April 23, 2020

The Margins of a River

Even under the best of circumstances, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring makes for grim reading, as a cursory look at its chapter titles suggests: “Elixirs of Death.” “Rivers of Death.” “And No Birds Sing,” “Needless Havoc,” “The Obligation to Endure.” These titles capture Carson’s sense of the urgency of preventing chemical pesticide use, as does the litany of dead creatures she details as she systematically works her way through the poisons’ effects on different ecosystems. Chemicals in the soil, chemicals in the water supply, chemicals in the sky, chemicals in the food chain, in our own bodies.

Though they date from the mid-20th century, these details were fully as dismaying as I had expected them to be from the book’s reputation — the 1962 book is often credited with having “launched the environmental movement”; it even says it right on the cover of the edition I have. But what surprised me was how reluctant Carson appears to be about naming specific villains or zeroing in on their motives. Maybe it seemed superfluous to point to the chemical companies and their myopic indifference to human life, let alone all the other forms of life destroyed in the name of pest control. In the quest for profit at the margins, capitalism forces companies to be indifferent to suffering — that’s one surefire strategy to gain a competitive edge. But I kept feeling like I had to read my cynicism about capitalism into Carson’s accounts of disastrous spraying programs and indiscriminate pollution. She is more overtly exasperated with government agencies, perhaps because trust in them hadn’t yet been so thoroughly broken. They were still supposed to be able do something.

It figures that Carson, a biologist, would write primarily about chains of consequence only at the level of biology, tracing what happens when some chemical is introduced in some proportion into some environment. But I wasn’t reading Silent Spring for any of that scientific explanation. I wanted an analysis of how and why humans could let this kind of mass poisoning in the name of economic growth happen, because with the pandemic, something similar seems to be on the verge happening right now. Is “economic growth” all the explanation that we, as a society, believe is necessary?

At times, Carson’s reticence to indict particular humans made it seem as though readers are supposed to believe that human hubris in the abstract was to blame for a world out of balance. But as Sherronda J. Brown argues in this post,

Capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism — not humanity itself — are the conditions that breed the destruction of natural habitats, the poisoning and polluting of our water supply, and the defiling of the health of our planet and our bodies. It is imperative that we make that distinction. When we do not, it leaves room for the most damaging systems of our world to thrive even more by throwing marginalized people under the bus … blaming people as a whole for the state of the environment is an insistence that many of us should take the blame for the very oppressions we’ve had to suffer under.

Only toward the end of Silent Spring does Carson gesture toward a systemic problem in political economy that helps explain all the systemic environmental problems.

The major chemical companies are pouring money into the universities to support research on insecticides. This creates attractive fellowships for graduate students and attractive staff positions. Biological-control studies, on the other hand, are never so endowed — for the simple reason that they do not promise anyone the fortunes that are to be made in the chemical industry. These are left to state and federal agencies, where the salaries paid are far less.

This situation also explains the otherwise mystifying fact that certain outstanding entomologists are among the leading advocates of chemical control. Inquiry into the background of some of these men reveals that their entire research program is supported by the chemical industry. Their professional prestige, sometimes their very jobs depend on the perpetuation of chemical methods. Can we then expect them to bite the hand that literally feeds them? But knowing their bias, how much credence can we give to their protests that insecticides are harmless?

It turns out that regulatory capture was possibly a more significant problem than DDT was.

Similarly, the coronavirus is not as dangerous in and if itself as those people who are treating it as an opportunity. The Trump administration is doing its part, undoing life-preserving environmental regulations in the name of economic efficiency. That is not merely a matter of taking advantage of a “state of exception” disaster-capitalist style, pushing through unrelated measures because the opposition to them is distracted and disorganized. It’s fully in keeping with the efforts to “reopen the economy,” which is code for recalculating who lives and dies to maintain profits, and not the cry of consumer freedom that the astroturf protests would have us believe it is.

