“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, March 03, 2006

all hail rachel carson

LI has been puzzled, over the last couple years, at the elevation of George Orwell into some kind of template of the politically engaged intellectual. It isn’t that we dislike Orwell – on the contrary. But there really is nothing so ridiculous as the imitation of Orwell that gets imposed on us by the cult. A typical example the cult’s bizarre notion that Orwell is the very essence of what we are all to strive for, us penmen who do the easy task of scribbling in the margins of newspapers, is an essay in the American Prospect on Dwight Macdonald, written by John Rodden and Jack Rossi. No doubt honorable guys – yet the article is almost comic in its insistence that Macdonald is important because he is a pallid rerun of the ever beloved George.

The first graf tells us that the beloved clichés are going to be laid on here like the icing on a mafia wedding cake:

“IN 1958, WRITING IN THE JESUIT weekly America, the historian John Lukacs speculated whether Dwight Macdonald might become "The American Orwell." Noting that Macdonald's American "reputation is rising," Lukacs wrote that he was already known among British intellectuals "as one of the most interesting American critics of these times." In particular Lukacs lauded Macdonald's "lonely and courageous positions" in the mid-1940s-on Yalta, the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender, the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans-and argued that Macdonald's political stance "coincides with the often lonely positions taken by George Orwell amidst the leftist intelligentsia in Britain."”

Loneliness, of course, and courage – those are the words that are trotted out automatically whenever the Orwell catalyst is doing its work somewhere in the paragraph. A cliché can be defined as that verbal unit that does your thinking so you don’t have to – and by that standard, Rodden and Rossi have certain produced such a cognitive saving article that, with the spare brain space, they could have been solving first year chemistry problems.

The automatic alignment of certain words with Orwell – lonely, courageous, the “leftist intelligentsia,” contrarian (used later in the article), “a consistent opponent of Stalinism,” etc., etc. rolls over the reader, who has read all of these phrases before. Orwell keeps popping up to either crown something Macdonald does or to provide edifying contrast – even to Dwight’s birth: “Born into a wealthy upper middle class family class family much like that of Orwell…” I suppose if Macdonald had been born to a family of poor sharecroppers, his birth would have been unlike Orwell’s – but still, the Orwellian seal of approval would have been affixed.

All of which brings me to: Rachel Carson. Lately, LI has been thinking of intellectual interventions that actually produced immediate concrete results, and we were struck by the fact that so few people talk about the lonely, courageous Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring certainly influenced legislation that is with us every day, and produced, wholesale, the genre of environmental muckraking. And while Orwell certainly had to contend with the dirty dealings of the pro-Stalinist intellectual set, he never had to bear the brunt of the anger of a very well financed sector of the economy – the pesticide/agribusiness concerns – which still annually try to crop spray her in the journals of the right, part of which dribbles over into the neo-liberal organs we all know and love -- most notably in Tina Rosenberg's ignorant plea for DDT in the NYT mag a couple of years back, which implied that malaria control depends totally on massive amounts of an unsubstitutable pesticide with huge side costs (which are, of course, not mentioned), subject to studies that show infant mortality rates going up due to DDT in the breast milk, even as infant mortality rates go down due to the lessened number of malaria carrying mosquitoes.

While, in truth, my intellectual concerns are closer to Orwell’s subject matter – the nexus between literature, truth-telling and politics – lets face it, Silent Spring is a much more thrilling, and a more relevant book than 1984 ever was.

Oddly enough, the famous beginning of Silent Spring, the fable for tomorrow, which contained in a nutshell the kind of thing that drives the Delays of the world crazy, is even more relevant to the Soviet experience than the American. The difference, actually, is Silent Spring itself – there was no Soviet Silent Spring. Now, that is what I call an intellectual intervention – a book that makes a historic difference in a system.

So one reads, for instance, of the town in Carson’s fable:

“Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices there were now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

And one thinks of the Aral Sea. As William McNeill shows, in his environmental history of the twentieth century, the two groups who promoted, as a form of manifest destiny, the deadly polluting of the environment in the 20th century were the Soviets and the American GOP.

William Burroughs was quite right to see the symbolic bond between pesticides and junk. But it was Rachel Carson, a woman who struggled just to survive as a biologist in the 30s and 40s, when it was not a field in which women were encouraged, and who had matters in her life that could make her vulnerable to the disgusting attacks of the corporations – for instance, she was a lesbian, which in 1961 was the kind of thing that could still get you arrested – and yet she just serenely kept on.
I think the usual idea about Carson is summarized by Marla Cone’s article, in the Columbia Journalism Review, about her continuing relevance:

“Oddly enough, when I began covering environmental problems in the mid-1980s, I thought that Silent Spring was an anachronism, important only as a reminder of people's profound ignorance about the environment during the post-World War II industrial age. I was starting kindergarten in September of 1962 when Carson published her epic warning about how man-made pesticides were poisoning the world. Oblivious to what Carson called the "elixirs of death," I grew up on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, in one of the nation's toxic hotspots, Waukegan, Illinois, and during the time when the "Dirty Dozen"--the ubiquitous DDT and other toxic chlorinated chemicals--were reaching record levels in all our urban environments, particularly around the Great Lakes. Yet by the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, the world's worst environmental problems had supposedly been brought under control. We had seen the Evil Empire and it was that of our fathers and mothers. We were the offspring of the clueless World War II generation that sprayed DDT and poisoned the Great Lakes and fouled the air. We were finding the solution to pollution.”
But I now realize that what Carson called the "chain of evil"--the buildup of chemicals in our environment--continues unbroken to this day. And even though the political firestorm Carson's book stirred up forty-three years ago burns with just as much intensity today, most of Carson's science remains sound and her warnings prescient. If we take a mental snapshot of what we know now about the dangers of chemical exposure, the questions still outnumber the answers. Yet one thing remains as certain as it was in 1962: we are leaving a toxic trail that will outlive us.”
Another irresistible graf from that article:
“When the manuscript of Silent Spring was serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962, Carson was demonized. Chemical companies, and even some of her fellow scientists, attacked her data and interpretations, lambasted her credentials', called her hysterical and one-sided, and pressured her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, to withdraw Silent Spring. Monsanto went so far as to publish a parody of Silent Spring, called The Desolate Year, in which famine, disease, and insects take over the world after pesticides have been banned.”

