“Freeman House is a former commercial salmon fisher who has been involved with a community-based watershed restoration effort in northern California for more than 25 years. He is a co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council. His book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species received the best nonfiction award from the San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for quality of prose. He lives with his family in northern California.”
That’s the biographical note for Freeman House on the Lannan Foundation website. We would add that earlier in his life, Freeman edited Innerspace, a mid-1960s independent press magazine for the nascent psychedelic community; presided over the marriage of Abbie and Anita Hoffman at Central Park on June 10, 1967; and was a member of both New York City’s Group Image and the San Francisco Diggers.
This is the fifth lecture in this series. This series ran previously on this site in 2010-11, and is being rerun now because it’s the right thing to do.
This particular essay was prepared with the assistance of a literary fellowship from Lannan, and was first published in Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson (edited by Peter Matthiessen) on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Carson’s birth.
Rachel Carson and the Creeping Apocalypse
by Freeman House
It must have been in 1970 when I was working with a collective fishing venture in Trinidad, California, that Rachel Carson enrolled me into the school of ecological activism. I was in a period of my life when the affairs of the world seemed so hopelessly screwed up that I had chosen to divorce myself from mainstream culture and work with others to build a world that fit my fallible sense of the proper way to live. We were in the habit of calling our position “building a new culture within the shell of the old.” A less friendly observer of our efforts might describe them as an attempt to escape the grim imperatives of history, and I would not argue.
I did pick up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle once in a while and in one of them I read of a scientific report that predicted the imminent extinction of brown pelicans in California due to the thinning effect of the insecticide DDT on the eggs of the birds. The article referred to Silent Spring, and made me realize how much I loved brown pelicans.
The collective had acquired a double-ended Newfoundland dory, a pretty craft that bobbed in the water like an eggshell, narrow at the beam and twenty feet long. It had two sets of oarlocks and a place to step a mast near its center. It replaced our former noisy and greasy thirty-foot scow powered by an unreliable diesel engine. With the new boat we could row out in the dawn light to the rockfish holes seaward of the monoliths of stone that rose out of the water a half-mile or so offshore, to get some fishing done before the north winds roiled the water at midday. And then we could raise the sail as we headed for home, skimming into port and luxuriating like people on a pleasure cruise. The quiet on the water was wonderful. Where before we had been isolated from ocean life by a dense aural penumbra of engine-howl, now all the lives of the sea came round to investigate. Seals and sea lions followed us as if we were a carnival show; the gulls circled shrieking about our heads while common murres sped across our bow like very fast windup toys.
In the middle distance always the pelicans. They look like creatures from another age, their overlarge heads stretching forward, heads and beaks that from some angles appear to be larger than their aerodynamic bodies. There is rarely one alone; more often they fly in groups of six to 20. The flocks act as if they have a single mind, so precise and graceful are their formations. The pelicans fly most often in a line, one behind the other, the line rising up and plunging down thrillingly close to the water’s surface in rolling arcs that resemble drawings of a sine wave. But sometimes the birds fly in marvelously sinuous gathered formations, group mind and individual mind working in perfect harmony. The individuals within the group might glide past one another or fall back a bit, but the formation as a whole holds its shape as a mutable polygon, sometimes wheeling as a unit in a 90-degree turn, all white bellies exposed at once, to change direction. It is enough to make you forget the cuts on your hands and live for a moment in the perfect realm of the whole. It is tempting to think that the birds are tracing arabesques against the looming fog bank merely to pleasure our senses, but the pelicans are fishing, too. Perhaps the varieties of formations represent different strategies for different prey.
At the sight of a food fish, all semblance of group mind evaporates as one bird after another drops in twisting free fall, most of them entering the water head first with the perfect verticality of a practiced diver. But some birds belly flop with a huge commotion that can only be described as clumsy. It will take a few moments of shaking the water off their wings and reorienting themselves for the birds to recover their dignity. The sight can make me laugh out loud with empathy, having myself made moves equally indecorous.
