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Before Earth Day, before ‘Silent Spring,’ Rachel Carson introduced life’s synergy

By David Pendered

Rachel Carson’s 1951 book can be argued as the impetus of Earth Day, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today and through the week with multiple digital gatherings. And the book is not Silent Spring, published in 1962.

earth day live, youths

Organizers of Earth Day Live 2020 are trying to build on the momentum of teen climate strikes in several countries in 2019, including one in Atlanta. Credit: earthdaylive2020.org

The Sea Around Us cemented Carson’s position as a premier naturalist writer. Carson was 44 years old when her second book was awarded a National Book Award for Nonfiction, in 1952, and later was published in 30 languages. The Sea Around Us brings observations on human life beginning in the sea and continuing its relation with the sea:

  • “And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.”

Eleven years after The Sea Around Us, Carson published Silent Spring – a book denounced by the nation’s industrial community that would go on to galvanize an environmental revolution that seeks to bend the trajectory of humankind’s heavy imprint on the natural world.

Carson’s language is far from shrill, viewed in today’s perspective, as she describes the threat from manmade chemicals applied to kill insects and unwanted vegetation:

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson and wildlife artist Bob Hines looked for specimens in the Florida Keys in about 1955. Hines drew illustrations that appeared in Carson’s third book, ‘The Edge of the Sea.’ Credit: USFWS National Digital Library

  • “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials….
  • “All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.”

Earth Day’s co-founder and first coordinator, Denis Hayes, likewise requires a bit of acceptance for being less than shrill in his early days, at least in terms of his carbon footprint and as viewed in today’s perspective.

Hayes recalls that heady experience on the first Earth Day, when he flew on airplanes to visit sites in Washington, New York and Chicago. Hayes’ carbon footprint that day does not comport in today’s era of flight shame, where individuals are held publicly accountable for their CO2 emissions. Swedish teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg brought the concept to the world stage.

In a Q/A published on a page of EarthDay.org, Hayes observes of the first Earth Day:

earth day live 2020, online

Earth Day Live 2020 has shaped up like a South by Southwest event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Credit: earthdaylive2020.org

  • “Well, I started out in my incredibly drenched basement one-room apartment off Dupont Circle and walked down to the Mall in Washington, D.C., to join in a sunrise ceremony with Native Americans welcoming the sun to bless the day.
  • “I then flew up to New York, where I addressed a massive crowd on Fifth Avenue. Mayor Lindsay had blocked off more than 40 blocks of Fifth Avenue, and we filled it up with demonstrators….
  • “After that, I went to Chicago, with demonstrations organized mostly by [progressive community activist] Saul Alinsky, so it was much feistier than the New York event. I flew back to Washington, D.C., late that afternoon. I did press roundups of the day on a couple of national television shows and met most of Earth Day’s staff late at night for staff drinks and beer. We were settling down with exhaustion and feeling good about the way the day had gone.”

Note to readers: Earth Day Live 2020 is branded as, “We can’t take to the streets, so we’ll take to the internet: Earth Day Live.” Stacy Abrams is to deliver her message Friday at 4 p.m.. The event is billed as, “a three-day livestream where millions of people can join activists, celebrities, musicians, and more in an epic moment of community and hope for the future.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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