretive narratives influence the approach taken to dealing with social issues, and shape the perception of both the problems and the proposed solutions. Carson understood the importance of creating convincing stories and images to convey a new interpretation of agricultural practices and chemical products. In the face of emotionally-laden language used by the dominant powers in the chemical industry and mainstream politics, that labeled some insects as “pests” and plants as “weeds,” Carson was able to tap into an alternate set of images of nature and weave her own narrative of a threatened utopia. She provided a rationale for questioning the chemical approach to the natural world that revolved around symbols of pastoral beauty, and re-shaped pests into a myriad set of insects, and weeds into plant communities with distinct ecological roles. The power of language in the dominant paradigms of academia and of the policy world underscores the importance of providing alternate metaphors and imagery for issues of public concern.

The Danger – and Necessity – of Standing Up

In a discussion of the social role of religious scholars, McCutcheon clarifies that a public intellectual is a “publicly accountable intellectual”[10]. This distinction changes the role of the academic within society, from an impartial observer to an engaged participant, by holding them responsible for their claims and analyses. Carson’s convictions in the validity of her claims and message – both factually and morally – were particularly important, because she was personally held accountable for their content and implications.

Carson was attacked as a person by the chemical industry she threatened – to discredit her message, they had to discredit her person. Carson was forced to defend not only her academic credibility but also her personal life. This criticism of both her person and her work illustrates the danger in provoking social reaction and in challenging status quo systems. It also highlights the necessity of having public figures who are willing to bear the burden of public scrutiny, and the importance of supporting the individuals who do this. While we may debate their arguments and the content of their claims (we need not agree with the message put forth by these public figures), we must nevertheless aim to support their role in society, and promote the dialogue that they engender.

For the position of a public intellectual to have transformatory power, an individual must transcend being a person with a message and must become an emblem of that message; however, the humanity of the individuals who take on these roles must be supported and protected. Rachel Carson’s lasting impression on the social environmental consciousness resulted from her ability to utilize meaningful symbols at a human scale to impart her criticism of mainstream social and political choices. Carson took on the burden of accountability for an unpopular message within the framework of scientific and societal norms of the time, and her legacy is in the bravery of that action.

We are, at the moment, at the edge of tremendous changes to our world. We are watching glaciers melt, seeing geological processes at tipping points, observing the effects of processes that we do not yet understand. We are also in a moment of political and social opportunity and upheaval, where the possibilities are open, and the direction has not yet been set. Our knowledge is piecemeal, incomplete, and uncertain; we are testing the limits of our understanding of our planet, and it is a time of great potential and grave danger.

We are poised at a unique moment in history that we cannot afford to let pass us by. In the academic world, we are in a position to forge the new directions, as we have incredible communities upon which to draw – we are connected through mechanisms of communication that allow collaboration and innovation beyond what we could accomplish individually. We should take from Rachel Carson the hope that her actions conveyed: that great change can come through research, that people do want to know more, and that narrative can bridge the gap. We need not all take on a public role to engage in this process: Carson’s influence came from her ability to synthesize work across many fields, which relied on the willingness of many researchers to take the time and effort to share their findings with her, and explain the significance and the debates. We must support our public intellectuals – question their conclusions, but champion their causes; critique their claims, but provide them with alternative information. We need to communicate our research more clearly, participate in dialogue and explanation, and engage with the issues of our time in collaborative, constructive, critical, and public ways. We have the potential to effect great change, even in the most improbable of cases, and even on the most intractable of problems.

References

1. P. 13 in: Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York.

2. Scott, W.R. 2002. Organizations and the Natural Environment: Evolving Models. Chapter 20 in: Organizations, Policy, and the Natural Environment: Institutional and Strategic Perspectives. Eds. Hoffman, A., and M. Ventresca. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA. Pp. 453-464.

3. P. 148 in: Fuller, S. 2006. The Public Intellectual as Agent of Justice: In Search of a Regime. Philosophy and Rhetoric. 39(2): 147-156.

4. Ibid.

5. P. 533 in: Alcoff, L.M. 2002. Does the Public Intellectual Have Intellectual Integrity? Metaphilosophy. 33(5): 521-534.

6. P. 262 in: English, R. and M. Kenny. 2001. Public Intellectuals and the Question of British Decline. British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 3(3): 259-283

7. P. 330 in: Cushman, E. 1999. The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research. College English. 61(3): 328-336.

8. Carson’s comments about an eight-legged frog in her drafts of Silent Spring (accessed at the Beinecke Library at Yale University), noted that she would include the information if she could find convincing evidence. Its absence in the final version of the book suggests that she was not able to substantiate the claim.

9. P. 181 in: De Neufville, J.I., and S.E. Barton. 1987. Myths and the definition of policy problems: An exploration of home ownership and public-private partnerships. Policy Sciences. 20: 181-206.

10. P. 453 in: McCutcheon, R.T. 1997. A Default of Critical Intelligence? The Scholar of Religion as Public Intellectual. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 65(2): 443-468

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terryman

Kate started a PhD in political science at UBC this year, looking at conflict and cooperation over freshwater, particularly for rivers that cross international borders. When not immersed in coursework, or reading about dams and drought, she can usually be found outdoors.

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