Any bird that can move you to awe and, seconds later, make you laugh out loud has intrinsic value enough to burn. I was enraged that a bunch of mad utopians out to rid the world of insects that fit into no economic scheme was inflicting the collateral damage of depriving the world of pelicans. And that is how Rachel Carson, several steps removed, influenced a sense of myself as an ecological being, a reciprocal participant in the surrounding world. It was a sense that would inform the rest of my life.
My mother was born within a few years of Rachel Carson, and I was brought up in a time of duck-and-cover drills and visits to check out our neighbors’ fallout bunkers. While in high school, my anxieties were centered not on girls or grades so much as on the Korean War draft that I would face the moment I graduated.
Hermann Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War, a book that calculates human disaster with cold dispassion, had been published in 1960, just two years before Carson’s Silent Spring. The passion with which Carson applied her dire warnings about the widespread use of pesticides was no doubt fueled in part by a parallel and widely shared dread of nuclear war. (Interestingly, both DDT and atomic weaponry were products of the Second World War. The dangers of DDT first caught Carson’s attention in 1945 when, in her capacity as director of publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service, she read classified papers documenting the unanticipated side effects of chemical pesticides on birds and beneficial insects. The “triumph of democracy” had not come without its costs.) What Carson couldn’t know in 1962 is that the vehicles of destruction were only in second gear.
Shifting to a higher gear, the chemical industry would continue to develop toxins for the broadcast elimination of insects and go on to develop defoliants to rid the world of plants that didn’t pay their way, poisons like dioxin—an ingredient in the infamous Agent Orange that triggered my brother’s Parkinson’s disease when he was only thirty-five years old. The Eisenhower administration’s program for an enormous interstate highway system would do its share to accelerate global climate change. Never-ending research and development of the weapons of war like explosives laced with depleted uranium would make the accelerating practice of war ever more devastating. One fishery after another would disappear due to over-fishing; the world’s forests would be fragmented at an alarming pace and extinctions of whole species would accelerate at a rate unprecedented in historical times. Public reaction to the news of the world would sink inexorably from dread into despair.
During the same period, however, another historical engine was beginning to hum. While the concept of ecology goes back to the late nineteenth century, that body of ideas was rarely discussed outside limited scientific circles by the 1950s. It is not too large a stretch to credit Rachel Carson, with the publication of The Sea Around Us in 1951, and her contemporary Aldo Leopold with making available to the popular mind for the first time the concepts of the interconnectedness of living processes. Carson’s extrapolations burst on the public mind all at once; Leopold’s more explicitly moral interpretations would not be “discovered” by the public for some years to come. The degree to which the idea of interconnectedness was new to the lay reader can be demonstrated through my own experience. When I spent a year in the forestry school in 1955-56 at Oregon State College, I don’t remember hearing the word “ecology” spoken even once.
Since that time, I haven’t been alone in adopting ecology as a lens of perception through which to view the living world. Ecological thinking is now taught in elementary schools. A generation of parents has endured the experience of having their food and transportation habits critiqued by their ten-year-olds. Ideas that change the ways that people experience themselves travel along mysterious paths. While writing this essay, I’ve made it a point to quiz people a generation or more younger than I about what they know about Rachel Carson. Most know that the name should be familiar to them, but they can’t quite place it. When I told one of my brightest and best-educated young friends about my project, she responded, “Oh yeah, the nuclear disarmament lady.” Almost without exception, however, the people I was quizzing would shudder at the thought of putting any sort of chemical fertilizer on their kitchen gardens; they buy organic when they can afford it; they are likely to describe themselves as environmentalists and to keep a close watch on the sources and levels of their consumption. Some of them are building their first homes. They approach the task as students of sustainability, studying the angles of the sun at the work site, carefully calculating the ways of taking their comforts from what the sun and Earth generously delivers without seriously diminishing it. They look for recycled or local building materials. Among these young people, Rachel Carson’s generous and gracefully expressed ideas are become anonymously tangible.
As a high-profile social and political movement, the ecological movement since 1970 is easier to track, and numerous scholarly works have been devoted to that subject. There is hardly a nation that doesn’t have an environmental agency ostensibly regulating the effects of development. The environmental movement, after a long and successful effort to establish itself as a powerful part of various legal systems, has seen the rise of a second wave: innumerable community organizations devoted to the ecological health and food security of their particular locales. The degree to which such movements have tempered environmental destruction may never be quantifiable, but no one will argue that they have not been significant.
