Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday: book reviews

Published onilne 28 May 2007.

Given the general paucity of DKos diaries on the subject of Rachel Carson (given, indeed, that yesterday was her 100th birthday), I felt that it would be important to commemorate, once again, her accomplishments, to read her biography and her most famous book and to tell you what’s in ‘em.  Maybe, someday, when we don’t feel so obligated to use this time of year to memorialize the past war dead so that there don’t have to be more future war dead, we can use this holiday to celebrate Rachel Carson’s birthday.

(crossposted at Progressive Historians)

Book Reviews:

Carson, Rachel.  Silent Spring: 40th Anniversary Edition.
Boston/ New York: Mariner/ Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Lear, Linda.  Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. London and
New York: Allen Lane/ Penguin Press, 1997.

(Kudos to greenvtster, naturegal, strobusguy, dsnodgrass, and Steven D.  Most of these appear to be about Tom Coburn, who needs to get with the program.)

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) appears in Linda Lear’s biography as a rather intelligent and disciplined woman who struggled against Depression-era hardship and the sexism of her times to become a successful government worker, and then a rather successful popular science writer.  Her writing, both poetic and scientifically accurate, was achieved at the cost of a laborious rewriting process, with paragraph after paragraph going through several drafts.  Carson’s writing had the authority of science and the beauty of poetry.

Her image as an authorial celebrity was that of a polished, feminine woman as well as that of a scientist.  Her literary agent was a woman (Marie Rodell); the love of her life was a woman (Dorothy Freeman), too.  She was both successful and significantly ahead of her time.  By the mid-1950s she had become famous as a writer about the world’s oceans, her three books having titles with the word “sea” in them.  She had achieved enough success as a writer (after her first book had been adopted by the Book Of The Month Club, in 1951) to quit her government job, which gave her the freedom to criticize the system.  And then, sometime in 1957, Carson’s interest in new projects moved fully into the matter of pesticides, and of people whose lives had been damaged by their misuse.  This pulled her writing in a wholly more controversial direction, for which she is famous today.

Beyond that, I’m not quite sure how to add to the synopses of Carson’s career that one can typically find on the websites dedicated to her, or in Lear’s well-written preface to the 40th-anniversary edition of Silent Spring.  The written text of Linda Lear’s biography is 480 pages long, most of it an ongoing depiction of events in Carson’s personal life in a rather comprehensive way.

Now, Rachel Carson is usually viewed in terms of the challenge she posed to the pesticide industry.  But her topic in Silent Spring needs to be viewed against the background of consumer capitalism – Carson inspired the modern environmental movement into existence as a rebuttal to the claims of supremacy of the era of consumer capitalism in American political economy.  As early as 1954, Carson appealed to the resistance against the destructive tendencies of that era’s bout with capitalist discipline.  Here is Lear’s description of Carson’s talk to a sorority:

Appealing to what she called women’s “greater intuitive understanding,” she gave some examples of “this substitution of man-made ugliness – this trend toward a perilously artificial world”: the tract houses of Levittown, where individuality was crushed in sameness and all the trees were cult; the proposal to build a six-lane highway through the middle of Rock Creek Park in Washington, where the veery sings in the green twilight; and the invasion of the national parks with commercial schemes.  “Is it the right of this, our generation,” she asked, “in its selfish materialism, to destroy these things because we are blinded by the dollar sign?” (259-260)

Interestingly enough, the working title for Silent Spring was Man Against The Earth (347) – a title which foreshadows the role Carson’s book would play in the creation of the modern environmental movement.

As the chapters of Lear’s biography (one through fifteen) dealing with the advance of Carson’s career and her growing interest in pesticides depict success, so the rest of the book (chapters sixteen through nineteen) is horrifying, as it puts on full display the wrath of the chemical industry in its attempts to discredit Carson.  Moreover, while Carson engages the chemical industry, we read of the advancing movement of the breast cancer as it enveloped and devoured her body, as well as of the other diseases of which she suffered, using up her time and causing her great suffering.  We read of Rachel Carson trying to disguise the various illnesses she had contracted while at the same time making public appearances on stage and on television.  We read about Rachel Carson making a West Coast visit, in which David Brower (then head of the Sierra Club) gives her a tour of Muir Woods in wheelchair, with her reaction:

It was a trip Carson had always hoped to take, and while she delighted in it, she was also frustrated by her circumstances.  “I longed to wander off, alone, into the heart of the woods, where I could really get the feeling of the place,” she complained to Dorothy, “instead of being surrounded by people!  And confined to a wheelchair!  I was so grateful to the Browers for taking me, and to the Ranger for his hospitality and his fund of information, but the thing that would have made my enjoyment complete I couldn’t have.”  (465)

Just as all living beings are born, so indeed all living beings die.  Breast cancer, however, is often described as the result of the buildup of toxins in the breasts; one might be led to wonder, then, whether the toxins that form the main agency of Carson’s most famous book had ended her life.

