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The Weekly Anthropocene Reviews: Silent Spring Revolution by Douglas Brinkley
A The Weekly Anthropocene Book Review
Douglas Brinkley is among the greatest living American historians. For over a decade, he’s been publishing a magisterial series on the history of the American environmental movement (which this reviewer has very much enjoyed), including The Wilderness Warrior (covering Theodore Roosevelt’s life and presidency), The Quiet World (covering the conservation of Alaska), and Rightful Heritage (covering the surprisingly extensive environmental work of President Franklin D. Roosevelt). Now, in Silent Spring Revolution, Professor Brinkley takes on another monumental task: summarizing the epic surge of environmental action that took place in America in the 1960s and early 1970s, from Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962 through the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
As a result, Silent Spring Revolution is an astonishing rich and multifaceted book, pulling together and interweaving a staggering large number of well-researched narrative threads in over 650 densely-written pages (minus appendices). There’s enough here for at least six different standalone books: one each on the environmental policy of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations, an in-depth look at the history of nuclear weapons testing, radiation poisoning science, and anti-nuclear testing activism, a collection of lovingly written natural history profiles of major conserved lands and waters of the 1960s from Canyonlands to Padre Island, and a full-spectrum analysis of the science and policy of the anti-pesticide movement.
At the core of the book is of course the eponymous Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s powerful warning of the ecological impacts of chemical pesticides (and a striking exposé of DDT specifically), and how it “went viral,” essentially launching the modern environmental movement. Carson was previously best known for her landmark “Sea Trilogy” of marine natural history, inspiring a generation of marine biologists and oceanographers, and this book makes sure give ample space to this aspect of her legacy as well. Silent Spring Revolution also neatly eviscerates the tiresome right-wing canard that Carson’s anti-DDT activism meant that she didn’t care about children dying from mosquito-borne diseases in Africa (where DDT was used against mosquitoes). In reality she was one of the first voices pointing out the rapidly-growing problem of DDT-resistant mosquitoes, and correctly wrote that rampant overuse of DDT had not only poisoned humans and wildlife, but was making DDT itself useless in mosquito control efforts, making the mosquito-borne disease problem even worse.
One powerful aspect of this story that this reviewer had only tangentially heard of before is that Carson was dying1 when she wrote Silent Spring. She knew that the book would be the last work of her life, and wrote on despite her struggle against metastasizing cancer, with an array of agonizing symptoms. Carson even concealed her illness from the public, wearing a wig for interviews to prevent the pesticide companies attempting to discredit her work as by an irrational “dying woman.” (They were already smearing her with every attack they could think of, so this was a realistic prospect). If Rachel Carson hadn’t been so selflessly driven, American environmental history might have been very different.
Another ongoing thread in Silent Spring Revolution that really stood out was the extraordinary role of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in seemingly all major fields of mid-twentieth century American environmentalism, from the legal to the political to the societal. This reviewer had known of “Wild Bill” Douglas as an FDR-appointed highly liberal Supreme Court Justice sympathetic to many of the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1960s, but hadn’t appreciated the full depth and breadth of his engagement with environmental activists and politicians. For a start, he was a popular environmental writer in his own right; Justice Douglas traveled widely, and published several well-regarded nature-exploration books with titles like North From Malaya, West of the Indus, Beyond the High Himalaya, and My Wilderness: East to Katahdin. He explored the wilds of the USSR with Robert F. Kennedy in the 1950s, exploring remote areas of Siberia and Uzbekistan. He hung out in Tibetan monasteries back when Tibet was still independent and well before Tibetan Buddhism was widely known in America.
Douglas also was closely connected to the emerging environmental counterculture. He widely publicized, recommended, and supported Silent Spring (which quotes his environmental works on four separate occasions), wrote the liner notes for folk singer Pete Seeger’s environmental album God Bless the Grass, and led a 1954 protest hike along the route of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to rally public opposition to attempts to the develop the historic Potomac footpath. (This was successful, directly leading to its protection in 1961). Professor Brinkley writes that his Washington office became a “clearinghouse for grassroots whistleblowers and activists to send in field reports of environmental desecration” and that Douglas often personally responded with tips on “where to find data, how to get a pro bono lawyer, and what conservation nonprofits to contact for a particular battle.” Douglas even proposed a radical “trees have [legal] standing” legal opinion in 1972, anticipating the modern “rights of nature” movement by decades!
“Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation…The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”
And he did all of the above while a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Never before or since have America’s wild ecosystems had such an ally on its highest court.
Silent Spring Revolution has so many stories within it that the most this reviewer can do is pick out a few that were particularly striking or novel. This writer had previously known of all the major milestones: the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, sweeping land conservation achievements of Kennedy and Johnson Administration Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, the passage of NEPA in 1970, the multi-year evolution of the Clean Air Act, the passage of the Clean Water Act (over Nixon’s veto) in 1972, the birth of the EPA and the vital work of first EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, and so on. Silent Spring Revolution duly recounts all those histories and often adds fascinating context. But even beyond that, this book manages to consistently surprise with its dedicated recounting of lesser-known episodes of environmental history and their underappreciated leaders.
For example, this reviewer hadn’t known the story of Carl Stokes, the Mayor of Cleveland (and first African-American mayor of any major US city) who brought national attention to the long-worsening plight of the Cuyahoga River for the first time. Or the strange saga of how Norman Cousins, journal editor anti-nuclear-testing activist, became a vital informal backchannel between Kennedy and Khrushchev, directly making possible the landmark Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, ending US and Soviet atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Or how many key conservation laws were passed only through the efforts of now-little-known Congressman John Saylor. Or the fact that Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King, Jr. had the same literary agent at one point, Marie Rodell. Or that Manuel Sanchez, Richard Nixon’s soft-spoken valet, convinced the president to oppose a jetport in the middle of the Everglades by sharing his personal knowledge of the way mangrove ecosystems sheltered young fish. Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification initiative is well known, but this reviewer never knew that it reached far beyond the gender-coded language of the day into a broad-based urban conservation movement, with the First Lady leading national efforts to close local landfills and junkyards, clean up riverbanks, and remove billboards along highways (much of which was ultimately widely reified in the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, known as “Lady Bird’s bill). This reviewer had never even heard of Marjorie Spock2, a pioneering organic gardener who sued the federal government when it sprayed her land with DDT in 1957, a bold and unprecedented act widely described as the first environmental law case brought by a US citizen. Her activism and the expert testimony she elicited directly influenced Rachel Carson, and Ms. Spock deserves to be more widely remembered.
This reviewer also treasured the passages scattered throughout the book where Silent Spring Revolution touched on Maine’s noble Allagash River, which they greatly enjoyed canoeing and kayaking with family as a teenager. It’s common knowledge that the Allagash was among the first “wild and scenic rivers” to receive formal protection in America, but this reviewer hadn’t realized that the ubiquitous William O. Douglas was involved, canoeing the river himself in 1960 and working with renowned Maine Senator Edmund Muskie to convince Interior Secretary Udall to tour the Allagash region, leading to his strong support for its preservation. Or that in 1966, Maine voters passed a $1.5 million bond for Allagash conservation, and that the state legislature enshrined it as a Wilderness Waterway in the same year, well before the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act granted federal protection to the Allagash and other rivers around the country. The wealth of memories that this reviewer has connected to the place-name of the Allagash, one among geographic multitudes in Silent Spring Revolution, really enriched the reading experience and helped underscore the extraordinary natural wealth of America and the world, full of thousands and thousands of rivers, lakes, mountains, forests, deserts, canyons, and wetlands, each loved by countless people for their own unique qualities.
In sum, Silent Spring Revolution is a fascinating deep dive into a pivotal decade for America, its ecosystems, and its people, told by one of the best historians out there. Give it a try!
This is in fact the second case this reviewer knows about where a major American historical figure died of cancer while desperately working to finish a book that became an instant classic. Ulysses S. Grant rapidly wrote his landmark Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant in 1885, while in agonizing pain from his throat cancer, in order to make sure his family were provided for after his death. It was finished five days before he died, and later became a success unprecedented in American publishing (with the support of Mark Twain), with Grant’s widow receiving a sum equivalent to over $13 million today. This has nothing to do with Silent Spring Revolution but is such a cool story that this reviewer wanted to share it. Grant and Carson are both pretty solidly recognized as American icons, but they’re both such incredible people that their epic dying feats of heroism slip through the cracks of public knowledge.