William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012)
In the pre-dawn hours of the morning of March 1, 1954, a Japanese tuna-fishing boat named The Lucky Dragon drifted placidly on the Pacific swell just east of the Marshall Islands. Its longline was out and most of the crew was asleep in their bunks below deck when all at once the sky to the west lit up as if the atmosphere itself had suddenly caught fire. As the men rushed on deck the frightening light turned deep red and continued to rise high above the horizon. Minutes passed. Then the ship lurched as a deep, concussive shock wave passed over it. Nobody knew what was happening. A few hours later, as the crew hauled in the longline under leaden skies, a gray, gritty, ash-like substance began falling from the sky, coating everything and everyone aboard The Lucky Dragon.
On their way home, the crew became sick. They were nauseated and their skin burned and then erupted in sores. By the time they returned to port the men appeared almost black, as if badly burned, and their eyes oozed and their hair had started falling out. The men would eventually spend an entire year in a Tokyo hospital that specialized in treating radiation sickness. What The Lucky Dragon had unintentionally gotten too close to was an operation called “Castle Bravo,” a hydrogen bomb test carried out by the United States on a tiny sand archipelago called Bikini Atoll. Several things went wrong that day—the wind shifted and the explosion was far more powerful than expected. The result was that some of the many thousands of tons of irradiated sand and coral blown into the atmosphere in Castle Bravo had fallen on The Lucky Dragon. After an international outcry—not to mention public dismay at the vast power of the new hydrogen bomb—the U.S. paid damages to the crew members and their families, and to the Japanese fishing industry.
For Carson, radioactive fallout—then prevalent everywhere in the world due to frenzied weapons testing by the U.S. and the Soviet Union—offered an exact parallel to the problem of widespread contamination of what she called “the total environment” by pesticides. Here’s how she put it in Silent Spring:
In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.
The year 1962 was the peak year for above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. In the month of June alone, as readers of the New Yorker were learning of the dark promise of pesticides in three long installments from the forthcoming Silent Spring, the U.S. detonated ten nuclear devices in the South Pacific. Soviet testing in Siberia, meanwhile, produced a steady rain of radioactive fallout in parts of the northern hemisphere downwind—notably central North America, where cows gave milk tainted with radioactivity after being pastured on fields exposed to fallout. For Carson, the threats from radiation and chemical contaminants were existential questions. To continue so heedlessly with nuclear testing and the use of pesticides would eventually, Carson said, make this world “unfit for all life.”
But the connection between radiation and pesticides was also an important to Carson in another way. In 1962 the idea that chemicals could be dangerous environmental contaminants—persisting for long periods and entering into food chains and causing collateral damage to all manner of non-targeted species—was a novel concept. Few people gave thought to such considerations. But in the midst of the Cold War, people did understand the threat from radioactive fallout, which, like pesticides, was everywhere all at once, invisible and toxic. In drawing the parallel between the two technologies, which had both been perfected in wartime and had become part of a beleaguered peacetime, Carson made plain for the first time the dangers of chemical contaminants. It’s no accident that Baby Boomers, the generation steeped in Cold War fears, would become the vanguard of the environmental movement that emerged in the wake of Silent Spring. They got it.
See William Souder's new book On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012)