A Strange Blight

Meehan Crist

  • ‘Silent Spring’ and Other Writings on the Environment by Rachel Carson, edited by Sandra Steingraber
    Library of America, 546 pp, £29.99, March 2018, ISBN 978 1 59853 560 0

Not long ago, the marine biologist Victor Bonito and I sat on a deck overlooking a palm-studded stretch of turquoise coastline where thousands of dazzling reef fish – pink and emerald parrotfish, blue and yellow unicorn fish, orange-and-white-striped clownfish – had recently washed up on the shore, dead. The ocean along the western edge of this Fijian island, the ‘big island’ of Viti Levu, had become too hot for its inhabitants to survive. The fish lay rotting in the sun with nubbly starfish and the occasional gelatinous octopus, their brilliant colours fading, while thousands more floated belly up on the surface of the sea. Villagers waded in, trying to scoop up and save what they could, focusing on fish that serve as food and provide income for their families. Children swam after the bright, dead creatures washing out to sea. ‘It is our treasure,’ they lamented, ‘disappearing.’ Bonito, wearing an old grey T-shirt and sandy shorts, looked out over the gently ruffled surface of the sea, remembering how the massacre unfolded. He works on coral restoration in these waters, and he told me that soon after the fish die-off, nearly a third of the inshore corals bleached.

All over the world, mass animal die-offs are on the rise, from ‘melting’ starfish to Russian seals washing up on the shores of Lake Baikal to more than 200,000 appealingly hump-nosed saiga antelope lying across the Kazakh steppe. And the walruses. Oh, the walruses. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, and then as now the die-offs were caused by human activity. In Silent Spring, her ecological masterpiece, Rachel Carson wrote of fish and birds mysteriously dropping dead all across America (‘In the summer of 1960 the refuge staff picked up hundreds of dead and dying birds at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath … herons, pelicans, grebes, gulls’), describing the mysterious pattern of mass deaths with the urgency and suspense of true crime. Of ‘one of the most spectacular fish kills of recent years’, she writes:

Shortly after daylight on Sunday morning, 15 January, dead fish appeared in the new Town Lake in Austin and in the river for a distance of about five miles below the lake. None had been seen the day before. On Monday there were reports of dead fish 50 miles downstream. By this time it was clear that a wave of some poisonous substance was moving down in the river water … a week later the chemicals were doing their lethal work 200 miles below Austin.

Following the scattered clues wherever they led, Carson painstakingly pieced together an unassailable case against chemical pesticides, then being indiscriminately dumped over field and stream in white clouds, and in smaller but more intimately toxic loads by American housewives cultivating their gardens and moth-proofing their babies blankets.

Reading Silent Spring today, in the hazy reddish glow of climate catastrophe, is both an exhilarating and a melancholy pleasure. The story of Carson’s dogged pursuit of truth against all odds – the lack of settled science, her own daily struggle with breast cancer, the personal attacks launched by the chemical industry after the book’s publication – is profoundly inspiring at a time when hope in such endeavours seems to be in short supply.

There is much to be learned from her methods. Carson was alerted to the problem of toxic chemicals poisoning animal populations by a letter from Olga Owens Huckins, a gardener and birdwatcher who witnessed a pile of dead songbirds frozen in postures of convulsion around her birdbath, which had become contaminated with DDT in the wake of a campaign to control mosquitoes. The observations of the bald eagle enthusiast Charles Broley, who observed the precipitous decline of eagle populations in Florida, proved as worthy of her attention as those of scientists in cutting-edge research labs. Gathering together far-flung studies as well as reports from local birdwatchers, sport fishers and hunters, and scientists across a range of disciplines from pharmacology to wildlife ecology to genetics, Carson showed that not only do indiscriminate spraying and other toxic government policies result in dramatic mass animal deaths, they leave behind a lethal cocktail of chemicals that leach into the food chain and into the cellular depths of plants and animals, including humans, altering our genes and causing cancer. As she wrote to William Shawn, her editor at the New Yorker, where her book was serialised before its publication, ‘I have a comforting feeling that what I shall now be able to achieve is a synthesis of widely scattered facts, that have not heretofore been considered in relation to each other. It is now possible to build up, step by step, a really damning case against the use of these chemicals as they are now inflicted upon us.’ In a letter of June 1958 to her friend and great love Dorothy Freeman, she wrote: ‘Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.’

