Lecture #18: The Fallout of Silent Spring

Suggested Readings:

Hiroshima & Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings (1981)

Japan Broadcasting Corporation, Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors (1977) available for free download online at: https://archive.org/details/UnforgettableFireDrawingsByAtomicBombSurvivors1967

John Hersey, "Hiroshima," New Yorker, 8/31/1946, famous early account of the bombing, available online at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima

John Fowler, Fallout: A Study of Superbombs, Strontium 90, and Survival (1960)

Harold Ball, Justice Downwind: America's Atomic Testing Program in the 1950s, 1986.

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us (1951); Silent Spring (1962); The Sense of Wonder (1965)

Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997)

William Souder, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012)

Priscilla Murphy, What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring (2005)

Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (1981)

James Whorton, Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America (1974)

Frank Graham, Since Silent Spring (1970)

Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT, Silent Spring, and the Rise of Environmentalism: Classic Texts (2008)


I. Bombs, Radiation, and Death

Core argument of today's lecture: fear of nuclear war hung like the shadow of a mushroom cloud over popular consciousness during the Cold War, and powerfully informed public anxieties that would feed into the emergence of 1960s environmentalism. The world taught people to think of their world as being more fragile, more at risk on a planetary scale, than ever before. Today we'll explore further some of the specific content of the fears that the Bomb encouraged.

The Japanese cities of Hiroshima (8/6/1945) and Nagasaki (8/9/1945) were seen after the war as "experiments" in what nuclear war might actually look...and so also served as nightmare prophecies of what a post-holocaust landscape might look like in a nuclear age. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki

Atomic weapons shared certain dangers with conventional explosive armaments - blast and burn - but with much greater intensity and scale.

Stranger and more fearful still were the consequences of biological disruption from radioactive assault on cells: radiation sickness, loss of hair, eventually cataracts, leukemia.

Terrible accident at Los Alamos in 1946: Louis Slotin was "tickling the dragon" in setting up a plutonium bomb when his hand slipped and he accidentally initiated a fission reaction. Although his quick action ended the chain reaction before others could be injured, he himself suffered a lethal dose of radiation and died nine days later. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Slotin

Legendary story in Japan: Sadako was exposed to the bomb's radiation in Hiroshima at the age of 2, contracted leukemia a decade later, tried to fulfill the old Japanese proverb that "If you fold 1000 paper cranes you will get whatever you wish"--which in her case was simply to live. She died having only completed 645 cranes, became a heroine for Japanese peace movement. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadako_Sasaki

Beyond the risk of disease and injury, threats to future generations in radiation damage to chromosomes: breaking, doubling, abnormal growth leading toward mutation and cancer.

Cancer becomes a recurring metaphor in the post-war world for abnormal growth in an atomic age: disease reflects social ills. Science fiction and horror films of the 1950s played with metaphors of uncontrolled growth from radiation with characters like Godzilla.

II. Fear of Fallout

Fear of disease from exposure to radiation was not limited to victims of direct atomic attacks. The persistence of certain radioactive isotopes, and their ability to replace other elements in ordinary body chemistry and physiology, provoked growing public fears.

Many of these had long half-lives, meaning that they would linger in the environment longer after their initial deposition:

  • Iodine 131 (Thyroid): 8 Days
  • Strontium 90 (Bones): 28 Years
  • Cesium 137 (Whole Body): 30 Years
  • Plutonium 239 (Lungs): 24,000 Yrs

All were being dispersed in the global environment in growing quantities as a result of atmospheric nuclear testing: fallout.

These chemical properties of radioactive isotopes made them valuable in the emergence of systems ecology during the 1940s and 1950s, enabling scientists like Howard & Eugene Odum and Raymond Lindemann to study the movements of certain chemicals through the trophic levels of an ecosystem.

US hydrogen bomb tests in Pacific Ocean atolls of the Marshall Islands generated new levels of radioactive fallout, as did the commissioning of the Nevada Test Site starting in 1951, exposing growing numbers of Americans to the downwind effects of fallout. For the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) pamphlet explaining the importance of these tests to Nevada residents, see: https://www.fourmilab.ch/etexts/www/atomic_tests_nevada/

In Nevada fallout from the test site in neighboring areas led to sheep and cattle kills, elevated childhood leukemia rates.