“The fundamental conflicts between capitalism and humanity are no longer the stuff of patiently assembled subtext or elaborate flourishes of social theory,” David Roth notes in this New Republic piece. “They’re brandished as agitprop fodder in presidential press conferences, and echoed by Fox hosts and congressmen blithely demanding human sacrifices.” There are so many examples of this now that it is superfluous to cite them. It also feels futile to point out that this kind of indifference to human life is “wrong.” If you have decided that someone else should go die for your convenience, what kind of logic would convince you otherwise? How can that level of ideological disinvestment in the humanity of other people be reversed by rhetoric?

In the introduction to Frames of War, Judith Butler makes a nominal distinction between “precariousness” (the fact that we all will die and we all depend on social interconnection to live at all) and “precarity,” which she defines as the “politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.”  The pandemic has made the fact of this sort of “precarity” very explicit; the degree to which black and Latino people are disproportionately dying from Covid-19 indexes it. And “essential workers,” who have been required to continue in their jobs often without adequate protection, are clearly “differentially exposed to death.” As many have pointed out, the indispensability of their economic role corresponds to the disposability with which their lives are regarded. In Butler’s terms, this indifference, despite the rhetoric about the workers’ “heroism” — well debunked here by Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, a grocery-store worker — marks their lives as “ungrievable” from the standpoint of those praising their heroism. As Frisbie Brogan writes, “Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation.”

Butler claims, somewhat tautologically, that if “policy” reflected our universal “precariousness,” the injustices of precarity would become intolerable and all lives would become greivable.

For populations to become grievable does not require that we come to know the singularity of every person who is at risk or who has, indeed, already been risked. Rather, it means that policy needs to understand precariousness as a shared condition, and precarity as the politically induced condition that would deny equal exposure through the radically unequal distribution of wealth and the differential ways of exposing certain populations, racially and nationally conceptualized to greater violence. The recognition of shared precariousness introduces strong normative commitments of equality and invites a more robust universalizing of rights that seeks to address basic human needs for food, shelter, and other conditions for persisting and flourishing.

That seems more like a wish or a theoretical deduction than a likely occurrence. The “shared precariousness” — something that the unchecked spread of the unpredictably fatal coronavirus would presumably bring down upon everyone — has hardly introduced “strong normative commitments of equality” and “a more robust universalizing of rights.” Instead, it’s sparked a conspicuously renewed effort to divide populations into grievable and ungrievable groups that correlate largely with race and class. To draw any hope at all from our current situation for what Butler is claiming, you would have to believe that the increased volume of that remorseless discourse of disposability shows that the hegemony of such thinking is in jeopardy. But the opposite may be true: The voices calling for other people’s death are louder because they are emboldened by an overtly corrupt and crisis-ridden world to openly embrace fascist attitudes.

Rather than waiting for the humanity of all people to be recognized by the ghouls who will never allow themselves to see it, the “precariat” is starting to refuse to work, leveraging the perception of their “essentialness” against their disposability at a moment that makes the contradiction stark. They shouldn’t be expected to wait until matters have reached the point where others can ponder whether their lives had been “greivable.” Butler herself notes that in war “the shared condition of precariousness leads not to reciprocal recognition, but to a specific exploitation of targeted populations.” The pandemic has led to similar developments: Arundhati Roy explains here how Covid-19 has inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment in India, and of course, Trump has targeted immigrants. Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow has argued that businesses should not be held liable for any coronavirus-related problems their employees or customers contract.

None of this has to do with “practical” or “realistic” concerns about the economy’s survival. “In the guise of Trump,” Adam Tooze argues in an essay for the London Review of Books, “the economy appears not so much as a superego laying down the law, but as an irrepressible impulse that insists we satisfy its demands regardless of the cost, a symptom not of realism but of derangement.” The opportunity to sharpen the distinctions between expendable and nonexpendable populations — the long-term requirement of capitalism — has exceeded more short-term “rational” calculations of economic efficiency. As Malcolm Harris argues in this essay for Commune, “For capital, containing the crisis means retaining as many inequalities as possible in the face of a quickly universal disease — and, perhaps, preparing some new ones.” Reopening the economy is not just about securing profits (people seem unlikely to rush out to shop anyway) but affixing vulnerability to the designated martyrs.