Carson is rightly remembered as the writer who launched the modern environmental movement. She is celebrated for taking on the cultural myth of harmlessness promulgated by a chemical industry looking for new peacetime markets for chemicals developed in wartime, an agricultural industry desperate to control crop-threatening pests, and a government that had failed spectacularly to protect the public interest. ‘The obligation to endure,’ she wrote, ‘gives us the right to know.’

The scientific achievement of Silent Spring is less often heralded. By making connections across disciplines Carson inferred the way chemical pesticides disrupt endocrine function and lead to tumour formation before any of this was established science. Of the links between pesticides and cancer, she wrote to a Connecticut doctor called Morton Biskind: ‘Recently some of my thinking on all this has begun to fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle … a great light is breaking in my mind.’ As the biologist and environmental writer Sandra Steingraber writes in her introduction to ‘Silent Spring’ and Other Writings on the Environment, ‘Carson had an uncanny ability, when she discovered gaps in the data, to see across the far shore and make predictions that have turned out to be correct, which is not to say that she was prescient. She just knew how to extrapolate.’ Steingraber points out that Carson

was able to document troubling links between pesticide exposures and cancer risk even though she was working without state-based cancer registries (which came into being c.1970-90) and without a working model of endocrine disruption (c.1996) or epigenetics (c.2008), both of which elucidate how toxic chemicals can alter DNA activity even in the absence of mutations or other genetic injury. When she was drafting her chapters, it was not yet accepted toxicological wisdom that the timing of exposure matters, with exposures during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood mattering the most. Carson also lacked geographic information systems (GIS) and computer mapping programs that can generate visually compelling pictures of potential cancer clusters and other temporospatial patterns for statistical analysis. And yet, through careful, painstaking sleuthing, Carson believed that she was seeing the early signs of a cancer epidemic in slow motion. She was especially concerned with early-life exposures and the apparent rise in cancers among children. And she was right.

Silent Spring demonstrated, with scientific rigour and in heart-thumping prose, that chemical pesticides were not just poisoning their intended insect or weed targets, but accumulating in living cells, where they altered essential cellular machinery, interacted in unpredictable ways, and mutated genes in a heritable waterfall of damage that was warping the entire ‘web of life’.

There is a belief, particularly prevalent among scientists, that science writing is more or less glorified PR – scientists do the intellectual work of discovery and writers port their findings from lab to public – but Silent Spring is a powerful reminder that great science writing can expand our scientific and cultural imaginations. Rarely has the work of a single author – or, indeed, a single book – had such an immediate and profound impact on society. Silent Spring was the first book to persuade a wide audience of the interconnectedness of all life, ushering in the idea that ‘nature’ refers to ecosystems that include humans. It spurred the passage in the United States of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Perhaps most significant, it showed how human health and well-being ties in with the health of our environment, leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. No wonder, then, that writers, activists and scientists concerned about the ongoing destruction of biodiversity and the catastrophic effects of climate change look to Carson with urgent nostalgia.

*

Rachel Carson was born in 1907, in a two-storey clapboard house on a 64-acre farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. She grew up poor, playing along the banks of the Allegheny River and dreaming of becoming a writer.

I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer. I have no idea why … also, I can remember no time when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature … I was rather a solitary child and spent a great deal of time in woods and beside streams, learning the birds and the insects and flowers.

Carson’s mother, who shared her love of nature with her daughter, was a great influence, and both were devastated when heavy industry moved in around the farm, polluting the river and fouling the air. It’s not hard to see Carson’s childhood in the fictional landscape of Silent Spring’s opening pages:

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 colour 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 … Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change.

Her father never really made a go of farming, and as she grew older the land was parcelled into lots and sold off to pay for her education. She attended Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), where she studied English Romantic poetry before switching to biology. (The Romantics’ view of nature and the salutary effects of pristine ‘wilderness’ echoes through her writing.) Influenced by a female biology professor, she turned towards science and studied marine biology at Woods Hole in Cape Cod, where she fell in love with the sea. ‘At Woods Hole … I first discovered the rich scientific literature of the sea. But it is fair to say that my first impressions of the ocean were sensory and emotional, and that the intellectual response came later.’ This is also an apt description of her later approach to writing about the natural world. In an essay on exploring nature with children, she writes: ‘Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.’

In love now with the sea, Carson set aside her dreams of being a writer. She did graduate work at Johns Hopkins, where she studied eels and, unable to afford a full PhD, graduated with an MA in zoology in 1932. Her father had by then fallen ill, and her whole family – mother, father, divorced sister, two small nieces – had moved to Baltimore to live with her. Her father died in 1935, and her sister soon afterwards, leaving Carson to care for her ageing mother and her nieces. The only wage-earner supporting the entire family, Carson spent 15 years working for the federal government as a scientist and editor, and in 1946 became editor-in-chief of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s publications.

