Friday, April 20, 2018

Of Man and the Stream of Time

Rachel Carson (1907–1964)
From Rachel Carson: Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment

Still from a 1946 Universal Newsreel, showing DDT spread on San Antonio streets to prevent polio. Officials in several American cities, worried that polio might be spread by insects, sprayed fogs of pesticides on streets, in buildings, and at recreational centers (such as swimming pools).
“Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to which it is often compared, Silent Spring is a book that altered the course of history,” writes Sandra Steingraber in her introduction to the new Library of America volume, Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment. Published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking exposé criticized the misuse, overuse, and abuse of nineteen pesticides, including (most famously) DDT.

The ubiquitous mid-century presence of these substances was a direct result of their successful development and employment during World War II. DDT was used in Italy against the lice that caused typhus among American troops and in the South Pacific to prevent malaria. “Immediately after the war ended,” Steingraber notes, “pesticide research was declassified and, with an assist from Madison Avenue advertising agencies, these ‘economic poisons’ were then sold to the general citizenry—from housewives to farmers—not because of some unmet demand for insect and weed control but because abundant wartime production capacity was in need of domestic markets.” DDT-soaked wallpaper was designed for children’s bedrooms to protect “against disease-carrying insects”; the Department of Agriculture recommended the saturation of bedding to prevent bedbugs; newsreels depicted public pools sprayed with fumigant clouds while children blithely swam in the toxic fog; colorful cartoon characters sang “DDT is good for me-e-e”; and one 1947 film showed public health officials dousing porridge with pesticide and consuming the mixture in front of skeptical Africans.

Although Carson had previously considered writing about the ecological consequences of the use of pesticides, her decision to finally do so was precipitated by a January 1958 letter from Olga Owens Huckins, who maintained a bird sanctuary in her Massachusetts backyard and who was alarmed by the catastrophic effects of aerial spraying on the local avian population. “I feel I should do something,” Carson wrote Houghton Mifflin editor Paul Brooks and suggested a “small, quick” collaborative book, “How to Balance Nature,” to which she would contribute an opening chapter or chapters. In April, however, William Shawn at The New Yorker indicated that if Carson were to extend her initial findings as a book-length series of articles, his magazine would be inclined to publish them. The new book, which would now be her own project, was to be named “Man Against the Earth.”

In spite of a mastectomy in April 1960, subsequent cancer diagnosis, and radiation treatments, Carson persisted researching and writing whenever she could find the strength to do so. Her agent and editor read successive drafts, and she solicited feedback from a wider group of specialists. Finally, in January 1962, she sent all but two of seventeen chapters to The New Yorker. In the spring she finished the final chapters, and in June a condensed version of the book appeared in three consecutive issues of the magazine. The articles were greeted (in Carson’s words) by “a tidal wave of letters—letters to Congressmen, to newspapers, to Government agencies, to the author.” The book was available in late September and by the time of Carson’s death less than two years later it had sold more than one million copies.

Carson met with a ferocious and often ad hominem campaign and threats of legal action by manufacturers. A common and widespread misrepresentation—one that persists to this day—is that she wanted to ban all uses of pesticide. In a December 1962 speech to the Women’s National Press Club she responded:
Anyone who has really read the book knows that I favor insect control in appropriate situations—that I do not advocate complete abandonment of chemical control—and that I criticize the modern chemical method not because it controls harmful insects, but because it controls them badly and inefficiently and creates many dangerous side effects in doing so. I criticize the present methods because they are based on a rather low level of scientific thinking.
Days before the first installment of Silent Spring appeared in The New Yorker, Carson delivered the commencement address at Scripps College. In her speech she steps back from her years-long focus on a particular group of pesticides and reminds us of her larger concern: that humankind needs to balance activities undertaken for short-term gain with “their impact on the earth or their long-range effect upon ourselves.”

Notes: On page 422, the quote from E. B. White, which Carson also used as an epigraph to Silent Spring, is from a letter to Newsweek reporter Bruce Lee, who published the quote in a February 15, 1960, article on White. The John Muir quote (page 423) is from A Thousand- Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916). The lines of poetry by Francis Thompson (page 424) are from “The Mistress of Vision,” first collected in New Poems (1897). Albert Schweitzer (page 425) was a European theologian and writer; in Civilization and Ethics (1923), he wrote that “Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.” The lines by English writer H. M. Tomlinson (page 426) are from the concluding paragraphs of his 1944 essay “The Little Things.”

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