Sunday, September 16, 2018

Rachel Carson's Third Wave

Rachel Carson (1907 to 1964) birdwatching at Woods Hole, Massachusetts,
where she began her work as a biologist.
Image: Rachel Carson Council by way of The Wildlife Society.
SPOILER ALERT: I learned something so surprising from the radio segment below that I recommend listening to it (about 18 minutes) before reading my comment. It's OK. I'll wait.
OK. Welcome back.

Did you find Rachel Carson Dreams of the Sea as interesting as I did? I hope so. As is so often the case, I heard part of this New Yorker Radio Hour piece while I was doing some errands. The timing was perfect, because I am re-reading Silent Spring with my students, with whom I recently watched the American Experience documentary about the writing and publication of that book. It is a wonderful hour-long biographical treatment that I think compliments the book perfectly, putting it in context and making clear its historic significance.

I was drawn into this piece by its description of the first wave of Rachel Carson's work, which was her writing about the marine environment. I knew that her fame arose from her writings about the life of the oceans, but I never understood what had made her work so distinctive. She spent a great deal of time paying very close attention to the life around her through careful observation. As with Henry David Thoreau a century before, it was patient, repeated observation over time that allowed her to draw inferences that others might have missed.  What seems to have made the first wave of her work particularly effective, however, was her attention to the relationships among all of the lifeforms she studied. She was in this sense a pioneering ecologist, something a bit more expansive than a naturalist.

The second wave of Rachel Carson's work, of course, was Silent Spring, in which she made the science of biochemistry accessible to the general public while being the first effective critic of what had become a completely unbridled approach to the development and application of pesticides.

The third wave of her work -- the "spoiler" I mention above -- would have been the research she was beginning to do on global climate change. She died from breast cancer on April 18, 1964, just as she was beginning to understand a pattern of warming in her own observations of various coastal waters. She was born on May 27, 1907 (sharing a birthday with my favorite librarian), which means that had she not succumbed to cancer, she could have been part of James Hansen's team when it published the first paper on climate change in 1981. More likely, in fact, that work of atmospheric scientists would have been read by a public already familiar with the problem from her biologist's point of view. As historian Jill Lepore observes in the radio piece, it is actually sad to realize how much Rachel Carson understood about climate change, because we know she might very well have been able to do something about it.

Lagniappe: Today's Context

I chose to begin my class on environmental regulations with the study of Rachel Carson because I am offering the course during a political season in which both the President and the Congress of the United States have set about destroying environmental protections that previous occupants of their offices enacted, in large part as a result of her work.

While writing this very post, for example, I learned that the government is reducing oversight of its own nuclear-weapons production facilities. As I explained in my posts Calice and Secretary NIMBY, the reckless approach to nuclear weapons is part of a much broader assault on environmental protections of all kinds. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently posted a must-watch video about the dangers of an even broader pattern of deregulation that is reversing progress in every segment of our society.

When the U.S. is ready to repair the damage currently being done, my students will be in a position to help. Meanwhile they can join with others who are working to protect the environment through state, local, private, and international efforts.

Please see my previous posts related to Rachel Carson, mostly the "second wave" of her legacy:
Rachel Carson Experience (2012)
Ruby Exposed, about the need for ongoing vigilance regarding pesticides (2014)
A Good Read on a Vital Topic, about the work of Carl Safina, the closest thing we have to a living Rachel Carson (2015)
Monarch Highway, about one of Rachel Carson's favorite insects (2015)
Donde Voy, which is about my other hero, Tish Hinojosa (2017)
Beatriz at Dinner, featuring yet another hero, Salma Hayek (2017)
Cancer and the Environment, with a link to the organization working on Cape Cod in Rachel Carson's name (2010)

Sunday, September 02, 2018


I started my Sunday with this discussion between journalist Guy Raz and volcanologist Andrés Ruzo, whose childhood conversations at home led him to an amazing discovery in the Amazon Basin of Peru. (Because it contains have of the basin, Brazil is the best-known of the Amazon countries, but several upstream neighbors also have vast tracts of the basin and its forests.)

I recommend listening to the audio and then watching Dr. Ruzo's full TED Talk, given in 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. His story begins with curiosity, legend, and history. It provides insight into indigenous knowledge, geothermal science, ecology, and the concept of ecotourism.