That Rachel Carson knew exactly what she was doing and to whom she was speaking can be demonstrated from a passage in Silent Spring:
For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin songs, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. Theses are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology. (p. 189, 2002 edition)
Rachel Carson didn’t dodge history; she faced it head on. All of her writings shared the quality of a brave attempt to reform historical drift by guiding her readers toward a love of the natural world, the effect of which she hoped would reduce their rapacity and move them in the direction of once more becoming a respectful part of that world. In each of her books Rachel Carson went against the grain of the dominant culture and she did it large. Her first and most lyrical book, Under the Sea-Wind, published in 1941, disappeared in America’s preoccupation with Pearl Harbor. The Sea Around Us (1951) made Carson an instant celebrity, a fact that startled both her publisher and herself. And it was truly a startling phenomenon. The Sea Around Us is not an easy book. Graceful stylistically, it nevertheless requires of the reader an appetite for an avalanche of detail, discussing in some depth cycles and creatures of which most readers had never heard and certainly had almost never related to as important information for the conduct of their daily lives. The excerpts published by the New Yorker as a three-part profile, certainly contributed to the book’s success. But still.
Linda Lear, Carson’s devoted biographer, offers a line of speculation to explain the public appetite for such a book. Lear pored over Carson’s fan mail received after the publication of The Sea Around Us. In it, she found an audience which, only recently relieved of the anxieties of World War, now found themselves attacked by a new and less clear-cut set of worries: an international nuclear arms race, a witch hunt for domestic Communists, and the prospect of sending their sons to a war in Korea with little understanding of what that war was about. The correspondence often expressed gratitude for giving the reader a broader perspective on the natural world that transcended the ambiguities of the daily news. Lear goes on to quote directly from some of that mail: “We have been troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith in man; it helps to think about the long history of the earth, and of how life came to be. When we think in terms of millions of years, we are not so impatient that our own problems be solved tomorrow.” Such sentiments might have been written yesterday.
As eminent an authority as E.O. Wilson, in his introduction to the 2002 edition of Silent Spring, traces a direct line of cause and effect between that book and the U.S ban on DDT in 1972 and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. (In her testimony to Congress in 1963, Carson had called for the formation of just such an agency.)
It’s comforting to a writer such as myself to think that a single book can alter the course of the future, and Rachel Carson wrote a couple of them. Back in the sixties and seventies, when things seemed somehow simpler, I sometimes found myself saying, “What we need is a new Karl Marx.” What I meant was that someone needed to articulate a paradigm shift that would replace the dialectics of capitalism and communalism, poverty and wealth, war and peace. What I was longing for was a powerful book containing a new perception of the real world based on ecology and human identity rather than on global supply and demand. I suppose I still entertained the illusion that a single book—like Das Kapital and Silent Spring—could alter the course of history. A generation later, it has become difficult to imagine that any single book will be able to deal with the complexities faced by the planet and its inhabitants.
What if Rachel Carson had lived a longer life? How might she have responded to the creeping apocalypse we call the twenty-first century? Had she somehow been able to maintain the indomitable spirit and energy that allowed her to complete Silent Spring while suffering from debilitating health problems, attacks by the chemical industry, and the scorn of all but a few (important) biologists, it is a good bet that she would have felt driven toward a companion to The Sea Around Us with an equally informative book about the Earth’s atmosphere. Certainly, with her extensive network of contacts within the scientific community, her interest would have been piqued by the data on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that began to emerge from the NASA observatory on Mauna Loa in 1958.
Carson had been half-prescient when she wrote circa 1950:
But for the present, the evidence that the top of the world is growing warmer is to be found on every hand. The recession of the northern glaciers is going on at such a rate that many smaller ones have already disappeared. If the present rate of melting continues others will soon follow.