Farther away: Strontium 90 accumulated in soil, was concentrated by cows in milk, and ultimately accumulated in the bones of children.

This led to increasing public anxiety about the potential health effects of these accumulations, despite assurances by the AEC and the government. Such anxieties led to mistrust of the government and of scientific authorities, and also struggled with the uncertainties associated with statistical causality: no clear cause-effect relationship between radiation exposure in any single instance and injuries that might or might not manifest themselves as cancer or other illnesses in the future.

Notorious episode of the radium watch dial painters working with fine brushes to add radium to the hands of watches so they could be read in the dark: massive increases in cancer among such workers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_Girls

1958: Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat Comes Back offered a popular comic fable with a darker subtext about proliferating contaminants in the environment.

1958 saw the first voluntary test ban. In 1961 testing recommencesd. Finally, in 1963, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed, sending most nuclear tests underground.

One additional element just to notice: the thalidomide scandal in Great Britain in 1961 in which pregnant women were given the drug thalidomide to treat morning sickness...and many then gave birth to infants with missing limbs and other severe birth defects. Fueled public fears of invisible harms promulgated by modern science and by experts--very different from the trust in experts that was taken for granted during the era of Progressive conservation.

III. Rachel Carson: The Nature Writer Politicized

1962 saw the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, with its depictions of a natural world devastated by the white powder of a different sort of fallout, chemical pesticides. In her writings, public fears about the effects of radiation came together with new fears of toxic chemicals to energize a new form of environmental politics that would soon come to be called environmentalism. Her story is summarized by Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Carson

Carson was born in Springdale, PA, in 1907. Her mother raised her to love nature in the nature study tradition, along with music, books, and writing. Carson wanted to write from early childhood forward, but shifted to biology while a student at the Pennsylvania College for Women, then on to an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins. Her first job was with the Federal Bureau of Fisheries as one of the first two female scientists ever hired by that agency.

Carson's marginal status as a female scientist limited her access to research opportunities and academic employment, but also placed her in a perfect position to serve as a translator of arcane scientific knowledge into forms that could be understood and appreciated by members of the public. Again: notice the importance of writers to the emerging political movement we're studying.

Carson's career was additionally influenced by the fact that her father died in 1935, and her married sister in 1936, so that Carson and her mother became responsible for raising her sister's two children, with Carson as the sole breadwinner for the family. Although she never married, she would ultimately be responsible for raising three children (including her great nephew Roger, son of one of the nieces she raised after his mother died).

In 1937, Carson published her first piece of popular nature writing, an essay entitled "Undersea" in the Atlantic Monthly. This led to her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941, just as World War II began. During the 1940s, she shifted toward full-time editing for the government, often about issues relating to conservation.

In 1951, she wrote an introduction to oceanography entitled The Sea Around Us (serialized in The New Yorker magazine) which became a world-wide best-seller, providing Carson with financial security for the first time in her life and enabling her to retire from government employment.

In 1956, she published an article entitled "Help Your Child to Wonder" (later published in book form as The Sense of Wonder). It was written very much in the traditions of the nature study movement about the values children like her nephew Roger could learn from being exposed to the natural world and its moral universe. It's a lovely essay, and is available for download in its original magazine format here: https://training.fws.gov/history/Documents/carsonwonder.pdf

In Carson, the values of nature study would be politicized and applied to toxic chemical forms of fallout, with detrimental consequences both for the natural world and for human health (in the form of cancer).

IV. The War on Pests

Carson was prompted to write about the problem of pesticides by a letter she received from her friend Olga Owens Huckins, who complained that spraying for mosquitoes was killing large numbers of birds in the preserve behind Huckins' house. (Carson had become aware of the potential negative effects of pesticides on wildlife back in the 1940s and had tried to publish an essay about this topic, but couldn't find a publisher for it.)

Economic entomology emerged in the early 20th centure as a science exploring the use of toxic chemicals to control agricultural pests.

Among its chief targets were insects, both indigenous and introduced species: see, for instance, the boll weevil's arrival in southern cotton fields starting in 1892; the spread of the gypsy moth after its introduction in 1869; as well as the mosquito vectors we've already studied as carriers of malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases.

Early pesticides, such as lead arsenate, had high acute and chronic toxicity for humans, and because they were based on heavy metals, they accumulated permanently in the environment.

