Wednesday, January 25, 2017

American Experience: Rachel Carson (WGBH/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the American Experience special on biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson, who trained as a marine biologist, worked for years at the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and stumbled into national consciousness in 1951 with the publication of her book The Sea Around Us. Carson was born May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the third of three daughters of the formidable Marie Carson, who taught her to appreciate nature and study it scientifically. Carson eventually fastened on marine biology as her specialty — though according to the show she only dived once, and that was for just eight minutes — and her rise in the scientific profession (she got a masters’ degree but for financial reasons had to drop her pursuit of a Ph.D.) was hampered not only by being a woman but by having to care for much of her family, including her mom (who depended on Rachel for financial support after Rachel’s dad died in 1935), her sisters and their kids. So Rachel Carson had the responsibility of caring for a family without having acquired one through a normal relationship — indeed it seems likely that Carson never had a sexual relationship of any kind. Carson’s skill at popularizing biological concepts and explaining them in prose of often breathtaking beauty became apparent when she worked on Fish and Wildlife brochures and — a part of her career unmentioned in the PBS documentary — the scripts for a weekly radio show called Romance Under the Waters. She wrote her first book, Under the Sea-Winds, in 1941, but had the misfortune to release it just before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II. Meanwhile — and the PBS Carson documentary does an excellent job dramatizing this with quite a lot of footage from industry and government promotional films of the period — the insect-killing properties of a chemical called DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which was used extensively in both the European and Pacific theatres. There are shots of people in Naples enthusiastically lining up to be sprayed with DDT to avoid getting lice, and also notes on how the stuff was used in the Pacific to stop the spread of the Anopheles mosquito that spreads malaria. After the war DDT was released for civilian use and heavily promoted as a chemical that would be lethal to insects but harmless to people, and at the same time the development of atomic weapons and particularly the hydrogen bomb made people aware for the first time that chemicals in the atmosphere that were barely visible could nonetheless kill. (The Carson documentary tells the story of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon V, whose crew was doused with fallout from America’s first H-bomb test, leading to the death of everyone on board from radiation sickness — though the show did not mention that it was this incident that inspired the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla.) Carson had become concerned with DDT’s potential long-term implications — particularly its effect on birds and its gradual accumulation in higher and higher concentrations as it moved up the food chain — as early as 1945, when based on Fish and Wildlife researches she wrote an article about it and submitted it to Reader’s Digest, which turned it down. Carson’s 1951 book The Sea Around Us became a surprise bestseller; instead of relying on her own research as she had with Under the Sea-Winds, she synthesized the work of other scientists and added a piquant, quasi-poetic prose style that delighted readers.

The Sea Around Us was such a hit that it inspired the reissue of Under the Sea-Winds, Carson sold the movie rights (though she hated the Lewis Allen documentary film that got released — her contract had given her the right to “review” the film’s script but not to insist on changes — and, like J. D. Salinger, she hated the experience of having her work filmed so much she never again sold movie rights to any of her books), and she got a contract for a third book on the sea, The Edge of the Sea, based on other scientists’ research and also on her own explorations of the coastline. Carson used the money to buy a summer house in Maine and befriended a couple named Stanley and Dorothy Freeman — and, though they only spent about two months in each other’s physical presence over a 10-year friendship, Carson and Dorothy Freeman wrote powerful, emotionally intense letters to each other that were basically a throwback to a 19th century model of friendship in which people addressed each other in ways that in the late 20th century would be considered appropriate only for people who were, or wanted to be, sexually involved with each other. In the 1950’s she briefly considered writing a book about evolution and also one about the environment called Remembrance of the Earth, as the preliminary studies being done on DDT and other long-lasting pesticides convinced her that the continued indiscriminate use of such substances threatened life on earth. She began what became the book Silent Spring in 1958 but was slowed up by the cancer that eventually killed her. When Silent Spring was first released in 1962 — her friend William Shawn published three extended excerpts in The New Yorker months before the book as a whole was available — it caused a sensation and pretty much set the terms for environmental debate (on both sides!) that have obtained since. Though the PBS documentary (narrated movingly by actress Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Carson in readings from her works and her letters, mostly to Dorothy Freeman) doesn’t stress the point, one gets the distinct impression that opposition to Carson’s work was motivated as much by sexism as by corporate and individual self-interest. Male scientists and corporate leaders were used to being acclaimed as heroes who were changing the face of the earth to make it better and more habitable for humans, and here was this woman who’d previously been known for nice, harmless books about the sea challenging all that and portraying the captains of industry and what former President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address (right after he warned about the “military-industrial complex”) called “the scentific-technological elite” and which he regarded as similarly dangerous, as the potential destroyers of life on earth. Silent Spring also was one of the first books to advance the concept later known as “ecology,” the idea that all life forms on earth are interconnected and therefore wiping out one seemingly inconvenient form of life could have dire consequences for other species that humans considered desirable.

The book so closely set the tone for debate on environmental issues in general and pesticides in particular that when I did an article on the history of pesticides for the Holistic Living News in the early 1980’s among the books I consulted, along with Silent Spring itself, were tomes called Before Silent Spring and Since Silent Spring — as well as That They May Live, a 1964 response book financed by the pesticide industry and written under contract to them by Congressmember Jamie L. Whitten (D-Mississippi), who was also a strong racist whose Congressional seat was protected when Mississippi lost a seat following the 1960 census by simply jamming his district together with racial moderate Frank E. Smith’s, thereby ensuring Smith’s defeat in the next election. (Smith tells this story in his book Congressman from Mississippi, and in 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to these sorts of shenanigans in their “one person, one vote” decision.) It was ironic, to say the least, that PBS aired this show the day President Donald Trump signed executive orders green-lighting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, using the same sorts of arguments made by Rachel Carson’s opponents 55 years ago — that potential long-term damage to the environment is utterly unimportant; what matters is the U.S. economy and jobs here and now — confirming the anti-environmentalist message of his campaign and also, I suspect, reinforcing his whole macho concept of leadership. It’s long struck me that there’s a sexist component in the anti-environmentalist movement, a sense that real men get their energy by drilling for oil or digging for coal, and it’s only women and feminized “men” who advocate for solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources. Likewise real men use pestcides and herbicides when they farm, and it’s only women and feminized “men” who concern themselves with long-term environmental consequences — though, ironically, at least part of the anti-environmentalism that’s so much a part of the American Right (less so the Right in other countries) comes from the arrogant dismissal of it in female author Ayn Rand’s novels and her belief that any environmental problems created by untrammeled capitalism could be solved by it as well (like Atlas Shrugged protagonist John Galt’s physics-defying motor that runs on air).