Vice President Cheney's admission on ABC's This Week that he ordered the torture of terrorist suspects may be a defining moment in our political discourse. It was remarkable not so much for the substance of its revelation -- we have long known that "enhanced interrogation" methods, including waterboarding, were integral to the Bush administration's prosecution of its War on Terror -- as for its banality. Perhaps it was the release of a poll in which a majority of Americans surveyed favored the use of torture that emboldened Cheney to speak so casually about practices outlawed by the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory. And while legal scholars debate whether the vice president should be tried for war crimes, which under U.S. statute may be punishable by death, we believe that his confession raises questions integral to the humanities: how did we arrive at a point where a public figure boasts of torturing people and the public reacts with a shrug? Have we become inured to what is universally judged to be beyond the pale? Can we counter what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, when philosophy departments, like all the humanities, are strapped for funds?
Journalists have brought to light a host of war crimes beginning with the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, many of which were connected to decisions taken by the Bush White House; constitutional experts have argued that our refusal to reckon with these crimes challenges the view of America as a beacon of justice; commentators across the political spectrum, debating the efficacy of torture, have helped to create a climate in which it is not surprising to hear someone extol the virtues of waterboarding, an instrument of the Spanish Inquisition. Where do the humanities fit into this equation? If a society fails to call its torturers to account, then that society has failed to engage with what it means to be human. In the midst of an economic crisis that threatens the very lifeblood of the humanities -- research and scholarship -- it is important to remember that in studying history, literature, and philosophy we cultivate the values of civilization; that is, we learn to value the dignity of every single human being.
It is no secret that public funding for public universities has been eroding for decades. And now the ground has shifted underfoot: in the last year alone, legislatures in California, Iowa, and elsewhere have cut support for state universities by over 20 percent; it has become common for public universities to rely on the state for a third or less of their total support. Which means that tuition spirals upward, class sizes may be limited only by the fire code, and multiple-choice examinations replace essays at the very moment that studies point to a decline in reading and writing skills. Faculty are "furloughed," although the term carries new meaning, since teaching, research, and service responsibilities have not been reduced.
The impact of these developments is especially severe for the humanities. For example, at the University of Iowa, where we teach, state funds support roughly 6.8 percent of the medical school budget, which relies heavily on federal grants; humanities departments -- English, history, languages and literatures, cinema -- rely on state funds for 40-45 percent of their support (nearly all the rest comes from tuition). As states shrug off their responsibilities to support higher education, students and their families must pick up the slack (no mean feat in this economy), the difference between public and private universities shrinks, and the opportunities that states offer their young citizens erode. In this context, humanities faculty cannot defend themselves by intensifying their research: while success in the competition for grants in the sciences brings with it salary support and substantial overhead (50 percent at our university), success in the most competitive humanities grants actually burdens the university; Guggenheim and NEH fellowships pay barely half of the average professorial salary and no overhead; the university must pick up the difference and also pay fringe benefits like health insurance. Thus some Research 1 universities, which once placed a premium on winning these fellowships, now put limits on the frequency with which faculty can apply for them.
Teaching in the humanities is in profound ways more vulnerable to budget cuts than in the sciences. If a biology department crams too many students into a laboratory it risks losing its accreditation. But the size of a lecture class on Shakespeare or modern Chinese history is limited only by the size of the lecture hall and power of the microphone -- which is hardly conducive to the kinds of discussion integral to teasing meanings out of complicated ideas.
Percolating under all these worries is a deeper one. Voters understand that knowledge in the sciences and social sciences changes over time -- they readily agree that what is taught in college physics or economics or chemistry will not, and should not, be the same as what they learned twenty years before. But fewer understand that the study of philosophy, or history, or literature also changes over time. What they themselves struggled to learn was supposed to have permanent value (which it surely does), but many find it difficult to understand what scholars in these fields actually do on research assignment -- which, as one generally respected union leader recently said, is "time off to goof off." Pressure is building rapidly -- inside and outside the public university -- to redirect scholarly energy into outcomes more easily measured by numbers, to increase class sizes and teaching loads, to reconfigure public higher education as a commodity whose value is measured primarily by the first post-graduation job.
