Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
"We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork in the road -- the one 'less traveled by' -- offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth."
- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Silent Spring transports us back to a world where pesticides literally rained from the skies, over forests and cities alike. A time where the proven toxicity of chemicals were wantonly disregarded, both by pesticide companies and the governments charged with regulating them.
But during the 50s, these newly synthesized chemical pesticides were widely seen as another notch in Man's belt of technical achievement. (In fact, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Paul Müller in 1948.) Now we could grow food with higher crop yields, keep old trees protected from disease, and remove those pesky critters that plague our home and gardens. You can almost see the TV commercials; the quaint housewife holding the spray can and exclaiming "I don't know what I would have done before DDT!"
It is not often that a book changes the course of history, but that is exactly what Silent Spring accomplished. In 300 pages of easily readable Science, Rachel Carson obliterates any notion that pesticides are things to be taken lightly. Sure, to some extent and with limited use they may be helpful, but the danger they pose and the damage they have already inflicted is something to which the world must be warned. Nearly everyone who reached the end of the book was convinced, and the book began an avalanche of change that precipitated the environmental movement.
In Silent Spring Carson is a scientist performing a sort of black magic; writing enticing prose that breaks the complexities of the issue down into understandable pieces. Although it is technical at times, it is clearly targeted to the average reader, and the huge popular success of the book and effectiveness of its message are testament to that. Carson is engaging, poetic and chilling while never becoming hysterical--a word many of her critics used with a sexist edge to accuse her.
The story arcs from the chemical labs of the pesticide industry, to the gardens and agriculture fields of America. It covers the contamination of soil and groundwater to the growing resistance of bugs against the chemicals targeting them. Carson focuses special effort on explaining that since chemical pesticides like DDT are new to the world, we have no idea what their long term effects will truly be, especially to humans.
Some of Carson's data cut right to the core of the indiscriminate use of pesticides which she so abhorred. In the summer of 1954, the Canadian government decided to control an outbreak of spruce budworm, a native insect that feeds and destroys many species of evergreen, with a huge spraying campaign of DDT over the watershed of the Miramichi river in New Brunswick, Canada. The spraying was effective in killing the budworm, but also in wiping out all of the insects in the area, so much so that the young salmon in the rivers had nothing to feed on and began washing up on the shore shortly after the spraying. By the end of the summer none of the new generation of salmon survived, and the salmon population was almost wiped out of the region entirely. In nature, it is difficult to accomplish such a specific goal without disrupting an entire ecosystem.
This is the major achievement of the book: to point out that everything in an environment is interconnected; that the introduction of foreign elements can completely alter a system. It is not enough to show in a laboratory that a given dose of pesticide will not harm a bird species, if the feeding of that bird on poisoned insects concentrates that tested dose 100 fold, enough to kill the bird. This theme is why Carson is credited with trailblazing the environmental movement; she helps us understand that the Earth is not a playground for Humans, but that we are amidst of a gigantic web of life which disregard in our part leads to massive destruction.
Carson is also proactive, suggesting solutions to the problems she presents. Near the end of the book, she offers numerous ideas to chemical alternatives for pest control; from the introduction of natural predators of the offending insects, to the use of Bacillus thuringen toxin, now known as BT, the naturally derived pesticide that made an organic food industry possible.
DDT was not officially banned in the US until 1972, a full 10 years after the publication of Silent Spring. Carson did not get to witness this event, although she did see the build up of public support for the cause before her death in 1964. She died of cancer, a disease she had been struggling with while writing Spring, and which may have been caused by her work with pesticides. The debate she began was instrumental in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and branched out to many more issues relating to how we use the planet. The book is a powerful example of how one person truly can make a difference.
Carson's true, unmistakable genius is no better displayed than in the statement that begins this piece. After 300 pages of data decrying the use of chemical pesticides, the statement drives the message firmly into our stomachs. But looked at from another perspective, the words apply to a much wider array of possible threats, and are in essence a rallying cry for the entire environmental movement. So too, the vehicular imagery eerily foreshadows our current struggle, a struggle where we may have already passed the metaphorical fork.
In his introduction to the 1994 edition of Silent Spring, then Vice President Al Gore proudly tells of the portrait of Rachel Carson in his office, alongside other important political leaders. "Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any of them," Gore writes, "and perhaps than all of them together." This past week, Gore's polemic on the atmosphere and the impending doom facing planet earth, An Inconvenient Truth, was released on DVD. Amazingly, and I write this with as little bias as possible, it still costs money to be able to see the documentary.
Although some of us may have hoped, An Inconvenient Truth is not Silent Spring for the Greenhouse Generation though it is clearly crafted from the same mold. Gore's points are forceful, frightening and poignant, their delivery clear and straightforward, but their effect has been far from the same. It is not his fault. It is an abomination that such information could only be seen in the art film houses of major cities, but such is the world.
In addition to the miniscule distribution of the film, the lack of Gore's message is mainly our fault. If you have not seen the film, please Netflix it. If you have, take a moment to think with me. Personally, Truth affected me to the core. In the months after seeing it, I have moved to New York City, one of the more energy efficient places in the US, and have stopped driving regularly. But in exchange I have created a situation where I must travel longer distances for my work. I made the move in the in the interest of my career, an excuse almost any American would use to trump a commitment to the environment.
I have a friend who used a website to calculate his yearly carbon emissions to determine where he stands in relation to the national average. Even without owning a car and with a 3 block commute to work and as a key player in Rhode Island's local food movement, he was astonished and disheartened to discover that he is still just below the national average, when adding in all the air travel he does as a musician. It is up to us to change the status quo, and when even those most committed find it difficult to do so it is indeed disheartening.
But it seems like there might be a broader issue impeding the message as well. In Carson's era, science was only just becoming a subject of public concern. The world had already received a crash course in physics with the dropping of the atom bomb in Japan, and advances in the the biological sciences during the 50s created a prime climate for a similar explosion into the public's consciousness.
Carson recurrently touches on humanity's domination over nature, a notion she was trying to abolish with Silent Spring; the idea that we must take care to not destroy the complex networks of life that surround us, and perhaps destroy ourselves in the process. The ecological arguments presented in the book are clear and easy to follow. It seems that the public was ready to have their world view changed by science, and the whirlwind of outcry against pesticides following Spring's publication supports this perspective.
The question today is whether were are officially at the end of that era. Many now view science as just another biased point-of-view, needed to be balanced with the countless other inputs bombarding us from all directions as we live. Americans especially seem to have abandoned the fundamental trust (or is it faith?) necessary for science to inform our lives. In a country where over half of the population "rejects the theory of evolution as the explanation for the origin of humans," it is indeed a daunting task to convince them that a series of events already underway will result in massive transformations to the planet.
It would be foolish to say that Casron's and Gore's messages are of the same scope. The curtailing of carbon emissions is a far loftier and more complex goal than decreasing pesticide use. Carbon Dioxide is integrated into practically all of our actions in the modern world. There is even a stinging irony in the fact that we release it when we breathe. But this additional complexity is just what we must deal with in an increasingly complex world. The dangers presented by Global Warming are just as real as those presented by Carson, and the effects are already visible. The oceans are acidifying, the glaciers are melting, the storms are intensifying, and the earth is warming.
It seems like many have forgotten Carson's gift to the world; that everything is connected and any disturbing factor to the equilibrium of a natural environment will have effects that pervade the entire system. There is a very simple word to describe this, one that his been around for millennia: Hubris. As I sit now writing in New England, it is 60 degrees on Thanksgiving weekend. What more will it take for us to wake up?