For all the loneliness and courage it takes to evoke Orwell, I can pretty much guarantee that the mention of that lifelong socialist will win you kudos in the conservative mags. But praise Rachel Carson and you will soon have an opportunity to find out all about loneliness and courage and being the object of unstinting vituperation.

I’m going to post about RC again, soon.

PS – for those who think Global Warming is not in our “economic interests” to try to prevent – and Global warming is just the kind of interaction between human made chemical agents and the environment that Carson understood so well – might want to take a gander at the future, displayed in this article in the WAPO. Of course, when it came to fighting for the brave lumberman against the horrible environmentalists, protecting those unnecessary owls, the right was all over the case. Now that the natural structure upon which the entire timber industry is built – the existence of forests – is under attack from a beetle who could only be operating because of the warming we’ve experienced over the last twenty years, let’s just say it isn’t going to worry the good folks at National Review, or the White House. The peculiar ideology of American conservatism, as we have argued often, is merely the extended phenotype of the petro-chemical industry. It is not synonymous, even, with the business interests of other industrial sectors.

“Millions of acres of Canada's lush green forests are turning red in spasms of death. A voracious beetle, whose population has exploded with the warming climate, is killing more trees than wildfires or logging.

The mountain pine beetle has infested an area three times the size of Maryland, devastating swaths of lodgepole pines and reshaping the future of the forest and the communities in it.

"It's pretty gut-wrenching," said Allan Carroll, a research scientist at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria, whose studies tracked a lock step between warmer winters and the spread of the beetle. "People say climate change is something for our kids to worry about. No. It's now."”
Years from now, we will look back in disbelief: 500 – 700 billion in costs for a pointless war in Iraq; the inability to deal with a small group of terrorists, who, regrouping, were able to attack Saudi Arabia (one of those future coming attractions); and more than anything else, the Titanic like movement into an oncoming disaster, except in the Titanic’s case it was ice, and in our case it is the lack thereof.

At the province's Ministry of Forests and Range in Quesnel, forestry officer Pelchat saw the beetle expansion coming as "a silent forest fire." He and his colleagues launched an offensive to try to stop or at least delay the invasion, all the while hoping for cold temperatures. They searched out beetle-ridden trees, cutting them and burning them. They thinned forests. They set out traps. But the deep freeze never came.

"We lost. They built up into an army and came across," Pelchat said. Surveys show the beetle has infested 21 million acres and killed 411 million cubic feet of trees -- double the annual take by all the loggers in Canada. In seven years or sooner, the Forest Service predicts, that kill will nearly triple and 80 percent of the pines in the central British Columbia forest will be dead.”
Mad Max at the thunderdome. The deserts of Canada. No future for you.
The timbering spokesman barely gets in the usual industry jibe at the environmentalists, and he even makes an arguable point, beyond the inevitable pr cliché:

"It was the perfect storm" of warmer weather and vulnerable old trees, coupled with constraints that slowed logging of the infected wood, said Douglas Routledge, who represents timber companies in the city of Prince George

But it can’t happen here. There will be no effect on Florida, Las Vegas, Arizona, the Dakotas, Montana, Utah, all the populations, those booming Christian masses betting on real estate, who consistently vote the anti-green side. Right. We are as bugs awaiting the steamroller. Yes, with the market glutted with Orwells, perhaps it is time to invest in some Rachel Carsons. It certainly couldn’t hurt.


New York Pervert said...

Roger--like the stuff on Rachel Carson (and definitely want to hear more), but even if emphasize you like Orwell, the comparison is...one of those comparisons that are a bit hard to really understand why necessary. I tend to like the assessments separated as long as possible, maybe you thought the comparison part had to be done. I couldn't be sure, but it probably has to do with personal taste, if you think one important book is so much more thrilling than another important book. This is mostly a reverie on comparisons in general, which I usually like best when there is a quality difference that is obvious (and all diplomatic channels have been exhausted), less when there's not.

roger said...

NYP, perhaps I should be clear that comparison, here, is not disparagement -- it is merely that opening up the spectrum of what you can do as an "engaged" intellectual is something I'd like to see. I don't think it is any service to GO to slather him on, hither and yon, like some artificial mayonnaise product.

Plus I'm puzzled that nobody goes on the same reverential binge about Rachel Carson, who was, in fact, attacked with much more vigor than Orwell. Orwell would have been the first to see that.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

'nobody goes on the same reverential binge about Rachel Carson'

yes, they should. My comment was not all that clear, I knew you weren't being disparaging about Orwell. I think I was vaguely thinking about people who compare Joyce and Proust, etc, or Ravel and Debussy, I knew you weren't doing that, but I'm literally paranoid when it comes to things like that, as those things make me just wanna die. I look forward to the next things about Carson. Somehow I remember The New Yorker's Talk of the Town starting off with 'Rachel Carson is dead...' although that would have been one of the first I ever read.