The Last Chapters
This part of the book upset many people, for here Carson argued that the "conquest of nature" was a futile exercise and a dangerous delusion. To a post-war generation raised on the wonders of modern science and dreams of a high-tech future, this was heresy of the worst sort. Injured pride accounted for some of the reaction--economic entomologists saw themselves as part of the vanguard of Progress and the hope of the world for recommending DDT--but injured ideology for much more. Carson offended against the dream of a triumphant humanity, doing as it wished. Worse, she used science to argue for her view.
She did not, please note, reject insect control or even technology, as some of her more heated critics argued. She praised Edward Knipling's high-tech project of eradicating screw worm flies by releasing millions of male flies sterilized by radiation. She rejected our control of nature. Critics saw that as a radical rejection of science, but that shill for science, Francis Bacon, said, in the seventeenth century, that "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed," and while moderns fastened on the "command," obedience came first. Bacon's position meant that nature placed limits on what we did, but limits were the last thing post-war Americans wanted to discover.
Some environmentalists seized on Carson's prescriptions to argue that ecology would lead us into the Earthly Paradise of harmony with nature. While that would be an improvement over the one promised in the ads--the Earthly Paradise of Consumer Goods--Carson had a different message: of humility in the face of forces larger and older than humans. On that see her article, "Help Your Child to Wonder," and the book that followed, The Sense of Wonder. [to be discussed in November.
April 23, 2007
The Last Chapters
April 16, 2007
Death and Taxes
The Ides of March and tax day are both suitably grim holidays to lead us into this week’s readings. Chapters 12-14 in Silent Spring explore (some would claim speculate upon) the impacts of pesticides on human health. In these three chapters Carson walks the reader through the various physiological pathways through which our bodies might be poisoned by chemical contaminants. A rich and chilling section of the book, it almost certainly helped open up the modern age of chemical contaminant research and, at least indirectly, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In rereading this section two elements and questions arise in my mind.
1) Is it necessary to draw the reader back to the “human impact” of pesticides to arouse interest? That is, if Silent Spring had only been about dead robins and poisoned fish would it have aroused the same level of popular interest? Are we an inherently narcissistic species whose attention can only be sustained when the consequences are personal? I would suggest the answer to this question may have serious implications for the environmental movement.
2) How much of our interest in Silent Spring derives from Carson’s poignant biography? Most readers know that by the time Silent Spring was published Carson was already seriously ill with the cancer that would eventually kill her. It is this melding of the biographical and ecological that makes these three chapters especially moving and grave. I doubt only the most cold-hearted reader could finish Carson’s chapter “One in Four” without being moved by her mortality:
“For those in whom cancer is already a hidden or visible presence, efforts to find cures must of course continue. But for those not yet touched by the disease and certainly for the generation as yet unborn, prevention is the imperative need.”
To look to the future while her own lifespan was in eclipse was a testament to Carson’s persistence and humanity.
April Reading Schedule
April 8, 2007
The chapters for this week use descriptions of the fate of chemical residues in the environment to show the damage to other life and to show that we are part of the nature we are conquering, not outside it. What we do in nature will come back to us. It begins with a chapter on contamination of streams, underground waters and ends, in "Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias," with residues of pesticides in our food. Many of her conclusions were, necessarily, speculative, for the evidence she had did not give a clear picture of either damage or dangers.
Readers can find some material on later developments in my book, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton: 1981), and library research will reveal other sources. Although research has made some of this "old news," the larger issues she raised remain up to date. We still grapple with the perils of residues in food chains--to us and to wildlife--and we have some examples of the damage done as residues drained to estuaries and sinks--still have to worry about the destruction of the microscopic life at the base of food chains, still deal with the unintended and unforseen consequences of apparently well-tested materials and progams. On a larger scale, the biological controls she cited and recommended rested on a radical vision (certainly radical at that time) of basing controls on an understanding of biology and a determination to live without doing unecessary damage to the world.