Then came the seemingly miraculous discovery of new aromatic hydrocarbon came during WWII: DDT was used during the typhus epidemic in occupied Naples to de-louse GIs, then to malaria control in tropics. Hugely beneficial for Allied war efforts in tropical and subtropical environments were mosquitoes and other insects represented serious health threats for soldiers and civilians alike. In tropical areas during and after the war, there's not much doubt that DDT saved hundreds of thousands, even millions of human lives.

After the war, DDT was used in broad-gauge attacks on insects, hailed for its astonishingly low acute toxicity in humans compared with its lethality for insects. Scientists noted in 1944 that it accumulated in milk and fatty tissues, and induced nervous disorders in rats when they were exposed to very high levels--but there were few apparent human health effects. So it was approved for public use by the FDA in 1945, and was soon being applied to a wide range of agricultural and consumer uses, including via mass aerial spraying. Sales grew rapidly, and so did its proliferation in the environment.

V. Storm over Silent Spring

It was against this miraculous substance that Carson mounted her attack in the book Silent Spring.

Her critique included several strands:

  • The tendency of DDT and other chemicals to concentrate in food chains put the highest levels of those food chains at risk: predators, large vertebrates, including humans. (Noticed that ecological research on trophic levels made possible by radioactive isotope tracing made this insight about biological accumulation possible.)
  • Because DDT and other such chemicals accumulated in fatty tissue and degraded only very slowly, their potential for long-term chronic health consequences was potentially substantial.
  • For birds, DDT accumulation led to thinning egg shells, so that the mother bird sitting on a nest crushed her own young, and fewer and fewer chicks reached reproductive maturity. As a result, the populations of certain species -- brown pelicans, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, etc. -- fell dramatically.
  • A different strand of Carson's critique: pesticides were not even effective in meeting their own long-term goals. Insects were R-selected species, reproducing so quickly that their gene pools quickly adjusted to accommodate new toxic environments. Resistant breeds of agricultural pests meant self-defeating cycle of new pesticides
  • Final strand: the acute and chronic toxicity of chemical pesticides had unknown but worrisome implications for future human health effects: nervous disorders among pesticide workers, but especially rising rates of cancer, that central metaphor of unnatural change.

For further details, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Spring

The book's publication in 1963 (preceded by its serialization in The New Yorker magazine and a subsequent CBS News documentary early in 1962) led to great controversy, with widespread attacks on Carson's authority by chemical corporations.

Increasing public concern, including the founding of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 1967 as part of a pesticide controversy on Long Island, led finally the EPA finally to ban DDT in 1972.

VI. Closing Insights

All of this controversy was testimony to the power of the word: a nature writer who merged romanticism with rigorous science to bring her insights to the public realm of political debate. Carson and her book, by projecting public anxiety about nuclear and fallout onto the larger vision of a romantic order in nature, ushered in a new era in the history of American conservation.

Key themes:

  • In a post-nuclear world, public anxieties about strange new hazards meant that invisible threats to life and health, subversions of nature, became increasingly available as metaphors for expressing generalized concerns about environmental damage.
  • The post-WWII world saw growing suspicion of science, technology, and expert knowledge, even as all three became ever more important to the management of natural resources and the economy. This led to growing uncertainty about how to engage in democratic debate about such matters, given the inescapable importance of technical information and longstanding deference (since the days of Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt) to the professional expert as a figure capable of offering apolitical solutions to social and environmental problems.
  • The publication of Silent Spring meant that science entered the world of politics through the agency of a woman who because of her gender was on the margins of professional science, yet who was able as a supremely gifted writer to apply the themes and rhetoric of romantic naturalism onto hard policy questions about agriculture, food, and applied technology.
  • Finally: notice how this controversy saw the convergence of utilitarian and romantic conservation issues, since both were clearly implicated in this struggle over values and appropriate human relationship to natural world. This is a theme we'll encounter over and over again from now on: conflicts over environmental questions were rarely a simple confrontation between black hats and white hats, even though they were sometimes depicted that way. It's more useful to see these as struggles between competing goods (the clear human benefits of DDT in agriculture, pest control vs. clear threats to wildlife and uncertain implications for human health)─-which made the politics all the more difficult.