Friday, May 27, 2016

Birthday: Rachel Carson vs. the World

Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964)
Marine biologist, conservationist, author

I had a bad case of the flu in February 1970, and was home, in bed, for a week. My mother brought me a stack of books from the library to keep me company in quarantine.

One was a book about pesticides, of all things. Over the previous couple of years, working on Boy Scout merit badges in pursuit of an Eagle Scout Award, I’d taken an interest in what was, then, called soil and water conservation; the news was full of a coming event, in April, called Earth Day.

That’s how I came to read Silent Spring, which changed how I looked at the world for the rest of my life.

Its author, Rachel Carson, was dead six years; she died of cancer two years after her book was published. That saddened me. I was having a Holden Caulfield moment: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”

There was something about the calm, quiet, logical wall of facts Carson built making her case against the overuse of pesticides. Silent Spring’s first chapter laid out her devastating case to come:

THERE WAS ONCE a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.

Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler's eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns. 

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example— where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs— the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit. The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

. . .This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know. What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America? This book is an attempt to explain.

Carson grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. She was a reader: St Nicholas Magazine; Beatrix Potter; Melville, Conrad, and Stevenson. At Pennsylvania College for Women, she found her niche in biology, then in marine biology, graduating in the spring of 1929.

The Great Depression nearly killed her dreams of further study. She patched together her graduate program at Johns Hopkins over several years, working to make money, then doing a few more semesters, then working some more. Carson took her MA in 1932 and was working on a PhD when her father died in 1935. She left school to find work and support her mother, and obtained a post in the US Bureau of Fisheries.

She wrote scripts for a Bureau radio program, Romance Under the Waters, and over 52 seven-minute episodes made the hopelessly dull broadcasts a hit. She was encouraged to repackage them as newspaper articles, then given more writing projects. Impressed, the Bureau’s chief urged her to sit the Civil Service Examination, and in 1936 she became the agency’s second female employee.

The job security came just in time; in 1937, her sister died, and left Carson two nieces to care for along with her mother.

She wrote a series of brochures about the work of the Bureau that her boss deemed too good for a throwaway format. Simon & Schuster heard of them, expressed interest, and Carson expanded them into what became her first book, Under the Sea Wind. It came out in 1941 to strong reviews and low sales, but opened doors for her articles in “the quality slicks”- The Sun, Nature, Collier’s.

In 1945, Carson looked for better-paying work outside government, but there was little out there in the war-driven economy. She was interested in a new pest-control product called DDT. 

Discovered in 1874, it was used in the second half of World War II to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops. After the war, the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Mueller’s 1939 discovery it was also a highly effective agricultural insecticide led to its rapid commercial exploitation in the United States; early post-war advertising touted it as “the Insect Bomb”. Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods" in 1948.

Carson’s editors didn’t think DDT had any legs as a story, so she shelved it. In 1949, she rose to chief of publications in the reorganized, renamed Fish & Wildlife Service, and continued publishing articles on coastal aquatic life. The Oxford University Press expressed interest in a collection; Carson tried out chapters in The Yale Review, Science Digest, and The New Yorker, to such acclaim that she was given the 1951 George Westinghouse Prize for science writing.

When The Sea Around us came out that year, it spent the next 86 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list- 39 in first place. Within a decade, it had been translated into thirty languages. A Reader’s Digest abridgment followed, carrying her message into millions of homes.  She won the National Book Award, along with several honorary degrees and the John Burroughs Medal.

She inked a deal for a documentary film directed by Irwin Allen, and almost immediately came to regret it. Allen, then a rookie Hollywood producer, turned the book into an odd amalgam of undersea freak show and bouncy 1950s travelogue (Allen went on to a long career in movies and TV, producing scifi hits like Lost in Space and disasters-of-a-thousand-stars films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno). Though the Allen film won the best documentary Oscar in 1953, Carson found the experience so awful she never signed away media rights to anything else.

The book brought her family a welcome financial security; her two indulgences, as the royalties rolled in, were the purchase of a top-of-the-line binocular microscope, and later, a seaside cottage in Maine. Her publisher reissued Under the Sea Wind, and it, too, became a bestseller.

Carson left the Fish & Wildlife Service in 1952, and moved to Maine in 1953, where she formed an intense friendship with a neighbor, Dorothy Freeman, that lasted the rest of her life. She worked on the third of her ocean's trilogy there; The Edge of the Sea was published in 1955 after serialization in The New Yorker, and was another hit.

Having raised her two nieces and launched them into the world, Carson found herself a surrogate mother again the 1950s, when one died and left her a five-year-old son. She and her mother moved to Maryland to care for him, and a letter from a friend in 1957- describing the despoliation of a cherished nature preserve from chemical spraying- turned her interest back to DDT, the wonder pesticide. Cities and towns were, by then, spraying everything with it; many are the childhood memories of that time, of playing in the spray of the “fog trucks.”

