Op-Ed: In Praise Of Rachel Carson And Public Service; Happy Birthday Rachel Carson!
By James M. Seif, Former Secretary, Department of Environmental Protection
[Note: PA Environment Digest is reprinting this appreciation of Pennsylvania's Rachel Carson in honor of her birthday on May 27. She was born in 1907 and died in 1964, but her legacy and spirit lives on in the modern, science-based environmental movement.]
Are you a public servant?
In a democracy, we all are servants. But for those who officially wear the "uniform of public service," as former Gov. Tom Ridge puts it, April 19 marks a day of stark contrasts.
On that day in 1995 we had planned to honor public servants in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Ridge had readily agreed with our proposal at the Department of Environmental Resources to rename the Market Street State Office Building in honor of Rachel Carson.
A native of Springdale, Pa. on the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh, and a graduate of Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University, she wrote one the most influential books of the twentieth century - "Silent Spring."
Carson's 1962 tome touched off the public environmental debate that has continued -sometimes quite vigorously, as in current times -- for the next six decades.
But on that same morning, a small group of demented misfits carried out an elaborate plan to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Bldg. in Oklahoma City, Okla.
They took 168 lives - almost all of them federal employees; 15 were their children in the building's day care center.
Injuries numbered nearly 700.
These people were targeted exactly because they were public servants; because ringleader Timothy McVeigh was obsessed by his theories of federal law enforcement conspiracies and survivalist fantasies.
We learned of the Oklahoma City attack just before the ceremony. But we decided to go ahead. Rachel Carson was not just a public servant for her pioneering work on the environment, but she was in fact an actual federal government employee for many years.
"Silent Spring" and Carson's several earlier works have put her in our memory as a writer.
But, at the front entrance of "her building" on April 19, 1995 we remembered also that she was a career civil servant for many years.
After getting her MS in Biology at Johns Hopkins, she joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the next two decades, she did research in both laboratory and field, all over the United States, and lots of writing, including government pamphlets and magazine articles, as well as another book, "Under the Sea Wind."
Her undergraduate degree, in fact, was in English, not biology. Because, as she put it, understanding was key, but being able explain is just as important.
It has long been part of our culture to be skeptical, even suspicious, about government in general.
This can be healthy, and it makes for a lot good newspaper cartoons. But today's rants and mindless criticism simply go too far. Let's remember that these people work for the common good, to help others, to educate, and to protect us.
We mourned public servants on April 19, 1995, with the same sentiments we feel on Memorial Day. And we also celebrated public service.
Remember that Timothy McVeigh was executed, and that Rachel Carson's spirit of public service lives forever.
James M. Seif is a former secretary of the Pennsylvania departments of Environmental Resources and Environmental Protection from 1995 to 2001.
[Editor: During his tenure as DEP Secretary, the agency won more national and international awards for its initiatives than any other state environmental agency in history, including for the brownfields recycling program that has been copied by other states, the federal government and by other countries.
[Seif also served as Regional Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Region 3, as an Administrative Assistant to Gov. Dick Thornburgh, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh and an Assistant Attorney General in Washington, D.C.
[He received a Lifetime Award for Public Service from the National Academy of Public Administration for his 30-year state and federal government service and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Environmental and Energy Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
[Linda Lear’s book-- Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature-- mentions the relationship of two professional women (a rarity at the time) from Pittsburgh who were classmates at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) and shared a mutual interest in biology-- Rachel Carson and Dorothy Thompson Seif, Jim Seif’s mother. The women worked, corresponded and visited together until Rachel Carson died in 1964.
[In a 1987 interview in the Los Angeles Times, Dorothy Thompson Seif said of Rachel Carson, "The thing that's so remarkable about her is that she was ordinary.
["I remember we were working late one night in the laboratory, and she stopped and looked through the darkened window. She said, 'I've always wanted to write, but I haven't much imagination. Biology has given me something to write about. I'd like someday to make the animals and plants and woods as interesting to others as they are to me.’”
[Dorothy Thompson Seif collected the letters between them in an unpublished, "Letters from Rachel Carson: A Young Scientist Sets Her Course.”
[Rachel Carson 1907 - 1964.]
[Posted: May 26, 2019]
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