When Facts Were Enough

How Rachel Carson Broke Through
Rachel Carson conducts research with Bob Hines in 1952 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

I live in a large apartment building perched on the edge of what is surely the most obscure treasure in Washington, D.C.—Rock Creek Park. I had never heard of it before I moved here, but it didn’t take me long to realize that a trail at the end of my block led into miles and miles of forest, right in the middle of a city. As a native Chicagoan, I had no idea that a city “park” could be like this. Thanks to Rock Creek Park, I’ve not only encountered plenty of deer grazing peacefully on my apartment building’s front lawn, but I also get to wake up every morning to the sound of birds chirping away.

It turns out I may have Rachel Carson to thank. In a lecture included in this new Library of America edition of her work, Carson notes that among the “destructions of beauty” being planned is that of “a small but beautiful woodland area—Rock Creek Park.” There was at the time a proposal “to run a six-lane arterial highway through the heart of that narrow woodland valley.” Sadly, some of the Maryland portion of Rock Creek Park was sacrificed for the Capital Beltway, but the D.C. portion remained unbuilt, leaving only the original winding tourist roads (much to the chagrin of locals who still try to use those roads to commute).

But of course, it is those chirping birds that make me most grateful for the enormous impact Carson’s most famous book, Silent Spring, had in curtailing the massive, indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, and in helping inspire a backlash that grew into today’s environmental movement. Those pesticides poisoned all kinds of wildlife, including birds. As Sandra Steingraber’s introduction to this edition notes, a blue-ribbon panel in 1992 named Silent Spring “the single most influential book of the past fifty years.” What author doesn’t hope that his or her book might make that kind of a difference in the world?

Silent Spring might not seem at first glance like such a book. Much of it consists of fairly detailed analysis of particular examples of pesticide overuse, annotated with sixty pages’ worth of citations from the scientific literature. Yet this is surely part of the book’s appeal. While evidently the work of an informed scientist, the text manifests Carson’s prior experience as a science writer, displaying a gift for intertwining broad findings with particular stories of egregious overuse and a deep appreciation for the beauty and wonder of nature. Serious, informed, yet also passionate, Silent Spring is a model of how to write for the general public about complicated things.

 

Carson was not anti-science. Nor was her approach what we would now call “deep ecology.” Instead, it reflected an understanding of humanity’s relationship to the rest of nature that is now enshrined in Catholic teaching.

It may be hard for us now to imagine the original context. It was truly the era of better-living-through-chemistry. Readers too young to remember that time may be shocked to learn of the indiscriminate spraying of the 1950s. Take the campaign against the fire ant, an invasive insect in the South. Despite decades of evidence that the ant did little harm to crops, wildlife, and humans, its “eradication” was deemed necessary by the United States Department of Agriculture. Eventually over 20 million acres were sprayed with “relatively new” insecticides. Carson takes several pages to describe the animal deaths that followed. After a couple of years, the USDA severely reduced the program, not least because farmers were increasingly unwilling to sign up for it. Or perhaps it was because the FDA banned any residue of the main insecticide, heptachlor, on food. The ban was based on research already available when the spraying program began.

Carson was not anti-science. Nor was her approach what we would now call “deep ecology.” Instead, it reflected an understanding of humanity’s relationship to the rest of nature that is now enshrined in Catholic teaching. She would have agreed with Pope Benedict when he wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate, that we should always aim to work with, rather than against, creation’s grammar. In her very first pages, Carson notes that she is not saying “there is no insect problem” but only that “control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations.”