Carson’s research led her into an ever-growing series of concerns about the “better living through chemistry” world American chemical companies promoted. Scientists in widely disparate fields began feeding her studies on groundwater and stream pollution, species declines up through natural food chains, invasive species appearing in formerly robust ecological communities, and even accumulations of radioactivity in rain and snow.

Carefully, methodically, Carson connected the dots and traced them back to the profligate use of chemicals on land and water. It wasn’t so much the continuing forward march of corporate scientific progress that made new and stronger pesticides inevitable, she found. It was the overuse of the older ones, and the ability of insect populations- with their vast, short breeding cycles, to become immune to them. She unearthed the first studies, little known outside the National Institutes of Health, and unpopular within it, linking pesticides to cancer in humans.

Word of her work made its way into print, and immediately drew attacks. Carson testified for new pesticide regulations in Congress after the 1957-59 American cranberry crops were pulled from sale when they were found to accumulate dangerous levels of the chemical aminotriazole, which caused cancer in rats. 

The Department of Agriculture's research arm produced 1959 film, “Fire Ants on Trial,” which portrayed Carson as a wild-eyed extremist set on returning the rural South to its benighted, pre-New Deal state of land-ruining ant plagues. The government/corporate view was that disasters from science run amok was the province of cheap Hollywood movies. 

The Agriculture Secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, reported to President Eisenhower that “Miss Carson” was, while very attractive, was unmarried, and therefore “probably a communist.” For her part, Carson kept pointing out the Department's irreconcilable conflict of interest as regulator and promoter of chemical use.

Though her book was pretty much finished by 1960, the reaction to her early forays into chemical regulation worried her- and her publisher- that industry libel suits would pile high on their doorsteps. Carson doubled down on her research, compiling 55 pages of sources and revising her text to keep up with the latest research. The pace was slowed by the death of her mother and her own breast cancer diagnosis in 1960.

Serialized in The New Yorker and praised in a New York Times editorial, Silent Spring came out in book form in the summer of 1962. The American chemical industry's PR machine swung into action with a vengeance. Monsanto published a parody of the book’s first chapter, in which insects, liberated by the banning of all pesticides, ate Americans out of their homes and left them starving. One scientist with whom Carson had worked in the past emerged as her chief antagonist, appearing on television in a white lab coat, mansplaining her into the ground.

Silent Spring was a true word of mouth hit, a science book non-scientists could understand. It became a Book of the Month Club Main Selection in October 1962 and included a pamphlet of endorsement by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an emerging environmental activist.

President Kennedy, intrigued, formed a Pesticides Advisory Commission. The thalidomide scandal, revealing a German drug prescribed to pregnant women to alleviate nausea, caused severe birth defects. Concerns over the pollution from worldwide nuclear open-air testing led to a partial weapons test ban treaty in 1963. “CBS Reports”, a respected documentary series, did a program featuring Carson in April 1963, in which her measured, careful statements undermined the bomb-throwing image her foes promoted.

The scientific community began to come around, and Carson’s work won her a shower of honors: election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences; the Cullum Geographical Medal; the New York Zoological Society’s Gold Medal. Speaking requests flooded in, most of which she refused as her cancer spread. As 1963 ended, she and Dorothy Freeman destroyed their correspondence. Worn down by years of illness and the stress of the Silent Spring battles, Rachel Carson died of a heart attack in April 1964.

The New York Times called Carson, “the essence of gentle scholarship” in contrast to the Carrie Nation caricature her foes painted:
In manner, Miss Carson was a small, solemn-looking woman with the steady forthright gaze of a type that is sometimes common to thoughtful children who prefer to listen rather than to talk She was politely friendly but reserved and was not given to quick smiles or to encouraging conversation even with her fans.

Few individuals have had such an immediate, global impact on public policy. Silent Spring fundamentally altered the balance of power between corporate science and the public. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1980; two marine research vessels have been named for her. Academic prizes bear her name, along with schools, parks, bridges and marine sanctuaries. Two of her homes are maintained as historic sites.

DDT was banned- eventually worldwide. The US Environmental Protection Agency was created to enforce a wave of new environmental protection laws.

Her antagonists have never given up. The election of President Reagan led to James Watt’s rule over the Agriculture Department and Anne Gorsuch’s 22-month stint as EPA administrator. The former Colorado legislator managed to decimate EPA’s staff, filled its management with men from EPA-regulate industries, cut its budget 22%, cut enforcement actions against polluters, relax air quality laws, and championed pesticide use; she became the first US agency head in history to be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to reveal agency actions; her Superfund deputy, Rita LaVelle, went to prison.

The book’s 50th anniversary saw a new round of attacks on environmental regulation, featuring state laws criminalizing the reporting, or photographing, of violations of environmental laws; attempts to outlaw renewable energy development, and a fresh push by Western conservatives to open up public lands for development, or just give it away.

What Carson told “CBS Reports” 53 years ago is still true:

“It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.

“We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature.

But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. The rains have become an instrument to bring down from the atmosphere the deadly products of atomic explosions. Water, which is probably our most important natural resource, is now used and re-used with incredible recklessness.

“Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

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