Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Ongoing Book Discussion Discussion

How do you determine the body count for a book, or more properly, for the ideas which a given book contains? For some titles it's easy, because the effects are fairly direct and writ large in history. The Communist Manifesto: One hundred million dead in the Twentieth Century alone. Mein Kampf: Twenty million dead, in about a decade. (World War II properly began in the mid-1930s, but that is a topic for another time.)

With other titles, it's more subtle and harder to gauge. Personally, I believe there is a special place in Hell reserved for the author of The Population Bomb, which was required reading in high schools and colleges all across America circa 1970 and which in turn convinced an entire generation of educated, affluent women to either forgo child-bearing entirely, ignore genetics and outsource child-bearing offshore by adopting from Third World countries, or perhaps worst of all, to produce just one, perfect — and perfectly spoiled — trophy baby. In the long run, I believe The Population Bomb will cause the collapse of Western Civilization.

But that also is a topic for another time.

Today, I want to talk about a recent addition to the We're Doomed! collection that I consider a real find: Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. This book, first published in 1962, is considered the founding text of the modern environmentalist movement. It is also the reason why, when asked, I will admit to being an environmentalist, but then hasten to add, "But I'm an Aldo Leopold environmentalist, not a Rachel Carson environmentalist."

The difference? Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, if you've not read it, is a beautiful, almost lyrical book about man's relationship with and stewardship over the earth. One of my uncles once unintentionally but brilliantly summed up Leopold's philosophy in a single very pithy epigram: "What you dump in the lake today might end up on your plate tomorrow. So don't dump crap in the lake."

Carson's Silent Spring, on the other hand, is a shrill, angry, darn near anti-human book. If this is indeed the founding text of the modern environmentalist movement, the source of many contemporary problems quickly becomes evident. The book is well and movingly written, of course, and really sinks its hooks into the reader on an emotional level. But Carson also routinely cites anecdotal evidence as proof, treats assertions as facts, conflates one complex chemical with another, and delivers blanket indictment upon blanket indictment of the entire agricultural chemical and pesticide industry. Further, throughout it all runs the near-constant subtext: We're in a crisis! There isn't time to study this issue further and wait for proof! The government must take drastic action NOW!

I first read Silent Spring in about 1967, and, as the author intended, embraced its message and took it to heart. I was very young and impressionable in those days, and not yet capable of understanding the Schopenhauer dialectical method nor recognizing its use. It took me years to realize that this book was agitprop, not science.

Someone else also read Silent Spring back in the 1960's, and he apparently took away a different lesson, which is what makes this particular copy of the book such a find. This reissued edition begins with a shrill, frothing, 12-page introduction written by none other than Al Gore, back in the days when he was still called "Ozone Al." (Are you old enough to remember the hole in the ozone layer that was going to kill us all back in the 1980s if the government didn't take drastic action right away? In case you missed it, the government didn't, the hole closed by itself, penguins and polar bears by the millions didn't go blind from UV radiation, and humanity was not devoured alive by a plague of skin cancer.) In his introduction, Gore even goes so far as to credit Carson and Silent Spring as his twin inspirations for becoming an environmentalist and writing Earth in the Balance.

So to return to the question we began with: how do you determine the body count for a book? In the case of Silent Spring, the numbers are fuzzy. Because of this book, the manufacture, sale, and application of the pesticide DDT was banned worldwide. Because of the ban on DDT, thirty-five million people so far have died from what otherwise would have been a cheaply and easily prevented disease: mosquito-borne malaria. And 35,000,000 is just the conservative estimate; other estimates double or even triple that number, which puts Silent Spring right up there in Mein Kampf territory.

But if what he wrote in his introduction was true, and Silent Spring really was the book that inspired Al Gore to write Earth in the Balance, and later, An Inconvenient Truth...

Well, then wherever they are now, Marx and Engels had better be worried, because their record is in serious jeopardy.