The Bible in Environmental Ethics: A Re-Visioning of Rachel Carson’s Apocalyptic Language inSilent Spring Kristel A. Clayville When Rachel Carson first published Silent Spring, it was seen as a call for people to pay attention to even the smallest and seemingly invisible parts of nature as integral to the functioning of the natural world. It is indeed hard to get people to see something they haven’t seen before, but what Carson achieved was in fact different, and harder: in Silent Spring, she does not only call for previously ignored minute parts of nature to be included in the dominant paradigm, but in fact urges her readers to reject that paradigm wholeheartedly, in favor of a different approach that is, by her account, necessary for a true appreciation of nature, as well as for a genuine understanding of what is at stake in the environmental crisis. Likewise, Carson’s fellow environmentalist Holmes Rolston asserts that, “‘Seeing’ is universally ‘seeing as.’ We interpret what we see in order to see it.”These two short sentences at the beginning of Rolston’s section on models, patterns, and paradigms in religious and scientific thinking are pithy. Drawing on both modern philosophy (Heidegger) and his own Reformed tradition (Calvin), Rolston describes our reality as metaphorically structured, thus suggesting that humans are fundamentally interpreting creatures. He also uses a visual metaphor, drawn from Calvin, to give further detail to how we humans structure our reality. Thus, our interpretations are not simply about the past or the contemporary moment, but they give us a vision, or a horizon toward which to move. Yet, the question remains: which lens or lenses are we going to use to focus and give clarity to our vision? Or to put it differently, which symbolic forms and structures are we going to use as our interpretive context, providing us with a focal point on our horizon? Much work in environmental ethics has abandoned religious lenses or symbolic forms with the exception of apocalyptic language; moreover, the apocalyptic language of contemporary environmental ethics is often traced back to Silent Spring. But unlike contemporary writers, Rachel Carson did not use apocalyptic language simply to evoke emotional responses from her readers; rather, Carson used it to counter the dominant narrative of human progress and the implied ethics that were drawn from the biblical creation story.
In this essay, I propose that Rachel Carson, like Holmes Rolston, was commenting on the structure of human perception and understanding in Silent Spring, and that her use of apocalyptic language was a response to her cultural and intellectual environment, as well as an attempt at correcting our vision of human-nature relations and our interpretive frameworks. In short, Carson saw humans as fundamentally interpreting creatures and sought to grind lenses to correct our vision. In doing so, Carson drew on a historical form of apocalyptic and its ethical foundations to counter the general assumption that human progress comes through the domination of nature. Thus, her apocalyptic language is both a source of ethical thinking embedded in the form of her argument, and is a counter-narrative to the diluted and generalized readings of the biblical creation story that funded and rationalized much of human scientific progress. By drawing on apocalypticism, Carson counters one biblical tradition and its ethical implications with another, and in doing so, she ultimately puts pressure on the assumed form of discourse in which the creation story participates. In the end, Carson’s apocalypticism alters our vision not only of the world around us, but also of the biblical text that led to our anthropocentric vision, thereby opening up new potential interpretations to aid and accompany our altered vision.
This essay will proceed by 1.) addressing the received narrative of human progress and its biblical foundation as part of Carson’s intellectual and cultural environment; 2.) discussing Carson’s use of apocalyptic language as part of the macro-structure of her argument and as a response to the narrative of human progress; and 3.) specifying the consequences of Carson’s apocalyptic response for readings of the biblical creation story and its potential uses in environmental ethics.
1. The Biblical Creation Story: Human Progress at the Expense of Nature
Rachel Carson’s intellectual and cultural environment was saturated with the narrative of human progress, many times at the expense of nature. The most well-known scholarly article to point toward the source of this narrative was Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” which argued that Christianity and Judaism were responsible for the predominant worldview based on the dualism between humans and nature. This Judeo-Christian worldview puts humans at the center of concern and value as “created in the image of God,” and further encourages humans to use nature to exhibit such dominance and to achieve human oriented ends. While White’s critiques are not particularly nuanced, he provided two critiques that have shaped the debate about the use of the Bible in environmental ethics. First, he identified a set of relationships between biblical text, Judeo-Christian tradition, worldview, and human action. Second, he pointed to Genesis 1:26-28 as the main problematic text that underscores human distinctiveness from nature, and human dominion over nature. These two problems work together to show that what we think about the Bible and how or if we think with it has a direct effect on contemporary worldviews.