For all of the historical notice Silent Spring gets in histories of the environmental movement, and given the enormous sea-change it caused in environmental consciousness when it was released in 1962, one has to wonder how many historical commentators actually read the book.  It may not be strictly necessary, however, as Silent Spring offers a list of arguments which have become classics of introductory classes in environmental studies (such as the one I attended at UC Santa Cruz in 1980), or at least of introductory explanations of how ecology works.  There may be thousands of undergraduates in the world who have absorbed the essence of Silent Spring without knowing (as I didn’t) that they have mastered an ecological understanding that Rachel Carson invented.

Generally, Silent Spring is a warning about the dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially of DDT: references to DDT poisoning litter the book.  The case against many of these pesticides is made that they tend to kill key agents of the ecological framework of the Earth, in which every organism plays a role in the maintenance of the whole.  Violating this order, pesticides tend to spread everywhere, poisoning all sorts of organisms (including people) in all sorts of unwanted places.  Carson’s simple scientific descriptions and anecdotal accounts of pesticide poisoning show how this occurs.  The alternative to the recklessness which graces most of Carson’s book is biological “pest management” – attempts to maintain the natural balance between pests and agricultural crops in the human beings’ favor by using natural remedies.

The first chapter of Silent Spring offers the nightmare scenario of a dead world, a world in which spring is silent because the animals who would make its noises are all dead.  The second chapter presents Carson’s philosophy of ecology, in which Carson shows an elemental understanding of how capitalism is behind the recklessness she declaims: “We are told that the enormous and expanding use of pesticides is necessary to maintain farm production.  Yet is our real problem not one of overproduction?” (9)  Carson’s disclaimer that she is not recommending the banning of DDT should be seen in light of her critique of overproduction – DDT use in her era was reckless, not an evil per se.  Carson’s core warning about human interaction with the environment, though, is one that should echo through the ages: “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”  (13)

Chapter 3 explains, beginning with a simple lesson in organic chemistry, how pesticides can be so toxic.  Some of the anecdotes of poisoning Carson offers are especially bizarre.  Here is one striking example:

Parathion is one of the most widely used of the organic phosphates.  It is also one of the most powerful and dangerous.  Honeybees become “wildly agitated and bellicose” on contact with it, perform frantic cleaning movements, and are near death within half an hour.  A chemist, thinking to learn by the most direct possible means the dose acutely toxic to human beings, swallowed a minute amount, equivalent to .00424 ounce.  Paralysis followed so instantaneously that he could not reach the antidotes he had prepared at hand, and so he died.  (29)

Parathion decomposes “rather rapidly,” however (30); yet Carson’s anecdote on the prior page is bound to stick in our minds.

Chapters 4 through 16 offer a series of explanations and anecdotes of pesticide pollution, categorized either by type of victim or locale.  Chapter 4 is about contamination of water sources; Chapter 5 is about the soil; Chapter 6 is about pesticide destruction of vegetation.  Chapter 7 is about harm to people; Chapter 8, harm to birds; Chapter 9, harm to rivers.  Chapter 10 is about the Department of Agriculture’s failed war upon the gypsy moth in Long Island, using DDT, in 1956 and 1957.  Carson reports that “as the aerial spraying of DDT increased, so did the number of suits filed in the courts.” (160)

Chapter 11 tries to explain the toxicity of DDT in scientific terms; Chapter 12 shows how people are poisoned by pesticides; Chapter 13 is about cell biology; Chapter 14 is about cancer.

Chapter 15 is about pesticide-resistant insects – eventually, targeted insects develop resistance to pesticide poisoning, and so the chemicals fail to work.  Chapter 16 is more of the same; Chapter 17 is about natural alternatives.

Much of what Carson says in Silent Spring is a reinforcement of prior points she’s made.  This should remind us that large quantities of evidence were needed, then as now, to discredit politically-powerful, malignant political and economic powers.  As we read and re-read it, we should remind ourselves that Rachel Carson changed the world with what she said and how she said it.


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