This is the moment that Jim Leach, the eloquent new chairman of the NEH, has chosen to embark on a tour of all fifty states, a Lorax articulating the costs -- in finances, in international respect, in commerce -- for not paying attention to the humanities.
"I think," he observes, "a student of Muslim culture would have been hard-pressed to advocate a war against a country that didn't attack us in the Middle East. A student of China might well have developed a more realistic way of dealing with U.S.-Chinese relations over the last half century." In the face of the anger exploding in our political arena, we need civil values more than ever: the knowledge that enables understanding of life experiences distant from our own. Would the scandal at Abu Ghraib been treated so dismissively if knowledge of the Geneva Conventions had been central to the public's historical understanding?
Rarely mentioned, the social obligations of citizenship still press upon us. More than a century ago, Jane Addams spoke on the subject to undergraduates at Grinnell College; we have her words because reporters from the student newspaper were on the job. "The virtues of one generation are not sufficient for the next," she said.
It is the responsibility of each generation ... to claim the knowledge developed by its predecessors; that is what college is for. But to preserve this knowledge, merely to echo the virtues received from our parents, is not enough; "any more than the accumulations of knowledge possessed by one age are adequate to the needs of another... A task is laid upon each generation to enlarge their application, to ennoble their conception, and above all, to apply and adopt them to the peculiar problems presented to it for solution.
The accumulations of knowledge have indeed changed from the time -- not so long ago -- when the history curriculum focused on the "founding fathers" and other great men, excluding any mention of women; when the literary canon overlooked writers like W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Salman Rushdie; when anthropologists studied "backward" people. The strengths of the public university lie precisely in the opening of understandings of the unfamiliar, the expansion of horizons, the transformation of the local to the cosmopolitan.
An educated person makes judgments not only on the basis of technical skill but, as the philosopher of science May Brodbeck observed in a commencement address at the University of Kentucky some thirty years ago, "in the context of knowledge of the past, of sensitivity to human needs, and of the effects of certain actions and attitudes on other people....[T]he educated person's horizons have been expanded...[to include]...knowledge of the infinite varieties of human motivation, of our capacity for suffering, for cruelty, as well as for heroism -- this background adds a broad reflective dimension...to the specialist's expert knowledge..."
Now is the moment for our colleagues throughout the academy, and in the public at large, to say to the next generation as forcefully as she did:
The university is not a trade-school. It does not exist to teach specific routine skills for particular jobs.... The university is not... a Reddy Kilowatt of education, providing a service and a product. The metaphor debases language and the analogy is misguided... You are not products. The university is not a factory. You are educated human beings who will each in his or her own way improve the quality of life for all of us.
We are in danger of allowing the economic challenges of the recession to undermine the foundations that make a wholesome response to it -- and to the future -- possible. And while it is possible to gauge economic value, to measure growth and decline, to take readings of all manner of things, it is difficult to measure the value of a human life -- which is precisely where the humanities figure. We need history, literature, and philosophy, and indeed all the humanities, to understand, insofar as it is possible, the meaning of life and death. We turn to the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to understand the value of an individual life, whether in Afghanistan or Arkansas. History teaches us how we have arrived at a certain moment in the life of the planet. And in the works of poets and fiction writers, in playwrights and essayists, we discover who we are -- and are not.
'The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates warned, and to leave unchallenged the crimes of Cheney and his cohorts represents a failure of the humanities -- a species of moral blindness that philosophers have long explored. The humanities teach students to think critically, creatively, and courageously -- to evaluate arguments not only their merits but for their moral and philosophical import. The Department of Justice has cleared the authors of the infamous torture memos of professional misconduct, and the Obama administration seems determined not to "re-litigate the past" (though of course the wrongdoings of the Bush White House have yet to be litigated), and so it may fall to those in the humanities, whose voices are not often heard in public debates, to remind us of what the stakes are in this argument: our common humanity.