White’s critiques sparked a significant recovery effort on the part of biblical scholars and theologians, who began to offer new interpretations of Genesis 1:26-28 in an effort to reform how we think about nature. But, while the problem identified by White is the relationship between biblical text, Judeo-Christian tradition, worldview, and human action, the responses were predominantly organized around the discussion of human being—in part because they were organized around reinterpreting what it means to be created in God’s image. The assumption was that if we could figure out what it means to be made in God’s image, then we could move from there to defining moral and immoral action. Other thinkers, particularly those without any prior allegiance to religious texts or traditions, saw in White’s critique a call for abandoning religious texts altogether. Carson’s Silent Spring undermines both of these positions by decentering humans as the starting point for discussions of morality, and by confronting inherited interpretations of biblical texts head on.
While White’s seminal article post-dates Carson’s death, I contend that White’s description of the role of the Bible and the worldviews it encouraged saturated Carson’s intellectual and cultural environment. In fact, on my reading of Silent Spring, Carson jumpstarts the conversation about the use of the Bible in environmental ethics prior to Lynn White’s article and in a sophisticated and subtle way; namely, by using a competing strand of the biblical tradition as a corrective lens to the received narrative of progress. Carson was not a biblical scholar, nor was biblical interpretation at the forefront of her work, but her intellectual environment included conversations about biblical interpretation and its relationship to human action in contemporary culture, and therefore intentionally or not, her work is a response to this environment.
The contours of the narrative of human progress to which Carson responded are the inheritance of the biblical literalism that began in the Early Modern period and are characterized by the shifting definitions of “subdue” and “have dominion” in Genesis 1:26-28. While “subdue” and “have dominion” may seem like transparent terms to the modern reader, the Patristic and Medieval interpreters read these terms as psychological and spiritual symbols. Generally, “having dominion” over nature referred to controlling your own human nature and desires in the Patristic period, while in the Medieval period dominion was interpreted as seeking knowledge about nature. Natural objects mentioned in the biblical text functioned as symbols that referred to spiritual realities. In both cases, “having dominion” was about reaching toward another world, not about controlling the existing material world. In these earlier periods, the literal readings of these texts are subordinated to the spiritual and moral readings. In the 17th century, with the rise of Protestantism, interpretive upheavals abound. As Peter Harrison notes, Protestants emphasized the Word of God, with the consequence that words alone have referential meaning. Thus, the words about nature in the text could not refer to spiritual realities or parts of the human soul—they referred directly to their analogues in the material world. Harrison goes on to argue that “subdue” and “have dominion” were part of a larger theological project of restoring nature after the Fall. Not only had humans suffered the Fall, but nature had also become more difficult to live in and work with. In fact, the view of nature as full of weeds and pests that Rachel Carson ascribes to “the man with the spray gun (85)” is similar to the view of nature as fallen and in need of restoration. Biblical literalism in its theological context blended with the rise of science, which was employed in the restoration project.
In Lynn White’s view, and what I argue is Rachel Carson’s context, the literal reading method became dissociated from its restorative theological context, and consequently the reading method took on a life of its own. Without its theological moorings, the literal reading method could be used to justify innumerable scientific advancements under the guise of “subduing” and “having dominion” over nature as part of human action that is in accord with being “made in the image of God.” In public discourse much of the theological context was obscured and White’s argument took the form of criticizing the ethics in the Bible as if they were normative for Judaism and Christianity. While many thinkers have countered White’s claims, the point here is simply to paint the background landscape of Carson’s intellectual and cultural environment.
The ethics that White and others see in the biblical creation story and permeating culture are anthropocentric and depend on hierarchy and an inanimate description of nature. The ethics are anthropocentric in that only human needs and desires determine the scale of values and appropriate actions. Moral considerability is part of a hierarchical scale based on the days of creation, with the assumption that the simpler parts of nature were created earlier and the more complex parts of nature were created later. This anthropocentric logic places humans at the pinnacle of creation due to complexity, but also due to being “made in the image of God.” Nature is the inanimate backdrop against which humans exercise their godliness. Human actions in nature are justifiable because the material world exists simply for human consumption. Moreover, the understanding of history that this reading implies is one of continual progress. Over time humans become progressively more skilled at being god-like and have even more control over nature. Progress begets progress without end. Though the theological context of these ethics has been stripped away, it is worth noting that if the theological context remained, then the view of history would be qualified by having a theological telos, or end. Human dominion over nature would be part of a restoration project, such that progress is in service of returning to an earlier and more pristine version of both nature and humanity, and the relationship between the two. Within the theological context, history is parabolic rather than linear and unending. Furthermore, in the theological context, human action within history has an effect on the course of history, while in the theologically barren reading human action effects the human movement toward godliness, but it does not change the course of history. History, like nature, can be seen as a simple stage for human action.
