On the morning of this shining Earth Day, it seems like a good time to begin an occasional series about the books that have moved me, challenged me, and taught me over the last few years, as I was working on a book about Flint and its water crisis (out July 10!). It’s my way of expressing gratitude for the writers who made them. Some picks on this makeshift reading list, I suspect, will surprise you. They’re not all nonfiction, for one! And they don’t all precisely deal with what I’ve been writing about: water, cities, urbanism, environmental injustice. And some books were more instructive for their craft — how the narratives were constructed — than their content. But one way or another, they got me through this heady, difficult time of trying to understand what happened in Flint and why, and making a book about what I’ve learned. Plus, I can’t resist a chance to get back to my roots in book-blogging…
I’ll start with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I read it this last year, in the springtime, which romanced me so much that I snapped the above photo while sitting on the steps of a porch, cleverly juxtaposing it with the first blossoms of the year. As you’ve probably heard, Carson’s book from 1962 — an indictment of how the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides were poisoning the ecosystem and ourselves — is often described as launching the environmental movement. It certainly led to the use DDT and certain other powerful pesticides to be banished. But sometimes a groundbreaking book can be calcified as a symbol; in all the homilies, the text itself is left behind. Which is a shame because this particular book is far stranger than I ever expected.
Carson was a marine biologist who worked with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries before becoming a full-time writer. She used to write freelance articles for the Baltimore Sun about industrial pollution in the Chesapeake Bay with the byline of “R.L. Carson” because she didn’t believe that people would take her science seriously if they knew she was female. (And of course, when people see initials, they assume the person behind them is male, itself a telling detail.) Silent Spring was first published as a three-part serial in the New Yorker. She died a year after the book came out, never seeing the full shape of the environmental movement that she helped inspire.
Silent Spring is revolutionary, seriously flawed, and altogether compelling. One thing I loved about the book is how she doesn’t mince on the science, finding clear language to describe the chain effect of spraying pesticides from old war planes over huge swaths of the country. One particular pest might be targeted, and yet a whole slew of other problems are created — and often, the first problem wasn’t even really solved. (She also questions how we decide what is a ‘pest’ in the first place.) And she makes a pioneering case for the cumulative effects of toxic exposure: how maybe X amount of Y chemical doesn’t cause noticeable harm to humans or plants, but even if that is so, what about the combination of Y+X+A+B chemicals? We exist in ecosystems, after all, and it is absurdly artificial to look at the cause-and-effect of chemicals as if we only encounter one thing at a time.
I also love how Carson elegantly showed how this was a national story by moving from disturbing incidences in, say, Alabama to East Lansing, Michigan. She draws from a mountain of research, respecting the reader enough to grasp its implications, while at the same time, using a staid narrative tone that seems to evoke parables. That unusual combination makes for a powerful argument about how people trying to find profitable uses for postwar chemicals and technology were unchecked by any meaningful regulation. Not only could this harm people but — of equal concern — it was harming plant life and animals. The interconnectedness of the living world, and Carson’s profound love for it, beams through every page.
As for the weirdness in the book: even if you didn’t know when it was published, you’d guess in an instant that it was before Watergate, and before the peak of the Vietnam War. Carson so often gestures toward professional titles and credentials as a way of building credibility for opinions with which she agrees. “Dr. Peter Alexander, an outstanding British authority, has said that the radiomimetic chemicals ‘may well represent a greater danger’ than radiation,” she writes at one point. Another instance: “When this question is put to Dr. Hueper, whose years of distinguished work in cancer makes his opinion one to respect, his reply is given with the thoughtfulness of one who has pondered it long and has a lifetime of research and experience behind his judgment.” Another: “One of the most widely known and respected wildlife biologists in the country, Dr. Clarence Cottam, called on some of the farmers whose property had been treated.”
The researchers Carson disagrees with are introduced with no such flourish, and indeed are not really mentioned at all as individuals; rather, they are embodied only by the faceless, dehumanized institutions where they work, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s a sly rhetorical trick that feels impossibly dated now.
I read Silent Spring not long after reading The Making of the President 1960, so this tic probably stood out to me even more than it would have otherwise. (Theodore H. White’s fascinating book does the same thing, to say the least; a kind of romantic view of power that is almost heartbreaking.) That kind of knee-jerk trust in authority, simply because they are authorities, just wouldn’t fly today. It is a testament to how far the environmental movement has come. It’s far more questioning today, and is better about honoring the wisdom of lived experience alongside professional expertise (and not necessarily seeing those two as separate.)
That said, I’m grateful for Silent Spring, and for Carson. We have to start somewhere, after all. And Carson’s greatest achievement — linking environmentalism and public health in the popular imagination– is very much alive today, from the streets of Flint to her beloved Chesapeake Bay.
I might mention that one of the books I haven’t gotten to yet, but has been recommended to me a few times and seems like a great follow-up, is Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment by Robert K. Musil. It looks like it contextualizes Carson’s work with environmental pioneers that came before and after her, including the Dr. Alice Hamilton, an early and prophetic foe of lead poisoning, particularly as it affected workers.
Finally, here is a peek at the New York Times reporting on the first Earth Day in 1970, seven years after Silent Spring was published, and about seven months before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was founded. It’s also before the Clean Water Act, the expanded Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, and before the Superfund and Marine Sanctuaries programs. It’s also before we put any regulations on the toxic lead that was (is) in our house paint, gasoline, and drinking water.
But that April, people were hopeful: “… organizers of the event see it not only as a massive alert to public awareness but also as the dawn of a new era of ‘ecological politics.'”