What was it that allowed Carson to capture the public imagination and to forge America’s environmental consciousness?
Saint Rachel, “the nun of nature,” as she is called, is frequently invoked in the name of one environmental cause or another, but few know much about her life and work. “People think she came out of nowhere to deliver this Jeremiad of ‘Silent Spring,’ but she had three massive best sellers about the sea before that,” McKibben says. “She was Jacques Cousteau before there was Jacques Cousteau.”
The sea held an immense appeal to a woman who grew up landlocked and poor as Carson did. She was born in 1907 in the boom of the Industrial Age about 18 miles up the Allegheny River from , in the town of Springdale. From her bedroom window, she could see smoke billow from the stacks of the American Glue Factory, which slaughtered horses. The factory, the junkyard of its time, was located less than a mile away, down the gently sloping riverbank from the Carsons’ four-room log cabin. Passers-by could watch old horses file up a covered wooden ramp to their death. The smell of tankage, fertilizer made from horse parts, was so rank that, along with the mosquitoes that bred in the swampland near the riverbank called the Bottoms, it prevented Springdale’s 1,200 residents from sitting on their porches in the evening.
Her father, Robert Carson, was a ne’er-do-well whose ventures inevitably failed; Carson’s elder sister, Marian, did shift work in the town’s -fired power plant. Carson’s mother, Maria, the ambitious and embittered daughter of a Presbyterian minister, had great hopes that her youngest daughter, Rachel, could be educated and would escape Springdale. Rachel won a scholarship to College for Women, now known as Chatham University, in Pittsburgh. After graduation, she moved to , where she attended graduate school for zoology at and completed a master’s degree before dropping out to help support her family. The Carsons fared even worse during the Depression, and they fled Springdale, leaving heavy debts behind.
Carson became a science editor for the U.S. , an agency founded under the New Deal. Eager to be a writer, she freelanced for The Atlantic and , among other publications. Driven by her love of the sea, she wrote on everything from where to go for summer vacation to what to do with the catch of the day to the life cycles of sea creatures. Carson believed that people would protect only what they loved, so she worked to establish a “sense of wonder” about nature. In her best-selling sea books — “The Edge of the Sea” and “Under the Sea-Wind” — she used simple and sometimes sentimental narratives about the oceans to articulate sophisticated ideas about the inner workings of largely unseen things.
Carson was initially ambivalent about taking on what she referred to as “the poison book.” She didn’t see herself as an investigative reporter. By this time, she’d received the for “The Sea Around Us” and established herself as the naturalist of her day. This was a much folksier and less controversial role than the one “the poison book” would put her in. Taking on some of the largest and most powerful industrial forces in the world would have been a daunting proposition for anyone, let alone a single woman of her generation. She tried to enlist other writers to tackle the dangers of pesticides. E.B. White, who was at , which serialized Carson’s major books, gently suggested that she investigate pesticides for The New Yorker herself. So she did.
“Silent Spring” begins with a myth, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” in which Carson describes “a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Cognizant of connecting her ideal world to one that readers knew, Carson presents not a pristine wilderness but a town where people, roads and gutters coexist with nature — until a mysterious blight befalls this perfect place. “No witchcraft,” Carson writes, “no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”
Carson knew that her target audience of popular readers included scores of housewives. She relied upon this ready army of concerned citizens both as sources who discovered robins and squirrels poisoned by pesticides outside their back doors and as readers to whom she had to appeal. Consider this indelible image of a squirrel: “The head and neck were outstretched, and the mouth often contained dirt, suggesting that the dying animal had been biting at the ground.” Carson then asks her readers, “By acquiescing in an act that causes such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?”
Her willingness to pose the moral question led “Silent Spring” to be compared with ’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” written nearly a century earlier. Both books reflected the mainstream Protestant thinking of their time, which demanded personal action to right the wrongs of society. Yet Carson, who was baptized in the Presbyterian Church, was not religious. One tenet of Christianity in particular struck her as false: the idea that nature existed to serve man. “She wanted us to understand that we were just a blip,” says Linda Lear, author of Carson’s definitive biography, “Witness for Nature.” “The control of nature was an arrogant idea, and Carson was against human arrogance.”
