…as Ronald Reagan once proclaimed was readily possible, when he was a spokesperson for a major chemical company. And it IS possible. But one must sure be wary of all the “unintended consequences," and even more so, our willingness to blindly ignore them, as bothersome impediments to “enhanced shareholder value.”
I first read “The Sea Around Us” when I was early on in college, and would subsequently read “Silent Spring” while still wearing that yoke. Rachel Carson’s works were (are) seminal, raising the alarm that there could be a downside to the promised “Better Living.” I’ve been seriously considering re-reading both, as part of an on-going program of evaluating the books of my youth, half a century on. But I realized I knew very little about the author, and so this documentary was a “must-see. Michelle Ferrari, the director released the movie in 2017. The narrator is Oliver Platt.
“DDT was up there with the A-Bomb for winning the Second World War in the Pacific.” More soldiers were sidelined by malaria than were wounded in combat. McArthur said that for every three division, he had one in the front, one in reserve, and one in the hospital with malaria. I found that to be true in the Vietnam War as well. After the Allies captured Naples, DDT was used to combat the typhus epidemic there. And it should be remembered that malaria was once prevalent in the United States, which is why many a southern planter favored Ashville, NC in the summer, for the gin and tonics, with quinine, that helped combat the malaria once it was contracted. It was only in 1951 that malaria was finally eliminated from the USA, by the use of DDT. So, there was a considerable upside to the chemical.
Rachel Carson grew up near Pittsburgh, in a home without central heat or running water, during the Great Depression. She had wanted to be a writer, but also needed to support the family. Through those essential traits of grit and determination, she got through college, with a biology major, and landed a job at Woods Hole in MA. She would use only her initials in her first scientific papers, so that the reader might assume she was a man, and therefore place more credence to the article. Such were the times. Her lucky break was having chapters of “The Sea Around Us” serialized in “The New Yorker.” When the book was released, it was on top of the best seller list for 33 weeks. She would buy a cottage on the coast of Maine from the profits, and loved to explore, in particular, the intertidal zone, and would develop a long term friendship with a neighbor.
“Silent Spring” was her effort to document the downside of “wonder chemicals” like DDT. She raised the issue of the animals and insects that were killed, just so much “collateral damage.” Naturally the big chemical companies attack her personally, and her findings. Eric Sevareid, the CBS news commentator, would do a special on this book in 1963.
Meanwhile, Carson had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, but the information was withheld from her by the doctors (see above: such were the times). She would die in April, 1964 at the age of 56, bequeathing a legacy of skepticism regarding technological advances and helping start the environmental movement.
This documentary helped push a re-read of “Silent Spring” a few notches higher on my list. 5-stars.