I say half-prescient because she attributed the trend only to cyclical changes documented by the Swedish oceanographer Otto Pettersson in 1912. In 1912, there were few, if any, people who would have attributed human agency to such enormous changes in the biosphere. The chapter in Silent Spring from which this passage is taken, entitled ‘The Global Thermostat,” also gives Carson a claim to being the first popular ecological historian. Had she lived but a few years longer, it is likely that she would have joined, or even led, the shift in the scientific paradigm that began to view the human species since the Industrial Revolution as having as large an impact on planetary processes as any geological or climatic cycles. Perhaps a book called something like The Air Around Us might have come out of that—and perhaps it would have been published in 1980, one of the last years before the availability of the personal computer that books would retain their dominance as a source of authoritative information. Would Ronald Reagan have been as receptive a president as Jack Kennedy had been when Silent Spring was published? Who knows? Rachel Carson was a very convincing writer.
Donald Worster’s magisterial 1979 history of ecological thought, Nature’s Economy, claims that “the age of ecology” began in 1945 with the realization that technology had reached the point of having the capacity to destroy all of life. He recognizes Rachel Carson’s role as the midwife of concepts of ecology in the popular mind “The truly unique feature of the Age of Ecology,” he goes on to claim, “was its sense of nature as a defenseless victim” [italics added].
From the perspective of late 2006, I would make the claim that the “Age of Ecology” is actually beginning just about now. For more than 20 years a manufactured debate about the effect of human technologies on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has diverted us from the direct observations of climate change available during the same time. So successfully has a handful of hired scientists propped up one side of the argument with claims of inadequate evidence that the small part of the human population that controls the larger part of the Earth’s resources has felt comfortable in maintaining its course of ever-increasing consumption and personal entitlement. Worster describes what he calls “the long rise of bourgeois civilization” leading up to his post-1945 Age of Ecology: the world view of the aspiring middle class, with its dedication to technology, unlimited production and consumption, self-advancement, individualism, and the domination of nature.” He writes that “Time had run out on these modern-age values: nature’s economy had been pushed to the breaking point, and ‘ecology’ was to be the rallying cry of the revolution.” Worster’s analysis strikes me as entirely accurate but his message was heard by too small a segment of the late twentieth century post-industrial society. (The fact that 1980, the year after Nature’s Economy’s publication, was when regional planner Mathis Wackernagel, now head of the Global Footprint Network, published his calculations that the rate of increase human consumption of natural resources had outstripped the ability of the Earth to maintain it is either an interesting coincidence or a validation of Worster’s insight.)
As I write, the dam of denial regarding humanly influenced climate change seems to be breaching. Nature can no longer be viewed as “a defenseless victim,” but must be dealt with on its own terms. Humans no longer have the luxury of thinking about ecology in the abstract; we are living it. Climate prediction models must be updated nearly weekly in order to keep pace with newly observed positive feedback loops such as the realization that the melting tundra of the northern hemisphere is perhaps the second largest carbon sink on the planet (second to the world ocean) and that global thaw will release carbon into the atmosphere at a rate comparable to that released by fossil fuel emissions. Whole villages in the Polynesian and Aleutian Islands are being considered for relocation, canaries in the atmospheric coal mine.
As a person who has spent the majority of his adult life working toward salmon and watershed recovery in a single small river basin, I have had to face the fact that during the whole of that time my co-workers and I have never allowed the prospect of climate change into our ever-evolving strategies. I had been a stone in that dam of denial even as I had so freely denounced others for their insouciance. In the July 13, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books, Jim Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, lined out a best- and a worst-case scenario for the inevitabilities of climate change as ranging between two and five degrees Fahrenheit increase in average global temperatures. When I recently researched my region’s climatological history for a book on which I was working, I learned that the last time the local air temperatures were two degrees warmer, a mere five to six thousand years ago, there were few if any salmon using northwestern California’s rivers. If Hansen’s projections are accurate, then what can we mean by ecological restoration? What might we be restoring but the human capacity to live within nature? My neighbors and I had been working for 25 years as if the ecological systems in which we were immersed were the once and always landscape, rather than a fluid system of systems that respond harmonically to global conditions over time beyond the capacity of human memory to grasp.