To keep the family afloat, she earned extra money by doing various side jobs, including a part-time assignment with the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, where she wrote scripts for a series of radio broadcasts about biology. It was in her early days here, improbably, that her writing career took off.

One week I was told to produce something of a general sort about the sea. I set to work, but somehow the material rather took charge of the situation and turned into something that was, perhaps, unusual as a broadcast for the commissioner of fisheries. My chief read it and handed it back with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I don’t think it will do,’ he said. ‘Better try again. But send this one to the Atlantic.’ Eventually I did, and the Atlantic accepted it.

The four-page article that appeared in the Atlantic as ‘Undersea’ seeded her remarkable ‘sea trilogy’ – Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea around Us and The Edge of the Sea. (A Library of America volume containing Carson’s ocean writing is forthcoming.)

These books are invariably described as ‘lyrical’, a helpless shorthand for Carson’s ability to spin scientific fact into golden prose. Before Jacques Cousteau donned orange Speedos and flippers to take his camera’s eye adventuring under the surface of the sea, Carson took us there, revealing the beauty and the bounty – and, especially, the interconnectedness – of that unseen ecosystem. ‘Through a series of delicately adjusted, interlocking relationships,’ she writes in The Sea around Us,

the life of all parts of the sea is linked. What happens to a diatom in the upper, sunlit strata of the sea may well determine what happens to a cod lying on the ledge of some rocky canyon a hundred fathoms below, or to a bed of multicoloured, gorgeously plumed sea worms carpeting an underlying shoal, or to a prawn creeping over the soft oozes of the sea floor in the blackness of mile-deep water.

She is the poet laureate of the sea, but also of that ‘web of life’, in which everything is connected to everything else.

Carson eventually used the proceeds of her sea books to buy a plot of land on the coast of Maine, where she built a summer cottage and where, in 1953, she met the other love of her life, Dorothy Freeman. For years, the two women shared the small details of their lives – a visit from a neighbour, a sick cat – as well as a wealth of political and existential musings. Carson’s letters are peppered with observations of the natural world. ‘I could see that the inside of their shells, and their own little feathery appendages,’ she writes of a patch of barnacles, ‘were for some odd reason coloured the same deep pink as the algae that were cementing their world together.’ She writes of giving speeches and corresponding with famous scientists with humility and humour, and shows a desire, always, to get back to Maine.

In a letter to Dorothy in February 1958, soon after she began the research that would lead to Silent Spring, Carson explains how the dawn of the atomic age prompted a profound shift in her thinking:

Some of the thoughts that came were so unattractive to me that I rejected them completely, for the old ideas die hard, especially when they are emotionally as well as intellectually dear to one … that the stream of life would flow on through time in whatever course that God had appointed for it … And to suppose that, however the physical environment might mould Life, that Life could never assume the power to change drastically – or even destroy – the physical world.

These beliefs have almost been part of me for as long as I have thought about such things. To have them even vaguely threatened was so shocking that, as I have said, I shut my mind – refused to acknowledge what I couldn’t help seeing. But that does no good, and I have now opened my eyes and my mind … so it seems time someone wrote of Life in the light of the truth as it now appears to us.

*

Though pleased by the remarkable response to Silent Spring, Carson knew that a single book wouldn’t fundamentally alter the capitalist systems that hungered after growth at all cost and allowed toxic chemicals to proliferate. After Silent Spring was published, DDT was banned in the US, but its export was allowed to continue, and so the poison flowed into international markets, finding its insidious way into streams and oceans, circulating in the Earth’s atmosphere and altering Carson’s beloved web of life for ever. Today, DDT is found in the organs of fish and birds on every ocean island from Fiji to the Falklands. Every mother harbours the poison in her breastmilk.