Carson’s investment in countering the narrative of human progress is easily discerned in Silent Spring’s dedication, epigraph, and concluding paragraph—the passages that frame her argument. Carson dedicates Silent Spring to Albert Schweitzer, giving a prominent place in her own text to his following words, “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” These words from Schweitzer not only show Carson’s indebtedness to his theology of the reverence for life, but also give her book a plan. Carson aims to correct our vision so that we will be able to foresee the consequences of our actions, and possibly forestall them. Schweitzer’s words, on my reading, serve as a program for Silent Spring.
In addition to the dedication, Carson includes two epigraphs in Silent Spring. The first epigraph is by Keats and provides the inspiration for the book’s title and the title of some of its chapters. The second epigraph, by E.B. White picks up on the themes of “subdue” and “have dominion.” E.B. White writes, “I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.” Submission and dictatorship mark the human relationships to nature that are untenable long-term and must be addressed. Furthermore, White points out that the human attitude of dominating nature leads to new kinds of technologies, which ultimately lead humans to flee the planet. While Silent Spring itself is a response to this epigraph, Carson also addressed these issues elsewhere. In a speech entitled “The Real World Around Us” given in 1954, Carson states the problem pointedly:
Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, with steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water. Perhaps he is intoxicated with his own power, as he goes farther and farther into experiments for the destruction of himself and his world. For this unhappy trend there is no single remedy—no panacea. But I believe that the more clearly we focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction (Lost Woods 163).
We have distanced ourselves from nature and fled to a world of our own creation. Carson offers the initial corrective step of refocusing our perceptions of the world around us. This refocusing will not only change our perceptions of the place of humans in nature and with respect to technology, but will also change the kinds of knowledge that are sought: knowledge of nature rather than knowledge from and at the expense of nature.
Human power and its effects on the environment and consequently its boomerang effect on humans is an enduring theme in Carson’s late work. In writing to her friend Dorothy Freeman about how unsatisfied humans seem to be with life on this planet alone or in accommodating ourselves to this planet, Carson writes:
I suppose my thinking began to be affected soon after atomic science was firmly established…in pre-Sputnik days, it was easy to dismiss so much as science fiction fantasies. Now the most farfetched schemes seem entirely possible of achievement. And man seems actually likely to take into his hands—ill-prepared as he is psychologically—many of the functions of ‘God (qtd. in Freeman 248-9).
Scientific developments have changed our perceptions of our own abilities. But our scientific knowledge alone does not prepare us for the consequences of scientific capacities. For Carson, modern science is moving us toward being god-like, which is a subtle interpretation of how the biblical creation story functions culturally in her time. The themes of perception and how we think about ourselves reverberate in the final paragraph of Silent Spring. Carson writes:
The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth (Silent Spring 297).
The disjunct between how we think about ourselves and the power we wield over nature has created an interpretive lacuna with ethical consequences. Philosophy and science along with technological know-how must develop in parallel. Carson was surely aware that the development of science could not necessarily be slowed with a single book, yet philosophy and ethics could be provoked to make heroic strides to catch up to the pace of scientific and technological development. Paradoxically, this involves a return to the sources of our ethical thinking. Carson makes this shift explicitly in her 1962 graduation address at Scripps College, where she was unambiguous about the sources of the arrogance that she warned against in Silent Spring. She writes,
In the western world our thinking has for many centuries been dominated by the Jewish-Christian concept of man’s relation to nature, in which man is regarded as the master of all the earth’s inhabitants. Out of this there easily grew the thought that everything on earth—animate or inanimate, animal, vegetable, or mineral—and indeed the earth itself—had been created expressly for man (Of Man and the Stream of Time 7).
Later in that same speech Carson refers to this attitude as “self-oriented philosophy” that has worked itself into the “shadows of the subconscious.” The prevalence of this domineering attitude requires that we be more concerned about whether we should do things that we now know we can do, and that science be held to higher standards. In addition she ends the address with a charge to the next generation to be more aware of what happens in the natural world. She writes, “Instead of always trying to impose our will on Nature we should sometimes be quiet and listen to what she has to tell us (ibid 10).” Carson’s own apocalyptic language aids in this goal by animating nature and de-emphasizing humans, thereby giving nature enough agency to require that we pay attention to her.
2. Carson’s Apocalyptic Language
Rachel Carson responds to the aforementioned intellectual and cultural context by countering the dominant biblical creation story and its concomitant ethics with the powerful language of apocalypticism and its associated ethics. But in order to understand Carson’s apocalyptic language as a response to the context described above, the distinctive nature of her apocalyptic language must be fleshed out and analyzed differently than it has been in previous studies of Silent Spring.
