Skip to navigationSkip to content
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
No place for a politician.
NOT SILENT

60 years before Trump, Rachel Carson warned that politicizing science “returns us to the dark ages”

By Corinne Purtill

The US Senate is expected to vote this week to confirm Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. A lawyer and politician, Pruitt has a less-than-friendly history with the agency president Donald Trump has appointed him to run. The climate-change denier has sued the EPA 14 times (paywall), criticized its “activist agenda,” and let the fossil-fuel industry draft rebukes to the agency on his letterhead.

This isn’t the first time in US history that the nation’s environmental regulation has ended up in hostile hands. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration removed respected scientist Albert M. Day as director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which was the Department of Interior agency responsible for overseeing conservation in the US before the EPA’s creation in 1970. Eisenhower installed in his place John L. Farley, a political appointee with no science training.

One of the most vocal critics of Farley’s appointment was Rachel Carson, then the editor-in-chief for all of Fish and Wildlife Service publications. Carson would go onto fame with the publication of her 1962 book Silent Spring, which galvanized the American environmental movement and led indirectly to the EPA’s creation.

After Farley’s appointment in 1953, the biologist fired off a letter to the editor of the Washington Post that was reprinted by the Associated Press and Reader’s Digest—the midcentury equivalent, Maria Popova at Brain Pickings noted, “of going wildly viral.” Carson wrote:

The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth—soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.

By long tradition, the agencies responsible for these resources have been directed by men of professional stature and experience, who have understood, respected, and been guided by the findings of their scientists….

These actions within the Interior Department fall into place beside the proposed giveaway of our offshore oil reserves and the threatened invasion of national parks, forests and other public lands.

For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.

Carson ended with a critique that cuts just as sharp today as it must have six decades ago: “It is one of the ironies of our times that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.”