The control campaigns she described came from a belief that seems odd to many of us today: that science will solve our problems and will not produce more. That technological optimism and awe of science grew out of the accomplishments of military medicine and technology during World War II, and after the war antibiotics, new surgical techniques, and better methods of public health saved millions and made life better for even more. The best place to find these attitudes and appreciate the atmosphere in which Carson wrote are back issue of journals like Popular Mechanics which can still be found in university libraries. In 1950 they were telling us that in 2000 we would commute by helicoper from factory-built homes that would clean themselves with the push of a button. Meals could be cooked in minutes and television would educate all the children (well, some things did work out, though not quite as the visionaries thought). We would control nature and farming would be an entirely mechanized process. The future is not what it used to be.
At a time when we view genetic foods and cloning with suspicion and read of the environmental destruction from industrial farming, her detailed case, backed by scientific papers in the footnotes, seems overkill, but then DDT was still the wartime miracle, deadly to bad insects and harmless to everything else.
The last chapter for this week leads into the next set of readings, so keep in mind one of Carson's themes: that damage can come from apparently safe materials in low doses, only show up after much time has passed, and take forms very different from the ones that large doses produced.
See April Reading Schedule
April 2, 2007
Welcome to Silent Spring in a very noisy blogosphere! First of all thank you so much for taking the time to (re)read Silent Spring and this blog.
I first read Silent Spring in the 8th grade at the appropriately named John Muir Middle School in Central Wisconsin. At the time I was most intrigued by the apocalyptic opening—imagine a silent town with all wildlife removed! Subsequently I read it as an undergraduate and have completed the circle by assigning it to undergraduates over the last 12 years. Now as the Fish and Wildlife Service Historian (Carson’s agency home for nearly 16 years) I spend a great deal of time talking about Carson to current federal conservationists to inspire them to think outside the box.
Oddly enough Silent Spring is not my most beloved environmental book--Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Thoreau’s Walden I re-read yearly for pleasure. But it remains the pivot point in many ways for the distinction between the older conservation movement and a new species of environmental movement. It also retains its power to be controversial. While no one is debating Thoreau, Muir, or Leopold these days in the public media, on February 21 of this year the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion column blaming Silent Spring for a large number of malarial deaths in Sri Lanka: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pdupont/?id=110009693. So we all live in a post-Silent Spring world with the controversy and debate ongoing.
Welcome to the ongoing 45-year-old discussion about how we make the world an amenable place for both humans and their myriad neighbors.
April 1, 2007
Forty years has made Silent Spring into two books—a technical discussion of an old problem and a very timely plea for a new relationship between humans and the world, one that global warning, extinctions, and other environmental problems have made more relevant as the years pass.
In reading (and commenting) keep in mind Carson’s narrative structure. The first three chapters described our situation, the next eight gave the evidence about environmental problems, three more told what the chemicals do and might do to us and our children, and a final three laid out other, better ways to control insects and a better way to think about humans’ relation to nature.
In this week’s reading Carson argued that our massive, careless use of new chemicals involved not just public health but the health of the systems that supported all life on earth. The chapters drew on a range of knowledge and ideas, from science to American values. This post can only point to some of the more important ideas and themes.
By setting the frightening tale of a “silent spring” that made up the first chapter in a small town, she appealed to American dreams of the small town as the ideal place to raise children, but the setting also allowed her to show damages to humans, plants, animal, and farms not as separate things but elements of the “web of life” and society. It also made pesticides, “men’s issues” of science and public policy, part of home and community life and so “women’s issues” as well.
In the next chapter she moved from the familiar ground of home and family to ecology, evolution, and the development of earth’s life in deep time, “intellectual” subjects she explored with poetic prose. (Even her harshest critics acknowledged her literary skill) One major accomplishment here, done very quickly, was to show how our short-term perspective created problems we did not easily see because nature’s processes worked over very long times. She put the relation between humans and the land in moral terms and made the survival of ecosystems and the processes of evolutionary change important moral values. These have become familiar, and now environmentalists plant trees to offset their use of carbon on vacation and eat locally and use public transportation to reduce their impact on the earth, but in 1962 these views were strange—even revolutionary.
In “Elixirs of Death,” she described the chemical properties of the new insecticides and herbicides, showing their immediate dangers with incidents of death and injury but also raising a deeper concern, that long-term damage might not appear until it was too late. She would return to that theme of deferred consequences often through the book.
The Age of Environmentalism that followed Silent Spring made Carson’s views seem normal, but we ought to remember just how startling they were in 1962.
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