Butler argues that “such populations are ‘lose-able’ or can be forfeited, precisely because they are framed as being already lost or forfeited; they are cast as threats to human life as we know it rather than as living populatIons in need of protection from illegitimate state violence, famine, or pandemics.” With regard to “essential workers,” that process is beginning to unfold. They have already been framed not as expendable but as already lost; their inevitable deaths have been translated into euphemistic statistics to make them commensurate and contrastable with GDP and other economic measures. And in the complaints that social distancing is “killing the economy,” one can see how workers’ lives are being represented as threats to “human life as we know it” — which largely amounts to the life of consumerism. The protesters who want to send other people to their deaths also agree to send themselves to the same fate — as though they could kill off the worker in themselves so that the consumer could live. As consumers, we all have “precariousness,” grounded in the universality of the market and its specious forms of equality; as workers, we have precarity, grounded in who gets to exploit whom.


In Silent Spring, Carson frequently notes how indiscriminate chemical means of pest control are chosen even when they are not the cheapest or most efficient. She wonders if “the resort to ‘eradicating’ any creature that may annoy or inconvenience us” has become a “habit of killing” that, in effect, has become its own end. She describes a 1959 incident in Indiana, where the insecticide parathion (now widely banned) was sprayed to ostensibly prevent blackbirds from eating corn. “The problem could have been solved easily by a slight change in agricultural practice — a shift to a variety of corn with deep-set ears not accessible to the birds — but the farmers had been persuaded of the merits of killing by poison, and so they sent in the planes on their mission of death,” Carson writes.

Who persuaded them? And how? “Does Indiana still raise any boys who roam through woods or fields and might even explore the margins of a river?” Carson asks. “If so, who guarded the poisoned area to keep out any who might wander in, in misguided search for unspoiled nature? Who kept vigilant watch to tell the innocent stroller that the fields he was about to enter were deadly — all their vegetation coated with a lethal film? Yet at so fearful a risk, the farmers, with none to hinder them, waged their needless war on blackbirds.”

Carson later poses a series of broader, more searching questions: “Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? … Who has decided — who has the right to decide — for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?” We may find ourselves asking similar questions once the economy has been forcibly reopened. I read Carson’s list and think about “the ever-widening wave of death,” but apparently others would focus on the “sterile world” as a comment on the hardship of social distancing.

“Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life,” Carson writes, and maybe future generations will feel similarly about the imprudent reaction to the pandemic, and the lack of concern for the social interconnection that supports all human life, the “precariousness” that characterizes us all. But as William Hogeland argues here, there is little reason to assume the historians of the future will tell a less partisan story about the criminal negligence and greed now on display. “Historical judgment is also subject to contingency,” he writes. “It is shaped by powerful interests and influences and draws energy from politics, economics, and other high-pressure forces. It’s by no means impossible — though creepy as hell — to imagine a future historical judgment in which Trump is deemed the greatest leader of all time.” It’s not merely “not impossible.” It seems more and more likely. It will be a future litmus test for one’s devotion to the cause of Mammon. Meanwhile, the comfort of a future historical perspective serves as a way to assuage one’s current sense of impotence, to legitimate the moments of surrender, the inability to continue to resist.

Silent Spring impresses on readers how routinely greed is chosen over care and, worse, how greed can be represented as care from some “wiser” perspective, whether that is some kind of economism or something more openly necropolitical. Capitalism supplants the interconnected, disparate, and ultimately inscrutable set of motivations that sustains an unsubsumed ecosystem with a relatively simple logic: the overriding incentive of profit — what Carson calls “our narrow standpoint of direct self-interest.” With the perspective of history we can see that narrow standpoint in play in the corporate and government villains of Silent Spring, who believed that nature could be subordinated to profit, that it could be reconstructed in capital’s image. But recognizing that doesn’t change it, in them or in ourselves.

Carson ironically evoked the “misguided search for unspoiled nature,” as though readers would understand that it’s actually perfectly natural to want to do so and only chemical industry flacks could fail to recognize that. But there is no unspoiled nature, only what capitalism has structured that way. That “misguided search” can just as easily lead to the resigned belief that self-interest is only natural, there is no alternative, that the economy must be reopened, that the world ceases to make sense without it. History suggests that what is “natural” is what people have been forced to accept as much as what they have managed to struggle against.