While a handful of the most toxic chemicals have been widely banned, pesticide production has increased fourfold and its use has doubled. New pesticides are still being introduced, with predictably unforeseen consequences. The culprit behind the devastating disappearance of honeybees, known as colony collapse disorder, is not global warming but a widely used class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids that mimic the effects of nicotine and act as nerve poisons. Honeybees pollinate about a third of the world’s crops, and their disappearance would eliminate foods such as cucumbers, berries, almonds and avocados from the human diet, and damage local ecosystems, further threatening staples like milk and fish. Under the Trump administration, a woefully gutted Environmental Protection Agency has cautiously prohibited use of some neonicotinoids ‘when bees are present’ and encouraged more research. The EPA is also actively attempting to dismantle protections put in place in the wake of Silent Spring, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act; at the same time it has overturned a hard-won ban on chloropyrifos, a pesticide linked to cognitive and behavioural deficits in children. Retrograde rollbacks have been initiated on air pollution from cars, trucks and coal-burning power plants, all of which have been linked to human disease and death. As Steingraber notes, ‘pollution in various forms now kills nine million people annually and is responsible for 16 per cent of deaths worldwide – claiming more lives each year than malaria, Aids, tuberculosis, war and violence combined.’ Carson won, but the planet is awash in poison.

According to a report released in April, 40 per cent of all known insects – including beetles, butterflies and bees – face extinction as a result of habitat loss and pesticide use. Even more sobering is the landmark UN global assessment report released just a few weeks ago, which offers a grim appraisal: species are disappearing at a rate unprecedented in human history. Over the past century, the average abundance of native flora and fauna has fallen by 20 per cent or more. The average abundance of wild mammals has dropped by a stunning 82 per cent. And the losses are accelerating. The report finds that ‘around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades.’

Unlike the fish and bird die-offs that Carson investigated, the steep decline of global biodiversity, much of it in the last fifty years, is not a mystery. Human activity has led to the stripmallification of nature: complex forest ecosystems are cleared to make way for fields of a single crop; grasslands and wetlands are paved over for the expansion of roads and cities; non-native species – carried from here to there by humans – eat the local food and kill the local young and homogenise formerly diverse landscapes as effectively as any bulldozer; whole animal populations already poisoned by pesticides and pollution are hunted or fished to a ghostly semblance of their former density, and their absence in turn damages the ecosystems in which they once thrived. As Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s environment editor, wrote after the release of the UN global assessment, it ‘paints a picture of a suffocating human-caused sameness spreading across the planet, as a small range of cash crops and high-value livestock are replacing forests and other nature-rich ecosystems’. ‘Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape,’ Carson wrote nearly sixty years ago, ‘but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.’

The loss is so severe in part because the degradation of habitat caused by human activities like farming, fishing, logging and mining dovetails with the effects of climate change. Before global warming, displaced species might have been able to enact an exodus from landscapes transformed by human use to populate nearby areas. But climate change is shrinking and shifting the local climates in which species evolved to thrive. Even setting aside protected areas, as Carson ardently advocated, will not ensure species survival: the protected land may cease to be viable habitat too quickly. For conservationists it’s a troubling problem: do you try to set aside land, or water, where threatened species live now, or do you try to set aside land, say, a hundred miles to the north of where a species now lives in anticipation of warmer global temperatures shifting ecosystems northward? Is a hundred miles far enough? Too far? Given all the unknowns, does this strategy make any sense? As the recent UN report notes, more than half a million land species alone do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival. And as global biodiversity declines, the remaining species become even more vulnerable to climate catastrophe. With an emaciated gene pool and smaller animal populations, the chances of recovery from traumatic climatic events become slimmer with every passing year.

The scale of the biocide underway may have astonished and devastated Carson, but the fact of our warming planet would not have surprised her. In The Sea around Us, Carson traced links between the ocean and cyclical changes, daily and seasonal, in global climate. Can the ocean, she asked, ‘also be an agent in bringing about the long-period swings of climatic change that we know have occurred throughout the long history of the Earth – the alternating periods of heat and cold, of drought and flood?’ She answers with a resounding ‘yes’, diving into the work of the Swedish oceanographer Otto Pettersson, who lived from 1848 to 1941. Much like Carson would later do in her research on pesticides and cancer, Pettersson pieced together observations from disparate fields into a brilliant synthesis that helped illuminate the forces responsible for climate fluctuations on the scale of geological time. In the 20th century, Carson writes, ‘the long trend is towards a warmer earth; the pendulum is swinging.’ Before her life was cut short by cancer in 1964, less than two years after Silent Spring entered the American consciousness, she had hoped to write her next book about the subject. ‘In our own lifetime,’ she wrote, ‘we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.’ Even then, she was convinced of the relationship between a rapidly warming planet and human activity. Today, the accelerating loss of biodiversity is accompanied by accelerating CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere. In a prepared statement, the British chemist and former IPCC chairman Robert Watson, who served as the UN panel’s chairman, put it bluntly. ‘Let’s be quite candid,’ he said, ‘we’re not on the pathway to 2ºC. We’re on a pathway to 3, 3.5ºC.’