Take, for example, her extended study of the Japanese beetle, an invasive pest originally imported to the East Coast of the United States in the 1910s. Carson describes the efforts of Midwestern states in the 1950s to combat this “only…moderately destructive insect” through widespread spraying. The city of Detroit was sprayed with Aldrin because, though a poison, it was the cheapest available product. Residents were told that “the dust is harmless to children and will not hurt plants or pests.” When birds and domestic animals began to die because of the spraying, authorities strenuously denied it. And this was only one among many spraying programs, most of which resulted in “only temporary suppression of the insect.” Carson then explains that communities on the East Coast had controlled the pests for decades by importing a particular wasp predator and introducing targeted bacteria that gave only the beetles “milky spore disease.” Carson never suggests that controlling pests is in itself a bad objective. The crucial question is what sort of control. She consistently favors “natural” or “biological” controls rather than chemical ones. She even has good things to say about prospective genetic manipulations that would render pests sterile over time. Such solutions use knowledge of the natural system itself to achieve their objective, for “the really effective control of insects is that applied by nature, not by man.”

The overuse of pesticides, as described by Carson, also exemplifies the core concept of Pope Francis’s Laudato si’—namely, the technocratic paradigm, according to which we “lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” This contrasts with an approach to nature Francis describes as “in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves.” Like Francis, Carson seems convinced that a key reason the technocratic paradigm has been adopted is that it advances the interests of the powerful. She notes the “sales bonanza” for manufacturers that lay behind the fire-ant program. The chemical companies trot out “outstanding entomologists” whose research labs are entirely funded by the industry itself, while research on natural controls is “never so endowed.” As Carson reminds the reader more than once, this heavy-handed approach doesn’t even succeed on its own terms: the bugs quickly evolve to become resistant to the control, leaving an even worse problem. She also warns that the same kind of “resistance” will not be built up by slow-evolving humans, who will be subject year after year to greater and greater quantities of necessarily more potent poisons. After all, she notes forebodingly, new insect populations “arise in a matter of days or weeks,” whereas humans do so “roughly three generations per century.” The point is clear enough: if this is how humans fight insects, it is the humans who will eventually lose.

And surely it is this human peril that ultimately accounts for the large impact of Silent Spring. As Carson notes in a letter written while she was preparing the book, “it has always been my intention to give principal emphasis to the menace to human health, even though setting this within the general framework of disturbances of the basic ecology of all living things.” This Carson does slowly but effectively, waiting until later chapters to talk about the dangers of “innumerable small-scale exposures” that lead to “progressive buildup...and so to cumulative poisoning.” Knowing she will have to overcome the counterclaims of people who say they are “fine” even after using sprays in their gardens for years, she explains in great detail how cellular mutations caused by toxic chemicals generate cancers and long-term genetic damage. She reports that “mosquitoes exposed to DDT for several generations” became “strange creatures called gynandromorphs—part male and part female.” She never goes beyond the evidence, but simply asks whether “filling the environment with chemicals that have the power to strike directly at the chromosomes” is “too high a price to pay for a spoutless potato or a mosquitoless patio?” She pleads that we must simply “reduce the threat.” The analogy with our own ongoing, potentially catastrophic experiment with the earth’s atmosphere will be clear to any alert reader.

Like Laudato si’, Carson’s work also calls us beyond fear to a deeper appreciation for the beauty of natural systems. The Library of America edition helps us see this by including, along with Silent Spring, several shorter works by Carson. In one, she describes how her interest in the sea—the subject of her earlier books—first developed:

I had my first prolonged contact with the sea at Woods Hole. I never tired of watching the tidal currents pouring through the Hole—that wonderful place of whirlpools and eddies and swiftly racing water. I loved to watch the waves breaking at Nobska Point after a storm…. My first impressions of the ocean were sensory and emotional, and the intellectual response came later.

She goes on to write, “I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society.” This foundation of delight and wonder is especially evident in her letters, which chronicle days spent introducing the natural world to her young great-nephew and adopted son, Roger.

 

First one must recognize that it is just as appropriate—and today just as necessary—for a pope to write about the natural ecology of a world created and redeemed by God as it is for him to write about the human ecology of marriage.