Carson has been contextualized as part of a larger stream of apocalyptic discourse in the United States after World War II, and as bringing the genre of apocalyptic to science writing from fiction of the time. She has been called the founder of environmental apocalypticism, and she has been read alongside the biblical books of Revelation, Daniel, and 1 John, yet her blending of apocalyptic language and with a future vision that also draws on the historical past aligns her more closely with the biblical prophets. The strategy of reading Carson mentioned above contextualizes her within an eschatological apocalyptic tradition, but this reading simplifies her ethical project by systematically discounting the form of her argument, which bears little similarity to eschatological ethics. I contend that Carson’s apocalyptic language draws on the prophetic dimensions of apocalypticism rather than on the eschatological dimensions, and therefore posits a more nuanced ethics and relationship to history than has previously been acknowledged. Furthermore, her relationship to prophetic apocalypticism is communicated through the form of her argument. Before turning to the macro-structure of Carson’s argument in Silent Spring, a brief overview of previous scholarship on Carson’s apocalypticism with an emphasis on the relationship between history and ethics they imply is in order.
Much has been made of the apocalyptic language in Silent Spring. Carson’s language choices have been used to characterize the text as emotional rather than thoughtful. Many of these critiques have been considered a part of the sexism that Carson faced as an outspoken female scientist of her time. William Darby’s review of Silent Spring refers to Carson as “overly emotional” and suggests that her book is merely a “list of anxieties.”1 Michael Smith, writing for Time magazine, characterizes the book as an “emotional outburst.”2 These insults to Carson’s work are also dismissals of her work due to its apocalyptic language, and they stem not only from sexism, but also from a prejudice against religion in a post-Enlightenment scientific world. Yet Carson was a literary stylist who paid great attention to the medium of her message. For instance, in explaining her choices in writing Under the Sea Wind, Carson writes:
I believe the most popular books about the ocean are written from the viewpoint of a human observer…I was determined to avoid this human bias as much as possible….So I decided that the author as a person or a human observer should never enter the story, but that it should be told as a simple narrative of the lives of certain animals of the sea. As far as possible, I wanted my readers to feel that they were, for a time, actually living the lives of sea creatures.3 Here Carson demonstrates a rational basis for her stylistic choices. Rather than giving emotional or sentimental reasons for her choices, she talks about the impact on the reader that she can have by shifting the narrative point of view. Carson is aware of her power as an author to create worlds for the reader to inhabit. This is not only due to her own approach to reading, but also to her witnessing of the narrative impact of the biblical creation story and how the perceived point of view and genre of the story constrict our thinking about nature.
In a volume devoted to Carson’s rhetoric, Christine Oravec analyzes Carson’s inventional process for “A Fable for Tomorrow,” which is the opening chapter of Silent Spring and also the focus of most of the attention given to Carson’s use of apocalyptic language. Oravec studies the various drafts and materials that Carson consulted and produced during the writing of this chapter of the book and demonstrates that Carson molded the language to fit her audience and that she was highly conscious of the form of her argument.4 By highlighting the intentional crafting of Carson’s argument and writing style, Oravec’s insights provide significant counterweight to the charge of mere emotionalism in Carson’s use of apocalyptic language. Oravec’s study suggests that the apocalyptic voice reflects an intentional use of a historical form rather than a spontaneous and intemperate response.
A language-oriented analysis of Carson’s apocalyptic also appears in Lawrence Buell’s Environmental Imagination, which argues among other things that the genre of environmental apocalypse in American writing began with Silent Spring.5 Buell describes Carson as blending the American pastoral tradition with that of apocalyptic, and as using the master metaphor of the web, which emphasizes the integrity of relationships within the natural world. Carson’s “web of life” works against anthropocentrism and the hierarchy of relationships posited by the literal readings of the biblical creation story. While apocalypse provides the necessary change in perception by arousing the imagination, Buell also asserts that in the American tradition, pastoral logic undergirds the environmental apocalypse because there must be an untouched antecedent state of existence that depicts a peaceful coexistence with nature in order for the metaphor of apocalypse to be meaningful. If we were ceaselessly at war with nature, then the shift to using apocalyptic language would be meaningless. While Buell’s study points out that Carson was mainly interested in the perception of environmental problems, and that she sought to change the common understandings of the problems, it does not take into account the relationship between history and ethics that animates Carson. Buell’s description of the relationship between the apocalyptic elements in the book and the pastoral suggests that Carson advocated a romantic return to a pristine beginning. But it seems unlikely that she would have sacrificed what that pristine beginning required, specifically scientific inquiry. Her call was for restraint of human power, not a return to a pre-scientific time. In fact, her conclusion to Silent Spring bemoans the primitive outlook coupled with technological advances, but does not condemn the pursuit of knowledge or scientific progress more generally.
