SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
21 May 2015
Volume 16 Issue 5
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Rachel Carson Award: Rewarding Bold and Insightful Action

George Cobb, Baylor University and Chair of 2016 SETAC Rachel Carson Award Committee

Rachel Carson devoted much of her professional life to environmental stewardship and communication of those principles to the public. Her diligence and dedication was more than the simple publication of her seminal book, Silent Spring.  Although quite controversial during her lifetime, Silent Spring is now identified as a pivotal and integral event in the emergence of a widespread environmental consciousness. To honor those following in her tradition, the SETAC Rachel Carson Award was initiated by SETAC on the 25th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring. Carson was a scientist and science writer who, through her literary skills, increased awareness among the public for the natural world and potential threats to that world. To this end, Rachel Carson was recognized as a meticulous researcher who attempted to assemble and synthesize information and make that information accessible to the public. She worked hard to be sure of her facts. Her greatest mission was making the science accessible to a wider audience.

SETAC presented the first Rachel Carson Award to Sherwood Rowland in 1988 for seminal and diligent work in describing stratospheric ozone depletion. In 2016, the award recipient will join a storied group of ground-breaking environmental researchers, educators and policymakers in carrying on the tradition of Rachel Carson.  We invite and encourage all SETAC members to consider nominating candidates that you think rise to the example of environmental stewardship espoused by Rachel Carson.

During a ceremony at Chatham College, establishing Silent Spring as a National Chemical Heritage Landmark, I was struck by the repeated theme of the speakers as they described Rachel Carson’s ability to communicate wonders of the natural world to others, thereby improving their understanding of and piquing their interest in the natural world.  Speakers also powerfully addressed the diligence and courage with which Rachel Carson communicated potential threats that anthropogenic stressors present to ecosystem integrity and thus to human well-being. She presented concepts that had not been relayed in the popular press and that contradicted the image that humans were nearing of total understanding and control of the nature, energy and the cosmos.

Similarly, speakers at a 50th Anniversary SETAC Symposium in Long Beach, California, clearly described the aspects of modern environmental toxicology that were influenced by the questions posed by Rachel Carson. We often take for granted the balance that needs to be struck between agricultural and industrial productivity and healthy ecosystems, the environmental knowledge that we have gained in the areas of trophic transport or global distribution of persistent chemicals, and the impact that chemical releases can exert on beneficial predator species.

By making science more available and understandable to the public, Rachel Carson provided the language that allowed the public to ask critical questions about the virtues of industrialization. It is important to note that Rachel Carson was born in 1907 and had lived through global pandemics, two world wars, the advent of nuclear weapons, urbanization of the USA, telecommunications, antimicrobial medicines, visible and even frightening environmental pollution, mass production of automobiles, aircraft and many products, as well as early space travel.  She, her contemporaries and their progeny were probably all noticing the changes in the world and asking themselves “Do we really understand things as well as we think, and is all modernization actually good?”

Rachel Carson provided an answer that was controversial but well founded. Her diligence and eloquence provided a springboard for the endeavors that most of us pursue. The guiding elements of the SETAC Rachel Carson Award are:

  • A desire to help others understand and become more aware of the natural world and appreciate the potential threats that anthropogenic stressors may have on the integrity and functioning of that world
  • A demand for accuracy in assembling and using scientific facts to present, support and ultimately defend writings or other forms of communication
  • A broad view of environmental issues that includes habitat and physical impacts as well as chemicals
  • A recognition for the need for education
  • A desire to make science more accessible to the public
  • A voice for political change, even in the face of controversy

It is our hope that SETAC members will carefully consider these guiding elements and proactively nominate outstanding candidates who have worked in the tradition of Rachel Carson.

Instructions for preparing nomination packets can be found here.

Nominations are due in electronic form by 28 August 2015.

Author's contact information: George_Cobb@baylor.edu

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