“Silent Spring” was more than a study of the effects of synthetic pesticides; it was an indictment of the late 1950s. Humans, Carson argued, should not seek to dominate nature through chemistry, in the name of progress. In Carson’s view, technological innovation could easily and irrevocably disrupt the natural system. “She was the very first person to knock some of the shine off modernity,” McKibben says. “She was the first to tap into an idea that other people were starting to feel.”
Carson’s was one of several moral calls to arms published at the start of the ’60s. ’s “Death and Life of American Cities,” Michael Harrington’s “Other America,” ’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” and ’s “Feminine Mystique” all captured a growing disillusionment with the status quo and exposed a system they believed disenfranchised people. But “Silent Spring,” more than the others, is stitched through with personal rage. In 1960, according to Carson’s assistant, after she found out that her breast cancer had metastasized, her tone sharpened toward the apocalyptic. “She was more hostile about what arrogant technology and blind science could do,” notes Lear, her biographer.
“No one,” says Carl Safina, an oceanographer and MacArthur fellow who has published several books on marine life, “had ever thought that humans could create something that could create harm all over the globe and come back and get in our bodies.” Safina took me out in his sea around Lazy Point, an eastern spoke of , to see three kinds of terns, which zipped around us over the bay. We then crossed the point in his red Prius to visit thriving osprey, one species of bird that was beginning to die out when “Silent Spring” made public that DDT weakened their eggshells. As we peered through binoculars at a 40-foot-high nest woven from sticks, old mops and fishnets, a glossy black osprey returned to his mate and her chicks with a thrashing fish in his talons. Safina told me that he began to read “Silent Spring” when he was 14 years old, in the back seat of his parents’ sedan.
“I almost threw up,” he said. “I got physically ill when I learned that ospreys and peregrine falcons weren’t raising chicks because of what people were spraying on bugs at their farms and lawns. This was the first time I learned that humans could impact the environment with chemicals.” That a corporation would create a product that didn’t operate as advertised —“this was shocking in a way we weren’t inured to,” Safina said.
Though Carson talked about other pesticides, it was DDT — sprayed aerially over large areas of the to control mosquitoes and fire ants — that stood in for this excess. DDT was first synthesized in 1874 and discovered to kill insects in 1939 by Paul Hermann Müller, who won the Nobel Prize in 1948 for this work. During , DDT applied to the skin in powder form proved an effective means to control in soldiers. But it wasn’t just DDT’s effectiveness that led to its promotion, Carson maintained; it was a surfeit of product and labor. In her speeches, Carson claimed that after the war, out-of-work pilots and a glut of the product led the United States government and industry to seek new markets for DDT among American consumers.
By the time Carson began to be interested in pesticides, in the mid-1940s, concerns related to DDT were mounting among wildlife biologists at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Md., which was administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and elsewhere. Controversy over pesticides’ harmful effects on birds and plants led to high-profile lawsuits on the part of affected residents who wanted to stop the aerial spraying.
Carson used the era’s hysteria about radiation to snap her readers to attention, drawing a parallel between nuclear fallout and a new, invisible chemical threat of pesticides throughout “Silent Spring.” “We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation,” she wrote. “How then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”
Carson and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, knew that such comparisons would be explosive. They tried to control the response to the book by seeking support before publication. They sent galleys to the National Audubon Society for public endorsement.
The galleys landed on the desk of Audubon’s biologist, Roland Clement, for review. Clement, who will turn 100 in November, currently lives in a studio on the 17th floor of a community in , about a mile from ’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where Carson’s papers are kept. “I knew of everything she wrote about,” he told me over lunch at his home this summer. “She had it right.”
