Friday, November 16, 2012

Comments on Silent Spring as reported by WILD READ team member and NCTC Friend Joy Pardue

Discussion Topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

The Friends of the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) WILDREAD Book Club met Thursday, September 20, 2012, at the NCTC library in Shepherdstown, WV to discuss Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, just one week short of the 50th anniversary of its initial publication on September 27, 1962. Six members (one of them new to the group) met and shared earlier experiences of this book and then compared and contrasted these to our responses while re-reading it. About the first edition we learned that it cost $5.00 and Ms. Carson dedicated her book "To Albert Schweitzer who said  'Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth'. "  

Some of us had not realized that Ms. Carson was already a well-established author when she wrote Silent Spring. Fortunately, her financial success from The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea allowed her devote herself to full time writing. Douglas Brinkley, in a May-June 2012 Audubon Magazine ("Carson and Camelot") article, stated "Carson had three aims in writing Silent Spring: creating an enduring work of literature on par with The Sea Around US; alerting the public to the health dangers of pesticides; and forcing the U.S. government to regulate the chemical industry. Fortunately, she achieved these aims and more.

Controversy surrounded Ms. Carson and her book from the time "The New Yorker" published an excerpt on June 16, 1962. Indeed, she and her book are still targets of serious attacks. Laura E. Huggins, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University..., published a short paper entitled "'Silent Spring' turns 50, and birds are still singing" on April 19, 2012. Among her numerous criticisms, Ms Huggins notes "there were major oversights in her work - errors that have played a role in shaping environmental policies that have cost millions of lives and dollars." She was referring, in part, to the on-going problem of malaria and restricted use of DDT. Douglas Brinkley notes "Experts estimate that somewhere around 3/4 of a million people die of malaria each year." In 2004, Michael Crichton declared "Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler." Our book club members agreed that the gist of Ms. Carson's message was not that these chemicals be eliminated but that they must be used judiciously.

Some of us did not fully appreciate the fortuitous coincident of the publication of RC's book and John F. Kennedy's nomination for and successful campaign to become our 35th President. Though he did not endorse all her research, JFK and his administration took this book seriously and Carson eventually joined the "Women's Committee for New Frontiers." During the upheaval following its publication, Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas declared Silent Spring "the most revolutionary book since Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Our discussion generated many questions. In particular, we wondered what environmental issue would Ms. Carson embrace were she able to peek into our 21st century world. "Global warming" came to mind immediately but some of us felt she just might want to pick up her research where she left off. What meticulous scientist wouldn't relish the opportunity to do a follow up study 50 years later. Surely, she would want to know more about where, how and to what extent pesticides are now being used...what new chemicals or alternative methods are in use...what has happened to the bird populations that were declining...how are the oceans faring, etc....

Since our meeting, I've read an essay by Roger Tory Peterson who noted the 'DDT problem' was known in the scientific world by 1954. That raises more questions about how much of this data had been published and who was reading it? What was being done about 'the problem'? One wonders whether we might have lost the Bald Eagle had Rachel Carson not done the laborious research that revealed that their situation was dire. We'll never know whether she 'saved' them but, without question, she would be thrilled to know these beautiful creatures are doing well. It is likely this brilliant lady would be dumbfounded if she were able to tune into NCTC's Eagle Cam and follow the drama of the life cycle of these majestic raptors.

While not everyone agreed with Justice Douglas' statement comparing Silent Spring to Uncle Tom's Cabin we generally agreed with his later statement: "This book is the most important chronicle of this century for the human race."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Silent Spring and the Cold War by Moderator William Souder

 Discussion topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

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.




Eventually all but one of the crew recovered. The one who didn’t, a radio operator named Kuboyama, seemed to be on the mend before his liver suddenly failed and he died. Eight years later, Kuboyama would reappear—in the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson likened Kuboyama’s demise to that of a comparably healthy and vigorous Swedish farmer, who while doing his work had accidentally exposed himself to a pesticide cloud composed of DDT and benzene hexachloride. The farmer became sick that same night, and died three months later.
    
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)