While the study of Carson’s apocalyptic language has neglected ethics, the studies of her ethics have avoided her apocalyptic language. Philip Cafaro argues that Carson avoided complicated ethical arguments and instead focused on “simple appeals to widely held values,” and encouraged experiences of nature as the foundation for ethical relationships with it.6 He claims that her plea for restraint rests on three equal foundations: considerations of human health, the moral considerability of non-human beings, and the value to humans of preserving wild nature and diverse landscapes. These foundations of ethical relationships with nature are rounded out by the themes of critiquing the sole focus on the economy, a critique of the human war on nature, and her warnings concerning the increased artificiality and simplicity of the nature around us. If Carson advocates any ethical imperatives, Cafaro suggests that they are drawn from her non-anthropomorphic position, and that they are: “Respect Nature! Know Nature! Place yourself in proper perspective!”7 Carson conjoins the intellectual and ethical challenges, not unlike many earlier ethical traditions in which knowledge of the good leads to right action.8 She suggests that knowledge or science become the key to human activity, and that knowing about nature will lead to an altered relationship with it. The general tone of Silent Spring and Carson’s ongoing use of war imagery suggest to this reader that she did not have the optimistic view of humanity that this theory of ethics requires. Ultimately, for Carson, moral failing is not merely an intellectual failing, though knowledge is a necessary component in cultivating a moral attitude toward nature.
While Cafaro gives a robust philosophical account of Carson’s environmental ethics in Silent Spring, he argues that religion did not play a large role in the ethics that Carson advocated. Cafaro notes that Carson was interested in provoking a sense of wonder in her readers and that experience is fundamental to her ethics, but neither of these central features of her work have religious roots in Cafaro’s reading, though he does allow that for Carson the term reverence could be related to intrinsic value, but that does not add a theological layer to his interpretation of her ethical outlook in Silent Spring.
While Cafaro does not see religion as a major component of Carson’s writing and ethics, Lisa Sideris probes Carson’s early childhood influences, many of which were religious in kind. Sideris convincingly shows that religion was a part of Carson’s life; her mother was devout; she read nature stories with biblical undertones; and she was influenced by Albert Schweizer and his theology of reverence for life.9 Along with Carson’s Calvinistic roots, Sideris sees in Carson a Jobian perspective that decenters humans and focuses on the vastness of nature. Humans are not only decentered, but are small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the ocean and the movements of the wind. Like Calvin, Carson is focused on knowledge of the world as a good, and thus argues that knowledge leads to reverence and humility, which are essential to her vision of proper human-nature relationships. As Sideris herself notes, apocalyptic language is part of the religious tradition to which Carson subscribed and could be seen as a rhetorical form that helps us to cultivate a sense of wonder.
Though Cafaro and Sideris do not see the apocalyptic language as a direct source of ethics, scholarly attention to the apocalyptic language in Silent Spring only aids their arguments. The imperatives that Cafaro discerns in Carson’s work can only be put into action if the apocalyptic language she uses is taken seriously as part of her argument and not simply a flourish. The apocalyptic language is part of our historical knowledge and becomes a path to attaining new knowledge about ourselves and the natural world. Unless we can see the natural world through Carson’s eyes as animate and reacting to human action, then her imperatives have no force behind them and cultivating a sense of wonder becomes significantly more difficult. Sideris discerns in Carson’s de-centering of human life a Jobian perspective in her work. I concur and think that this Jobian perspective facilitates a sense of wonder that Carson’s apocalyptic language reinforces. While the Jobian perspective and the apocalyptic language work together to produce a sense of wonder for Carson’s reader, the ethical and historical backdrop of these traditions are quite different. On my reading, the Jobian perspective relies on the theological backdrop of God intentionally and selectively animating nature to use against Job. The apocalyptic language that Carson uses also has a theological backdrop, but the God of this theology is not as close to nature. This God has animated nature for its own sake, not for selective use against humans. In apocalyptic traditions, the theological backdrop allows nature to speak for itself rather than only at the whims of God. Put succinctly, nature in the book of Job is an extension of God and God’s will, while in apocalyptic traditions, nature retains some agency and animation from the time of creation, and can therefore respond without God’s direction. Nevertheless, the Jobian perspective of the human in relation to nature is prevalent in Carson’s work. I am simply arguing that the Jobian perspective specifically on nature is not readily discernable in her work, but rather that a description of nature as always animated and ready to defend itself lies behind her apocalyptic language.