But maybe humans won’t be around to see the effects of the changes we have wrought on the biosphere. The postwar chemical revolution that produced pesticides has also led to a dramatic drop in male fertility. Because we are all ingesting chemicals that mess with human hormones, sperm counts in men around the world have dropped by 50 per cent in the last four decades – men today are half as fertile as their grandfathers were. If this downward trend continues, as it seems to be doing, humanity may be incapable of unassisted reproduction within decades. The social consequences stagger the imagination. This trend towards male sterility is being driven by endocrine disruption at the cellular level, which Carson linked to toxic chemicals in Silent Spring. ‘Not all robins receive a lethal dose,’ she writes, ‘but another consequence may lead to the extinction of their kind as surely as fatal poisoning. The shadow of sterility lies over all the bird studies and indeed lengthens to include all living things within its potential range.’

*

As we grind up against the absolute limits of humanity’s use and misuse of our environment, it’s tempting to look to Silent Spring and ask why it had such a profound impact. The book was successful in part because of its timing, and in part because of Carson’s astonishing skill as a writer, but also because she was able to link the environment directly to human health, making visible a threat that had, until then, remained hidden deep in the machinery of cells. She also offered a nuanced and attainable solution: she did not call for an absolute ban on all chemical pesticides, but proposed instead an end to indiscriminate spraying and suggested we use such chemicals sparingly; she urged study of potentially toxic chemicals before they were allowed to be released into delicately balanced ecosystems; and she proposed relying for the most part on biological methods of pest control that were already known to be effective.

Which is to say, there will be no Rachel Carson for the climate crisis. ‘The average person,’ she wrote of pesticides to her friend Beverly Knecht, ‘has no idea of the problem,’ but the average person today already knows enough to know that a climate catastrophe is underway. Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, the first book on global warming for a wide audience, thirty years ago. Al Gore reached an audience of millions with An Inconvenient Truth. In 2014, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction warned of the cataclysmic loss of global biodiversity. Around the world, in villages and urban centres, ordinary people are dealing with drought, flood, fire, food shortages, conflict, and the pressures of the largest human migration since the last Ice Age. But no one has been able to galvanise the demand for action that followed the publication of Silent Spring. And while measures to mitigate the disaster already upon us are at hand, they are far more difficult to put into practice than those Carson proposed to deal with toxic chemicals. They include a complete overhaul of global agriculture, transportation and energy practices at a time when the necessary political systems are nowhere in place. To put a finer point on it, climate catastrophe has revealed global capitalist systems to be fundamentally bankrupt, as well as illuminating the inadequacy of liberal orthodoxy’s tendency to valorise moderation and incremental change. Only immediate transformative change, including direct confrontation with the powerful global interests behind the carbon economy, will come close to salvaging the biological systems on which all human life depends. As McKibben recently said in the New Yorker, ‘we’re playing maybe for being able to slow it down to the point where it doesn’t make civilisations impossible.’

Consensus around the crisis is building, and we may be approaching a political inflection point. Parliament recently voted to declare a climate change emergency. In the US, the Green New Deal is gathering steam and a new CNN poll shows climate as the number one issue for registered Democrats – presidential candidates on the Democratic side, at least, are vying to be the climate candidate for 2020. Remarkably, the recent UN report acknowledges that loss of biodiversity is projected to keep accelerating until 2050, unless humans manage to enact ‘transformative change’. As Watson explained, ‘by transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.’ The fifty member states involved with the report acknowledged that ‘by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.’

I can’t help but wonder what Carson would have made of our present crisis. She believed there were limits to the changes humans could bring about in the environment without fundamentally altering the balance of nature, and her vision of this balance was not a single point of ideal equilibrium but one of dynamic change. ‘The balance of nature,’ she wrote, ‘is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment. Man, too, is part of this balance. Sometimes the balance is in his favour; sometimes – and all too often through his own activities – it is shifted to his disadvantage.’ This is the first time in human history that the entire global climate is shifting to what may be our permanent disadvantage. Carson was a reformer, not a radical, at heart. But her vision that limits could be favourable to human flourishing is so contrary to capitalist logic that Silent Spring sparked what would become a blaze of radical environmental action. A capitalist system built on the plunder of the natural world must inevitably be threatened by a grassroots movement to stop that plunder.