The book, which was published on Sept. 27, 1962, flew off the shelves, owing largely to its three-part serialization in The New Yorker that summer. “Silent Spring” was also selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club, which delighted Carson. But nothing established Carson more effectively than her appearance on “ Reports,” an hourlong television news program hosted by a former war correspondent, Eric Sevareid. On camera, Carson’s careful way of speaking dispelled any notions that she was a shrew or some kind of zealot. Carson was so sick during filming at home in suburban that in the course of the interview, she propped her head on her hands. According to Lear as well as William Souder, author of a new biography of Carson, “On a Farther Shore,” Sevareid later said that he was afraid Carson wouldn’t survive to see the show broadcast.
The industry’s response to “Silent Spring” proved more aggressive than anyone anticipated. As Lear notes, Velsicol, a manufacturer of DDT, threatened to sue both Houghton Mifflin and The New Yorker. And it also tried to stop Audubon from excerpting the book in its magazine. Audubon went ahead and even included an editorial about the chemical industry’s reaction to the book. But after “Silent Spring” came out, the society declined to give it an official endorsement.
The personal attacks against Carson were stunning. She was accused of being a communist sympathizer and dismissed as a spinster with an affinity for cats. In one threatening letter to Houghton Mifflin, Velsicol’s general counsel insinuated that there were “sinister influences” in Carson’s work: she was some kind of agricultural propagandist in the employ of the Soviet Union, he implied, and her intention was to reduce Western countries’ ability to produce food, to achieve “east-curtain parity.”
But Carson also had powerful advocates, among them President , who established a presidential committee to investigate pesticides. Then, in June 1963, Carson made her appearance before the Senate subcommittee. In her testimony, Carson didn’t just highlight the problems that she identified in “Silent Spring”; she presented the policy recommendations she’d been working on for the past five years. When faced with a chance to do so, Carson didn’t call for a ban on pesticides. “I think chemicals do have a place,” she testified.
She argued vehemently against aerial spraying, which allowed the government to dump pesticides on people’s property without their permission. She cited dairy farmers in upstate New York, whose milk was banned from the market after their land was sprayed to eradicate gypsy moths. As Carson saw it, the federal government, when in industry’s thrall, was part of the problem. That’s one reason that she didn’t call for sweeping federal regulation. Instead, she argued that citizens had the right to know how pesticides were being used on their private property. She was reiterating a central tenet of “Silent Spring”: “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.” She advocated for the birth of a grass-roots movement led by concerned citizens who would form nongovernmental groups that she called “citizen’s brigades.”
The results of her efforts were mixed, and even her allies have different opinions of what Carson’s legacy actually means. Carson is widely credited with banning DDT, by both her supporters and her detractors. The truth is a little more complicated. When “Silent Spring” was published, DDT production was nearing its peak; in 1963, U.S. companies manufactured about 90,000 tons. But by the following year, DDT production in America was already on the wane. Despite the pesticide manufacturers’ aggression toward Carson and her book, there was mounting evidence that some insects were increasingly resistant to DDT, as Carson claimed. After Roland Clement testified before the Senate subcommittee, he says, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, the Democrat from who was chairman of the committee, pulled him aside. “He told me that the chemical companies were willing to stop domestic use of DDT,” Clement says, but only if they could strike a bargain: as long as Carson and Clement would accept the companies’ continued export of DDT to foreign countries, the companies would consider the end of domestic use. Their message was clear, Clement says: “Don’t mess with the boys and their business.”
Though Clement was a supporter of Carson’s, he believes that she got both too much and too much blame after “Silent Spring” came out. “It’s a fabrication to say that she’s the founder of the environmental movement,” Clement says. “She stirred the pot. That’s all.” It wasn’t until 1972, eight years after Carson’s death, that the United States banned the domestic sale of DDT, except where public health concerns warranted its use. American companies continued to export the pesticide until the mid-1980s. ( stopped manufacturing DDT in 2007. In 2009, , the only country to produce the pesticide at the time, made 3,653 tons.)
