This Monday (April 14), the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's death, we'll celebrate our advances since Silent Spring. We'll also feel the renewed urgency of her prophetic warning: unbridled "progress" may lead, instead, to destruction.
That very same night, Jews and friends gather at the Passover table, re-telling the Exodus from slavery to freedom. The story culminates on this "night of watching" (leil shimurim, 15 Adar, Monday) when Israelites held their first impromptu seders and packed their bags, as wailing Egyptian families paid the ultimate price for their nation's long-running sins.
The plagues are a parable. Those who build empires on oppression, who defy divine directives of righteousness, will ultimately find their own lives unlivable. Nature is the agent of this cosmic comeuppance: The plagues are ecosystem disruptions, progressively dire warnings of the unsustainability of the status quo.
Rachel Carson, more than anyone, made those connections in our time. Her painstaking research and valiant determination brought conclusive proof that America was putting profits over lives and devastating both the environment and human health in our rush to bring new chemicals and compounds to market. Over 50 years ago, nature was already showing the ill-effects; Carson cataloged these modern plagues in her 1962 magnum opus, Silent Spring.
To honor the connection between plagues in the Haggadah and those of our modern world, you might share this reading at your seder table, near the end of the magid/story-telling section:
Passover is the annual anniversary of the tenth plague, and of our freedom. Tonight happens to also be the 50th yartzheit of scientist Rachel Carson, who warned our modern world of its own plagues.
Moses warned ancient Egypt of its unsustainable ways, as its environment fell apart before their eyes. Carson warned our world that similar signs were visible today, that over-dependence on technology and industry threatened our very lives.
Tonight, recalling Rachel Carson's life and recommiting to her legacy, we diminish our cup of joy each time we remember the plagues of Pesach, and those of today:
Dahm: The bloody waters of the Nile; our own polluted rivers and seas.
Tzfar'de'ah: Frogs filling each Egyptian house; frogs, the thin-skinned indicator species now in global decline.
Kinim: Lice afflicting everyone; pests and parasites spreading in a warming world.
Arov: Wild beasts run amok; ecosystems out of whack.
Dever: Cattle disease, leading to hunger; fisheries' collapse and topsoil erosion, leading to hunger.
Sh'cheen: Boils afflicting everyone; new vectors for tropical disease in a warming world.
Barad: Hail, wreaking destruction; extreme weather events newly normal, as climate change worsens.
Arbeh: Locusts consuming everything; overuse of agricultural chemicals and antibiotics leading to pest resistance, and ruin.
Choshesh: Darkness, complete and blinding; invisible pollutants like CO2 and methane, no less dangerous in their effect.
Makat Bekhorot: The horrific deaths of Egyptians, who realized their mistakes too late. What will our tenth plague be?
Silent Spring, and the Haggadah: Tonight's masterworks urge us to stop profiting from slave labor or toxic exposure, that which cannot last. Tonight let us heed the prophetic voices of Moses, Aaron, Miriam -- and Rachel. Let us embrace sustainability and justice.
Monday, with a total lunar eclipse as if for emphasis, is indeed Rachel Carson's 50th yartzheit, her yovel, jubilee. Just before seder, I'll be in Rockville MD's Parklawn Cemetery for an interfaith ceremony at Carson's mother's grave, where half of Rachel's ashes are buried (the rest scattered on a Maine island, at that "Edge of the Sea Around Us" she so loved).
We'll remember her as a prophet, an alarm-ringer, with moral conviction and a gift for both words and facts. Rachel Carson appreciated the "miracles of modern technology" and agriculture's "green revolution," but saw clearly the downside they brought. She alerted us to unfettered industry's impact on eagle and condor eggs, and human eggs; on the environment, and on us. Plagues.
Others take up Carson's fallen standard. Against fracking's threat to Carson's Pennsylvania landscape, Sandra Steingraber cites Carson's final speech. She'd asked America why we behave "not like people guided by scientific knowledge, but more like the proverbial bad housekeeper who sweeps dirt under the rug in the hope of getting it out of sight?" Let Passover's insistence on deep cleaning, on eliminating all chametz (the once-useful stuff now understood as unfit), be the better, sustainable way.
We can all be part of Carson's legacy. Her Springdale PA Homestead invites us to take the Rachel Carson Legacy Challenge, 10 key actions on behalf of the Earth, starting with "go carbon-neutral" and ending with "consider: what would Rachel do?"
Pesach and Carson jointly warn that when people mess with nature and humanity's delicate balance; when rich empowered folks separate themselves from their poorer kin, be they slaves, or the poor who first suffer from rising seas and a warming world; when slavery-deniers and climate-deniers obfuscate facts; when good citizens who know better still blithely (if vaguely guiltily) emit carbon beyond Earth's absorptive capacity: human beings will die!
It need not end that way. Pharaoh's Egypt awoke too late to avert the severe decree. Will we? The springs of our future could be silent, or verdant. It's all up to us.