On my reading, Carson’s apocalyptic language has intentional argumentative force and this observation only reinforces the arguments in previous studies of Carson’s environmental ethics. Simply combining the studies of her apocalyptic language and those of her environmental ethics does not account for the way her apocalyptic language shapes the content of her ethical argument. Ultimately, a combination of the current studies on Carson’s language and ethics suggests that Carson advocated eschatological thinking regarding nature; in this paradigm human action toward nature is not particularly encouraged because there is no psychological disposition to act. Human action in history does not change the course of events. Eschatological thinking emphasizes divine action and the perpetual deferral of resolutions to human problems. Many of the language oriented analyses of Carson’s work see her apocalyptic language as a source of eschatological thinking, but that reading cannot account for the ethics that Cafaro and Sideris attribute to Carson, nor can it yoke the form of argument with the content. The eschatological dimension of apocalyptic implies specific descriptions of the world that in turn imply certain ethical claims. First, it posits an end or goal toward which history is moving. Second, it is characterized by metaphysical and moral dualisms that lead to a vision of embodied evil forces that are seen as agents of change. History itself is a flow of events to be weathered and often influenced by the good and evil sides. Humans can align themselves with a side, but are not true agents in the world. Ethically, choosing a side is the appropriate end of human action.
The prophetic dimensions of apocalyptic language imply a different relationship between history and ethics. The prophetic worldview and speech is set against the backdrop of previous harmonious relations that have now become disordered. They were not perfect, but they were functional. For example, the prophet Amos chides the Israelites for making worship perfunctory and for the social injustices that they are inflicting on the poor.10 He calls them back to a previous moment in which their actions were in conformity with God’s laws, which stand in as normative. The people to whom Amos speaks have many choices to make. They are not simply choosing a side, but rather are called to investigate their own actions and to reform them. They are called to be better versions of themselves, for which there is a historical precedent. In prophetic discourse, history is not depicted as barreling forward while people decide whether to be on the side of ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ Instead, history is a source of previous moral action that can be revisited and used to encourage future moral action.
Eschatological apocalypticism posits an ethical model in which human action in the physical world is amoral; that is human action is without efficacy and is therefore not judged. In contrast, prophetic apocalypticism entails an ethics that prizes human action. In the eschatological model, a single moment of choice at the right time is the only measure of human morality. In the prophetic model, one must be able to see the past, present, and future as they are related to human activity in the physical world. In short, different structures of perception are at play in these models of history and ethical action. Eschatological apocalypticism requires seeing the situations that confront one as beyond human control, while prophetic apocalypticism requires one to hold memories of the past, present experience, and future vision in tension prior to making a decision for action. In prophetic apocalypticism, one has obligations to the past and the future, making history a relevant locus of inquiry. Most importantly, eschatological apocalypticism advances a supernatural goal at the expense of the natural world and human ethics, while prophetic apocalypticism concerns itself with the natural world and the current situations in inter-human affairs and human-nature relations.
As mentioned earlier, Carson’s use of the prophetic elements of apocalypse is most notable in her view that history can be affected by human actions, and in the form of her argument, which weds apocalyptic language with prophetic rhetorical devices and the two paths trope known from Deuteronomic writings in the Bible and from Early Christian texts such as the Didache. The form of Carson’s argument is the corrected vision in that it demonstrates a hermeneutical stance that incorporates ancient and scientific forms of reasoning, and only then opens up into the two paths trope. In order to see the possibility of two paths, one must first be able to see the world as Carson describes it. Thus her apocalyptic visions not only import some ethical content from the genre of apocalyptic, but also serve as a lens for viewing the world that could be used in service of other types of environmental problems. In fact, one might suggest that other authors began trying to provide similar lenses. This view of the world—the lenses that Carson grinds for us—facilitates seeing the world both as animate nature and the cumulative product of human action.
It is not only the relationship between history and ethics posited by Carson that pushes her apocalyptic language toward the prophetic; it is also the form of her argument, which draws heavily on the forms of argument used in biblical prophecy. To further elaborate on this point, the form of Carson’s argument will be analyzed alongside those of the prophet Amos, who was chosen due to his use of multiple genres of speech and forms of argument in such a short piece of writing. In addition, Amos’ concerns are not far from those of Carson. Both are interested in how the social, broadly defined, relates to the natural. Moreover, Amos prophesied in a time of prosperity, not completely unlike the prosperity marked by scientific advances in Carson’s America. The forms of argument that Amos and Carson use are hallmarks of speaking to the prosperous and urging them to change their behavior even though the evidence they expect to see to warrant change is absent.
Form of Argument
A Fable for Tomorrow
Obligation to Endure
2:12, 4:1, 5:11-13, 5:21-27, 8:4-6
Chapters 3-6, end of 7
1:3-2:16 (Oracles against nations), 7:1-9, 8:1-3, 8:9-14
Prediction of Doom and Destruction
Perversion of the Natural Order
5:14-15 (Two Paths Trope)
Call to Action
Chapter 17 (Two Paths Trope)
Prophet’s Intercession on Behalf of the People
The table above organizes chapters in Carson’s Silent Spring and verses in Amos according to a traditional and accepted set of prophetic arguments. While there is considerable overlap, and much of my argument is that the overlap is significant and intentional (even if unconscious), there are differences that enrich our understanding of Carson’s project.