Where are we today? In one sense, rereading Carson’s book can give one hope. In the United States and around the world, the sort of indiscriminate use of pesticides she describes is now forbidden, and many of the worst chemicals she decries are no longer in use. The very existence of environmental regulatory agencies owes a great deal to her work. And the “Neanderthal science” she laments, which rejects any concern for ecological balance, is at least no longer the dominant paradigm. Finally, Carson’s impact as a woman scientist, faced with much blatantly sexist blowback, should remind us that even in a discriminatory social structure, a well-argued case can prevail.

Yet the book also inspires some less cheerful reflections. To begin with, its appeal depends on its readers having some active ties to the natural world. The “artificial” form of life she criticizes is opposed in her narratives by birders, household gardeners, and other ordinary observers of the natural world. These concerned citizens, often gathered in socially established associations, set off nonpartisan public alarms and provide Carson with many striking details. One can’t help doubting whether, a few generations later, the basic tie to nature embodied in these groups is still as strong as it was then.

Then too, the factual, straightforward, non-hyperbolic tone of the book will remind readers of a time when public discourse was better than it is now. Carson is not above appealing to her readers’ emotions with wrenching descriptions of birds slowly dying of poisoning. Yet pages and pages of the book methodically rehearse the basic scientific facts, and the overall tone is one not of outrage but of earnest concern. It sometimes seems today as though people believe that the only way you can write a book that “makes a difference” is through a dramatic, often angry depiction of heroes and villains. That was clearly not true in 1962.

Finally, one wonders if comparably egregious examples of the technocratic paradigm could galvanize such an immediate response in today’s fragmented and highly polarized media environment. It’s true that one of the difficulties with slow-emerging, large-scale environmental problems like climate change is the difficulty of identifying immediate impacts. Carson did not have that problem: her resonant example of a silent spring in the wake of a massive die-off of birds was no doubt one reason there was an instant response to her general argument. But such die-offs are hardly the only example of technocratic thinking. Arguably, the most alarming example today is the rapid and total penetration of smartphone technology, especially in the lives of the young. Despite well-documented studies of the neurological (Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows) and sociological (Jean Twenge’s iGen) impacts of the technology, little has been done to curb its overuse.

Indeed, in the church itself, Laudato si’, much celebrated upon its release, now seems to be overshadowed by a number of other dramas surrounding this pontificate. Francis’s criticism of the technocratic way of thinking and his call for radical lifestyle changes don’t seem to have had much effect on Catholics, let alone the wider world. On the political front, the pope’s insistence on the necessity of global solutions to a global problem hasn’t led American Catholics to pressure the Republican party to reconsider its opposition to international limits on carbon emissions. Nor has Laudato si’ succeeded in getting most Catholics to view protection of the natural world as an essential part of practicing their faith. Whenever I teach Laudato si’ to college students, parishioners, or seminarians, someone objects that bringing up “the environment” will immediately be perceived as political. Yes, there are policy implications to Francis’s work. But first one must recognize that it is just as appropriate—and today just as necessary—for a pope to write about the natural ecology of a world created and redeemed by God as it is for him to write about the human ecology of marriage.

Here is a final lesson of Carson’s book for Catholics. She asks questions that call on her reader’s deepest moral intuitions. Recording the painful details of how a meadowlark dies, she concludes, “By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished?” Elsewhere, she points out the undemocratic nature of these decisions by asking: “Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted…?” Such questions unmask the technocratic paradigm not by proposing some exotic alternative but simply by noting how unseen powers impose a way of life that results in the destruction of natural habitats, including ours. Carson made people realize that this was not what they wanted; policy changes followed from this deeper recognition. Similarly, in Laudato si’, Pope Francis starts by celebrating the beauty of creation before denouncing the “throwaway culture” that endangers it—a culture that encourages us to reject God, our vulnerable neighbors, and all of creation for our own convenience. Who among us is not diminished by that? And who among us really wants that?

 

Silent Spring
And Other Writings on the Environment

Rachel Carson
Library of America, $35, 605 pp.

Published in the November 9, 2018 issue: 

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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