Insecticide

Although Halloween is more about spiders than insects, a real fear seems to be swirling around the latter.  For the second time in a year, a study has been published indicating a precipitous drop in the numbers of six-legged creatures worldwide.  This is alarming because everything’s connected.  Loss of insects means loss of vertebrates that feed on them and that leads to loss of species upon which we depend.  The problem with “humans first,” simply “America first” writ large, is that all species are interconnected.  The loss of one will lead to the loss of others—that’s the way connections work—until the entire picture changes.  And it won’t be prettier.  Even for lack of bugs.

Scientists aren’t sure of why this is happening, but the likely culprit seems to be global warming.  Temperatures are changing so rapidly that evolution can’t keep up.  And since those in political power don’t believe in evolution—America first!—they have difficulty seeing how global warming—a myth!—could possibly pose any threat.  Just ask the wooly mammoth.  The fact is that the very small frequently offer the answers long before it’s too late.  The problem is you have to pay attention.  And that attention must be not on America, or Trump, or Kavanaugh.  The Supreme Court is jobless if there are no people left.  We are part of an ecosystem, and the silence of that ecosystem is very loud indeed.   Decades ago Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to warn of the dangers of pesticides.  In our short-sighted way, we responded by banning the most dangerous of them and turning up the heat.

We like to focus on the negative aspects of religion these days, but one of the overlooked benefits of it has been religions’ ability to shift focus.  Christianity, for example, has been an advocate of thinking of others before thinking of oneself.  Now certain elected officials seem constitutionally unable to think of anyone but themselves, but the fact is none of us would be here if it weren’t for the insects.  They work to keep our planet neat and tidy, even if we regard them as a sign of uncleanness in our houses.  Maybe not the lowest, they are one of the essential building blocks of the world we know and recognize.  And they are disappearing.  As Carson recognized decades ago, the loss of insects leads to a silent spring because the birds that feed on them will disappear.  And what about pollination—whose job will that become?  I suppose we could assign it to migrant workers, but we’re sending them away too.  America first will be America the silent and hungry.  Unless we listen to what the insects tell us.

See Around Us

There aren’t too many people that I consider personal heroes. Those that I do have earned the sobriquet in odd ways, I suppose. That makes them no less deserving. Rachel Carson became a hero because of The Sea Around Us. Published over a decade before I was born, it was a book that I treasured as a teen—or even as a tween, had the word existed then. I was no literary critic, but her style and lyrical writing drew me in and my own love of the ocean I’d never seen was kept alive through her words. Mark Hamilton Lytle, I think, shares my evaluation of Carson as a hero. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement brought out much of what I admired, and still admire, about her. A woman in a “man’s world,” she became a scientist with a gift for literary finesse. She struggled, she believed, and she died far too young.

Lytle’s book builds up to the publication of Silent Spring, which appeared just two years before Carson’s untimely death. I picked up Silent Spring as a tween as well, but only read it within the last few years. I knew this book had nearly singlehandedly launched the environmental movement, but as the shame of modern life constantly reminds me, I’d been too busy to read it. Born the year it was published, and not terribly far from where Carson herself was born, I had an affinity with the book that strangely kept me from it. It isn’t easy to read, even today. Especially today. With a government ignorantly rolling away all the environmental safeguards that six decades of careful thought have put into place, we need Carson now as much as we did in the 1960s. Her modern critics, as might be expected, tend to be men.

Carson showed that a woman can change the world. Those who disparage her stunning work claim that her following is a religion, not science. Carson was a rare scientist who saw that everything is interconnected. There may be some mysticism to this, but for those willing to admit it, we feel it to be true. On the eve of environmental degradation that will, in a perverse kind of justice, possibly wipe us out, we need to return to the fine words and clear thinking of one woman who took on industrial giants to give a voice to the people. We do have a right to determine what happens to our planet. Lytle makes the point that Carson was like a prophet. For me the comparative preposition can be removed altogether.