The apocalyptic visions at the beginning of Amos and Carson differ appreciably in content. The apocalyptic language in Amos is both natural and historical—natural in its reference to the failing of crops and historical in it references to previous disastrous events the Israelites have endured. Carson uses an imaginary place that was once harmonious and lively, but then quickly transforms that vision into one of misfortune and death due to the human silencing of nature. The tenor of prophetic speech is one of judgment. Amos points out the Israelite’s social and religious depravity, but in a straightforward manner. Carson adds a layer of despair to her apocalyptic vision. It is as if thwarting this impending reality will take a herculean effort.
A hortatory speech is an incitement to action, but prior to motivating people to act, there must be a common concern that creates a collective identity. Carson’s second chapter functions to create a common concern for those who are reading the book. Further, she refers to those reading her book as “the public,” and she works to situate herself in that group, while also moving outside of it to bring necessary information about the environment into the group. While establishing her insider and outsider status in “the public,” Carson also develops a third group of people: the narrow specialists who cannot see the big picture. This section informs the public that it is being deceived and rallies them, through their obligation to continue living, to be less complacent, and seek more knowledge. A duty to self opens up into a claim of rights against others. Carson then situates herself as a reliable source to provide them with knowledge. The hortatory is absent in Amos because it is implied by context. The prophecy is to a specific group of people who already share an identity. To put it bluntly, the Israelites know what their obligations are, while Carson’s diverse audience is uncomfortable with the concept of obligations, much less specific and collective obligations. That being said, Amos works to navigate both insider and outsider identities himself, as is required by the prophet.
Indictment is a contemporary and legal word for the expression of disapproval concerning the actions of the people. For Amos, the legal context of the word is appropriate, given that the accusations Amos levies against the Israelites are in contrast to their religio-legal duties. For Carson the indictment proceeds as a list of problems in the environment that “the public” does not see or know about. She describes the current state of the problem in different ecological systems, but reserves much of the judgment for “the specialists” and “the man with the spray gun” and “the chemical manufacturers” and “the control me in state and federal governments.” In this way, throughout the indictment, the public and Carson are on the same side of the issue. The indictment blends with the establishment of prophetic authority in chapter 7, but by the end of chapter 7, the public is also indicted. After describing the horrible death that squirrels experience due to ingesting chemicals, Carson writes, “By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?”11 Now that the public has some knowledge of the situation, they are also responsible for the consequences.
Both Amos and Carson seek to establish their authority. For Amos authority flows from his relationship with God. God has shown him things, and thus he offers privileged information about God’s inner thoughts and future actions. Carson constructs authority a little differently. The authority of the prophet suggested by Carson in chapter seven connects to human ethics. She writes:
The credibility of the witness is of first importance. The professional wildlife biologist on the scene is certainly best qualified to discover and interpret wildlife loss....Yet it is the control men in state and federal governments—and of course the chemical manufacturers—who steadfastly deny the facts reported by the biologists and declare they see little evidence of harm to wildlife. Like the priest and the Levite in the biblical story, they choose to pass by on the other side and to see nothing. Even if we charitably explain their denials as due to the shortsightedness of the specialist and the man with an interest this does not mean we must accept them as qualified witnesses.12 While Amos’ messages from God serve as the source of his authority, Carson talks about authority in terms of groups of people. Those with knowledge about the interrelatedness of ecological systems, and those who study it for its own sake should have authority over environmental issues. As it is, business and governmental interests control what happens in the environment. Carson adeptly carves out authority for herself as a member of such a group, but does not claim sole authority. By using the term witness, she further highlights the significance of seeing what is in front of you and interpreting it for what it is. Her project is one of aiding in our interpretive abilities. Carson’s use of the Good Samaritan drives home this point. The structures we use to view the world determine what we see. The Levite and the Priest don’t see the man in need as a neighbor, while the Samaritan does.13
Predictions of doom and destruction and the perversion of the natural order are not readily distinguishable categories for Amos or Carson. Some of the predictions of doom and destruction in Amos are part of a sub-genre of prophecy known as the oracles against the nations. The others are Amos’ description of what God has shown him about his plans for Israel.14 In each destruction is complete and includes the destruction of nature and social institutions. The perversion of the natural order in the book of Amos is best seen in the rhetorical question in verse 6:12, “Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood….” Here, rather than nature actually becoming an unstable and unreliable system, unnatural human interactions with nature are used to shed light on the perversion of the social system. Later in chapter 8, God’s judgment takes the form of making nature act in unpredictable ways, such as making the sun go down at noon. For Carson, the predictions of doom and destruction rely on drawing out the long-term consequences for ongoing environmental destruction. In chapters 8-11 she writes about the contamination of different ecological systems and the actual and potential consequences. Chapters 12-14 focus specifically on the human toll due to the changing environment. Within chapters 8-14 there are many passages that refer to the perversion of the natural order. For example, in writing about cancer in chapter 14, Carson describes in brief the process of cell division and that research suggests radiation and chemical exposure are responsible for abnormal cell division. In the previous chapter she wrote about the potential dangers to humans’ genetic heritage due to chemical exposre and toxicity. While cancer may be a natural process, Carson argues that cellular dysfunction and genetic changes are influenced by the addition of unnatural chemicals to the environment. In short, they are perversions. Chapters 15 and 16 offer a linguistic play on the idea of the perversion of the natural order. For those reading her book, the idea that nature would fight back and adapt itself to the changing chemical balance is somewhat perverse. It is a picture of nature that lacks stability, but underscores the agency of nature to react to humans.
