Massachusetts State Senator Jo Comerford wrote an important op ed article in Massachusetts’ Greenfield Recorder on June 24 entitled, “Bug, Weeds and Health” that immediately connected me to what Rachel Carson (Rachel C) had written about just shy of 60 years ago. This connection was prompted by Jo C’s sentence, “How do we transform the ways that we prevent mosquito-borne illnesses with the well-being of our environment as the top goal?” Several paragraphs later, she nails her concern in this exquisite existential statement, “…the intersection of human health and the health of our environment.”
Jo C’s statement is like a pebble thrown into the pond of my environmental awareness. The pebble’s splash causes ripples that attempt to reach the ever-receding shores of secure knowledge about how to avoid the increasingly unavoidable impacts of our climate crisis.
In her attempt to better understand the impact of pesticides on public health – including the “forever toxin” PFAS – Jo C has formed a task force that includes “scientific experts and representatives from organizations concerned with land conservation, river protection, wildlife protection, organic agriculture and pollinators.”
This leads me back to Rachel C who began her career as an aquatic biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. Carson’s widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us won her a U.S. National Book Award. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the reissued version of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, also became bestsellers. This sea trilogy explores the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths. Rachel C would turn over in her grave if she were alive today to witness the decline of our ocean’s health.
In the late 1950s, Rachel C began to focus on conservation. She had first encountered the subject of DDT, a “revolutionary” new pesticide lauded as the “insect bomb” (after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki)! DDT was only just beginning to undergo tests for safety and ecological effects.
By late 1957, Carson was closely following federal proposals for widespread pesticide spraying. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was attempting to eradicate fire ants. Other spraying programs involving chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates were on the rise. For the rest of her life, Carson’s primary professional focus would be the dangers of pesticide overuse – the focus of Jo C’s op ed article.
Silent Spring, Carson’s classic and best-known book, was published on September 27, 1962. The book describes the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and is widely credited for inspiring a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Rachel C’s biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle wrote that Carson “quite self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined post-war American culture.” Her combination of “scientific knowledge and poetic writing” reached a broad audience and helped to focus opposition to DDT use. The overriding theme of Silent Spring is the powerful and often adverse effect humans have on the natural world. Where have you heard that before?
In 2012 Silent Spring was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society for the book’s role in the development of the modern environmental movement. This acknowledgement is more than perverse and ironic given the fierce opposition by chemical companies in their attempts to stop the publication of Silent Spring. Velsicol Chemical Corporation (exclusive manufacturer of chlordane and heptachlor) threatened legal action against the book’s publisher Houghton Mifflin, The New Yorker and Audubon unless the planned Silent Spring features were canceled. Chemical companies like DuPont (a main manufacturer of DDT) and associated organizations produced a number of their own brochures and articles promoting and defending pesticide use. Kind of like today’s brochures from fossil fuel companies touting green energy.
American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among Rachel C’s most aggressive critics, especially of her analysis of DDT. According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Others went further, attacking Carson’s scientific credentials (because her training was in marine biology rather than biochemistry) and her character. White-Stevens labeled her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” What?! Upsetting “the intersection of human health and the health of our environment?”
My state senator Jo C, together with Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, along with several environmental groups, hosted a public forum on July 14 to build public awareness of PFAS and to encourage widespread and sustained public action. I hope that neither she nor her counterparts throughout New England encounter the kind of obstructionism that Rachel C faced six decades ago in what is today’s climate of anti-everything.
John Bos has been writing about climate change, then the climate crisis and now the climate emergency for ten years. He is a contributing writer for Green Energy Times, Citizen Truth and appears bi-weekly in the Greenfield Recorder in his column “Connecting the Dots.” He has followed the career of Senator Comerford since she was appointed Executive Director of National Priorities Project in 2012. Comments and questions are invited at firstname.lastname@example.org.