It even touches on coffee! And from the TED Radio summary, I learn of Dr. Ruzo's coffee connection. In addition to growing up in Peru, part of his childhood was near volcanoes in Nicaragua, which means he is not far removed from coffeelands.
Andrés Ruzo has written his story in The Boiling River

Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Post

In the United States, we do not elect kings. The Framers of the Constitution had been living in a monarchy, and they crafted the balance of powers among three branches of government to preclude its return. They did not foresee the advent of Sen. Mitch McConnell -- who does not share their vision -- but they did seem to understand that an additional protection was needed. Thus, in order to check the excesses of the three branches, they included protection of the Fourth Estate -- the press -- in the very First Amendment to their carefully written work. It is the only profession mentioned in the document.

The patriotism of those who put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard or stylus to smartphone) is at least as important to the protection of the republic as are that of those who put on any of the uniforms of the armed services. This is true of local journalists such as those assassinated in Annapolis this summer and those threatened by a terrorist in Boston more recently. Neither man was motivated solely by the current president, but both cited his constant anti-journalist rhetoric. They cited his incitement, as it were. The second perpetrator was released on very low bail, providing some insight into the sincerity of our nation's "war on terror" rhetoric.

All of which makes this a timely time to watch The Post, which celebrates the publication of the Pentagon Papers -- eventually as a book but initially as a blizzard of articles in dozens of newspapers.

The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg with a night patrol in Vietnam. As I watched the inevitable ambush, I said, "Why did anybody think this would work?" Which of course was the entire point of the story. Secretary McNamara knew that the war could not be won, and he was determined to keep this a secret, as was the monarchical Nixon.

Without the courage of the men and women of the Post, the war might still be going on, and Nixon might still be president. (That last bit is hyperbole, especially since he is dead. But he was very crafty.)

The words of three men stood out as I watched the film, though it was the personal and professional courage of publisher Kay Graham (played masterfully by Meryl Streep) that was most pivotal.

When told that the Post might be shut down for publishing the papers, Executive Editor Ben Bradley (as played by Tom Hanks) replied, "If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist."

Writing for the 6-3 majority that ruled in favor of the Post, Associate Justice Hugo Black declared:
"The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

Following his defeat, the imperious Nixon  (as played by Curzon Dobell) is heard to say -- just as his operatives are perpetrating a burglary a mile to the west -- "No reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again." Clearly he had not taken the words of Justice Black to heart: the press does not serve at his pleasure.

Burying the Survivors

Photo: Geoffrey Scott Baker, resident of nearby Oella who calls Ellicott City his muse
I remember this riddle from middle school days -- "If a plane crashes on the U.S.-Canada border, where would they bury the survivors?" The punchline, of course, is that you don't bury survivors.

I was reminded of this when reading Ambitious Ellicott City flood prevention plan would tear down 19 buildings in historic downtown, by Baltimore Sun journalists Sarah Meehan and Jess Nocera. The headline is an accurate summary of what Howard County officials have proposed in response to the devastating floods of July 2016 (see my Flood Flash and and Flood Peak articles) and May 2018 (Flooding: It's Not in the Cards).

The headline hints at some of the problems with the response of county officials. The plan is indeed ambitious, in the way that Al Capone was ambitious at banks: it contemplates obliterating the victims. The financial cost to be paid by the county would be high, but the businesses that have rebuilt in the "flood zone" would not survive in new locations. They thrive because of the "sense of place" to which they have contributed for years or decades.

The plan announcement seeks to downplay the impact of the demolition by pointing out that 5 percent of the historic district would be affected, and this map with much less than 1 percent in red reinforces (and exaggerates) that message. Everyone who cares about the place, however, knows that this is the most important road segment on the map, or indeed in the entire county.

Moreover, the removal of buildings in the path of the flood waters will not "prevent" flooding. As detailed in the Preservation Maryland Statement on Ellicott City Demolition Proposal, the county's plan merely moves victims out of the way but does not even include study of the radically altered upstream hydrology that has driven the floods.
Main Street Ellicott City -- A walkable downtown with arts, history, architecture, cuisine, and coffee
The story is a reminder that climate change is leaving less room for error in many of our decisions about the environment. In this case, decisions about land use that would normally have made flooding quantitatively worse are now making it qualitatively worse -- a threshold has been crossed into an entirely new type of flood risk.


I have to admit that -- like many people from this part of Maryland -- I take the woes of Ellicott City personally. I have been a customer in most of the buildings slated for demolition, and my favorite librarian and I bought wedding gifts for each other in Discoveries.
Discoveries, around the anniversary of the 2016 flood. We tried to go again in May 2018, but downtown was thriving and we could not find a parking space. We were actually glad to see that. The next day, it was destroyed by a disaster resulting from climate change and poor land-use planning upstream.

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