The Call to Action, closely related to the Indictment, appears in both Amos and Carson as a version of the two paths trope. Carson’s view of history and human action are rooted in prophetic apocalypticism, while her approach to the future builds on this and opens into the two paths trope. Carson builds on this ethical model by combining the two paths trope with it. Again, this trope is not unknown to ancient religious texts. Deuteronomy is most notable among the biblical texts for suggesting that there are two paths for humans to take. One example is Deuteronomy 30: 15-20:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendents may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.)
The two paths are delineated by adherence to God’s laws. Within that simple binary structure of life and death there is also a detailed course of action. Consequences are also spelled out. The choice of life and death will be played out in the natural worls, such that the trope has an ecological component. Later in the Didache the trope is taken out of this context and applied only to community membership, becoming a non-ecological trope.
The final two categories in the table, the prophet’s intercession on behalf of the people and the restoration, are not elements of Carson’s argument. Carson included earlier aspects of prophetic apocalypticism in her argument, but changed the content to include scientific thinking, while also changing the order of these parts of the prophetic argument. In short, she takes an old rhetorical form and massages it into a form that can carry scientific data and can underscore human action even more than the biblical prophets do. She and the prophets osscillate between predictions of ruin and the potential for restoration, which rests on human action alone for Carson, and which is a blend of human action and divine beneficence for the prophets. Here, it is clear that some of the parts of prophetic argumentation rely on a theological backdrop that cannot be adapted to a scientific worldview. The prophetic intercession to God and the restoration of the people by God undercut the efficacy of human action in the world, and so they find no home in Carson’s argument.
The Biblical Creation Story Revisited
With the corrective lenses that Carson supplies, we can return to the biblical creation story and interpret it anew. Countering the common tradition of interpretation of Genesis with the prophetic aspects of the apocalyptic tradition sheds new light on the biblical creation story itself. It suggests that while the ideas within it may serve as the stasis from which Carson worked, the text itself should not be read in isolation. Genesis 1 becomes descriptive of our current context rather than a normative vision of a pre-lapsarian world. Genesis loses the normative status as a vision of the past that we should work toward to restore. Instead Genesis becomes descriptive of current human psychology that funds the uses and abuses of nature. Genesis 1 moves to being the stasis that humans should move from rather than the normative vision they are moving toward. The corrective to our Genesis-context is the prophetic tradition and it animation of nature. Carson underscores the power of human action to create the world that funds our imaginations.
Carson pushes the reader toward this interpretation by contextualizing Genesis within a larger whole and diminishing the significance of any one text. No single tradition can be lifted out of the text as if it stands for the normative stance toward nature. There are mythic, poetic, legal, and prophetic texts that contribute to our understanding of nature in the biblical world. By letting one be normative, we narrow our vision into a dysfunctional myopia. She also showed that letting one of them rein had devastating consequences for the earth. While the bible is not normative for Carson, it is not irrelevant. It is part of our cultural heritage. She expands our field of vision through her use of apocalyptic language by broadening how we look at our cultural artifacts and how give them a voice in society. The literal reading of the Bible without its theological context can do much damage. Even with its theological context it can be corruptive and corrosive if it is lifted up as the lone perspective.
1 William Darby.
2 Michael Smith.
3 Lost Woods, 55-56.
5 Lawrence Buell.
8 Informational footnote on previous ethics?
10 Amos chapter 5.
11 Silent Spring 100.
12 Silent Spring 86.
13 Luke 10: 25-37. Interestingly, this is a parable that Jesus recites in reply to a question by an expert in law.
14 These passages are part of the Day of the Lord genre.