The biosphere arranges itself into a marvelous array of bioregions, each of which will react differently to climate change based on its location on the planet. Proximity to the world’s oceans, location in reference to the poles, forest cover, biological diversity and human impact will each be a determinant in the way that climate change will effect various bioregions. Such diversity alone would eliminate the likelihood of a single book, even under the graceful hand of a Rachel Carson, spelling out strategies for an adaptive future. For adaptation is the name of the game. As in prehistoric times, other creatures are once more leading the way, giving us signals of what lies ahead. Jim Hansen reports that
During the last 30 years the lines marking the regions in which a given average temperature prevails (“isotherms”) have been moving poleward at a rate of about 35 miles per decade. That is the size of a county in Iowa. Each decade the range of a given species is moving one row of counties northward.
Human communities face even larger challenges than those of other species as their habitats change.
Once DDT was banned, brown pelican populations rebounded. In my own river system, salmon seem to have responded to our ministrations. We have played a part in the survival of one of the last half dozen strains of totally native Chinook in California for at least a while longer, perhaps to re-colonize nearby rivers where those fish have been lost. But for the last two years, the seasonal upwelling of cold water from the deep that provides essential nutrients to sea-dependent creatures has failed and there are reports of pelican starvation further south along our northern California coast. The populations of rockfish that I had once heedlessly thought would feed me forever have crashed and are sinking even lower as a result of the failed upwelling. Differentials in ocean and air temperatures are known to drive the great ocean currents, and speculation abounds as to whether or not we are seeing yet another symptom of climate change. It is too soon to tell.
Regional responses to climate change continue to represent the most positive current strategies in response to the inevitability of the changes to come. Municipal, regional, and state governments, often driven by grassroots organizations, abound with adaptive and innovative changes to their infrastructures. There is a sort of desperation in these activities, a sure knowledge that they will not be enough in the absence of national and international leadership and cooperation. Rarely do local coalitions include the practitioners of agribusiness and industry who have so much to do with the ways we live. There is no local constituency for the world ocean or the atmosphere.
If global capitalism has denatured nationalism and ethnic identity, climate change is likely to trump globalism, replacing it as the context in which socio-economic phenomena is perceived. Jared Diamond writes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed of the elements in common that have undermined past societies: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per capita impact of humans. If any of these items haven’t been mentioned in this essay, you can read about them in almost any daily newspaper. The world has changed since Rachel Carson’s time. The human population has doubled, and information and complexity have grown at exponential rates. Faith-driven stateless terrorists have successfully raised the stakes on state terrorism by adding a new dimension of uncertainty and universal fear. New plagues have appeared and we can expect more: AIDS, avian flu, West Nile virus. Life on Earth will change and nowhere is there a mind or bank of computers that can predict just how it will change, and where.
I find myself thinking a lot about chaos theory, another lens through which to view the phenomenal world, also developed since 1963. In chaos theory, the natural order of living systems is to increase in complexity to the point that the infrastructure that has constituted reality undergoes a sudden shift into “emergent properties,” forms that don’t necessarily resemble the forms we have known before. The theory can be demonstrated on blue screens, using computer models. Emergent properties are unpredictable but they seem to be a function of ongoing Creation. Sometimes I’m able to sustain some serenity by using this lens, because ongoing Creation is the lodestone of my faith. It is not the proofs on a computer screen that sustain me, though, but the ideas that Carson did so much to make available to us; that each one of us is connected to the whole and that our actions—especially those actions magnified by their practice in community and society—matter.
To keep my spirits up, I keep another more recent clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle pinned on my wall that reminds me that there is still so much that we do not know, and over which we have no control: “Huge solar storms could zap Earth, scientists say.” There is nothing in chaos theory that postulates that emergent properties will include the survival of human life. There is also nothing in the concept that precludes a critical mass of humanity coming awake one morning to experience themselves as fleshy embodiments of the biosphere with standards of ethics pulsing between the twin ideals of social justice and ecological health. It is an axiom that we cannot predict with any accuracy the affect of our actions. The information with which we are flooded becomes white (or black) noise, and the future is silent.