The early activists of the new environmental movement had several successes attributed to Carson — from the Clean Air and Water Acts to the establishment of to ’s founding of the , in 1970. But if “Silent Spring” can be credited with launching a movement, it also sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
The well-financed counterreaction to Carson’s book was a prototype for the brand of attack now regularly made by super-PACs in everything from debates about carbon emissions to new energy sources. “As soon as ‘Silent Spring’ is serialized, the chemical companies circle the wagons and build up a war chest,” Souder says. “This is how the environment became such a bitter partisan battle.”
In a move worthy of Citizens United, the chemical industry undertook an expensive negative P.R. campaign, which included circulating “The Desolate Year,” a parody of “A Fable for Tomorrow” that mocked its woeful tone. The parody, which was sent out to newspapers around the country along with a five-page fact sheet, argued that without pesticides, America would be overrun by insects and Americans would not be able to grow enough food to survive.
One reason that today no single book on, say, climate change could have the influence that “Silent Spring” did, Souder argues, is the five decades of political fracturing that followed its publication. “The politicized and partisan reaction created by ‘Silent Spring’ has hardened over the past 50 years,” Souder says. Carson may have regarded “Silent Spring” and stewardship of the environment as a unifying issue for humankind, but a result has been an increasingly factionalized arena.
Carson was among the first environmentalists of the modern era to be charged with using “soft science” and with cherry-picking studies to suit her ideology. Fifty years later, the attacks on Carson continue. Her opponents hold her responsible for the death of millions of African children from ; in ’s novel one character says that “banning DDT killed more people than ,” a sentiment Crichton publicly agreed with. The Web site , which is run by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group based in Washington, makes a similar charge: “Today, millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm.”
But much of Carson’s science was accurate and forward-looking. Dr. Theo Colborn, an environmental health analyst and co-author of a 1996 book, “Our Stolen Future,” about endocrine disrupters — the chemicals that can interfere with the body’s hormone system — points out that Carson was on the cutting edge of the science of her day. “If Rachel had lived,” she said, “we might have actually found out about endocrine disruption two generations ago.”
Today, from Rachel Carson’s old bedroom window in Springdale, you can see the smokestacks of the Cheswick coal-fired power plant less than a mile away: an older red-and-white, candy-striped stack and a newer one, called a scrubber, installed in 2010 to remove sulfur dioxide. It later needed repairs, but with the approval of the Allegheny County Health Department, it stayed open, and the plant operated for three months without full emission controls. The plants says it is in compliance with current E.P.A. emissions standards for coal-fired plants, though new ones will take full effect in 2016.
Springdale’s board of supervisors supports the plant’s business. As David Finley, president of Springdale Borough put it, the noise from the plant used to bother a handful of residents, but it “sounds like money” to many others. The plant buys fresh water from an underground river that runs through the borough and has paid for things like Little League uniforms and repairs to the municipal swimming pool. Springdale has been nicknamed “Power City” since the days Carson lived there. The high-school sports teams are called the Dynamos; their mascot is Reddy Kilowatt, the cartoon character of the electricity lobby.
A few months ago, two citizens in Springdale volunteered to be representatives in a class-action suit, which charges that the coal-fired plant “installed limited technology” to control emissions that they claim are damaging 1,500 households. One of the plaintiffs, Kristie Bell, is a 33-year-old health care employee who lives in a two-story yellow-brick house with a broad front porch, a few blocks from Carson’s childhood home. Bell said it was “Silent Spring” that encouraged her to step forward. “Rachel Carson is a huge influence,” Bell said, sitting at her kitchen table after work on a sultry evening last summer. “She’s a motivator.” For Bell, Carson’s message is a call to mothers to stand up against industry to protect the health of their families.
Detractors have argued that the lawsuit is the creation of personal-injury attorneys. (Because of the difficulty of making a clear health case, the plaintiffs are claiming property damage caused by corrosive ash.) But Bell said that it’s not about money. “I never sit outside on my front porch because I don’t know what’s coming out of that smokestack,” she said. One hundred years ago, when Carson was a child, residents of Springdale had the same concern — one that informed Carson’s worldview. “When we start messing around with Mother Nature,” Bell said, “bad things happen.”Continue reading the main story