Silent Fright

“[A] sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make,” is how Rachel Carson described the indiscriminate use of herbicides fifty years ago. Silent Spring, although clearly dated, remains a chilling book for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that although the book is half-a-century old, the breakdown of some of our toxins released into the environment before it was written is still not complete. And perhaps more frightening still is the fact that we continue to stumble forward without giving enough thought to where our actions against our planet might lead. The quote above presses urgently at the heart of the matter: those with the destructive interests are almost always those who set the agenda. As Carson noted fifty years ago, the right of the nature lover to enjoy an unspoiled part of nature is just as valid as the right of the greedy to rape the landscape for “resources.” But we all know who eventually gets their way.

On a finite planet with finite resources, one of those that cannot be replaced is the beauty that nature has spent billions of years evolving us to appreciate. Desire for beauty reaches down to our most primal and basic levels. In the United States how many people drive hundreds or thousands of miles just to see Yellowstone every year? And yet, last time I was there I spied an empty can carelessly tossed into one of the stunning blue hot pools that require a delicate balance of nature to maintain. Those who appreciate the glory must always be those who pay the price. The fancy name for this is aesthetics, and some writers have suggested that the violation of beauty is a deeply disturbing problem on a philosophical or theological level. The basics are easily comprehended: we mar the planet at the cost of not only our own, but of every future generation.

Silent Spring warned those empowered to make laws that a dangerous road had already been selected. The radioactive fallout from bombs detonated to indicate national superiority continues to render some locations uninhabitable, and all of us carry traces of toxins that others have spread in our bodies. Humans, as Prometheus represents, have the ability of forethought. It is not always easy; in fact, it is often very hard. Somewhere back in a cave somewhere, long, long ago, even before our species emerged, future humans realized how. We teach. We teach our young of the dangers we’ve discovered, and instruct them to avoid them. As society evolved, money—the ultimate poison—crept into the environment and education became devalued. Even now, higher education—established for the joy of learning—has become economically driven job training. And people we’ve never met, and companies we’ve never heard of, pay off those who make laws, and another piece of our pristine environment disappears. Silent Spring remains in print, but how can we convince the disinterested to read it?

Fall Silent

Some books impact an individual profoundly. Others are powerful enough to influence an entire society. Rachel Carson was the author of both. Tributes to the fifty year landmark of the publication of Silent Spring have appeared this month, and although the players have changed, the plot remains the same. Bryan Walsh’s tribute in Time a few weeks back captures the essence of the situation: an environmental danger is discovered, “industry” will at first deny it, then attack the science, and then try to frighten the population with the inevitable escalation of costs. Sometimes common sense wins, but only after a long tantrum by those whose main desire is personal enrichment.

Silent Spring is credited with starting the ecological movement. Until the early 1960s the world seemed vast enough to absorb our filthy, toxic run-off. We were only on the cusp of understanding that the world is much smaller than we had ever imagined. Disney had not yet published the theme song that would get through to the American imagination. We had yet to stand on the moon and look back at just how tiny our troubles were in an infinite universe. Using pseudo-religious backing, industries often claim the planet was made for us. In truth, we evolved to adapt to this planet. The sad story after sad story of those who’d figured out how to line their pockets at the expense of the health, and often the lives, of others constitutes an ignoble hall of shame. Rachel Carson, who truly deserves the title of prophet, was considered the enemy of progress. Better living through chemicals—who hasn’t heard the phrase?

The science behind DDT, which nearly drove the bald eagle to extinction, is not the culprit. The radium that rotted the teeth, mouths, and jaws of young women employed to paint it on watch hands, had always been radioactive. The coal still burning under Centralia suffers from properties properly discovered by science. In case after case we find greed running away with the science. Science unlocks the secrets of our universe, but it also gives ideas to those who are always looking to make a buck. It may be that Rachel Carson knew she was slinging stones at giants when Silent Spring was published. This one biblical metaphor might come in useful for those who are able to see the larger picture. We’ve only got one planet and if we want it to survive we’ve got to make it last. Giants should come to fear the disadvantaged who know how to use slings, whether with rocks or words.