This year is a good time to reread Silent Spring

Written in 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was and still is nothing short of revolutionary in its importance. The first piece of writing that clearly collected and synthesized the existing work of environmental scientists and ecologists on the harmful effects of pesticides and insecticides in the environment, Silent Spring was a profound wake up call, an alarm bell, a highly effective call to arms for a new environmental conservation movement. Today, it is an essential document of the beginning of that movement and an education in basic ecology for the student looking to better understand our planet.

Should you ever feel in need of proof that one dedicated person can seriously change the world, this book may be it. Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist who began her career at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries writing humble educational radio scripts, used a combination of poetic prose and relentlessly damning evidence from the study of the natural world to do two things in Silent Spring: First, to illustrate the beauty, preciousness and incomprehensible wonders of nature. And second, to condemn and tear apart, beyond any shadow of doubt, the cavalier use of toxic chemicals for “control” of insects, pests and unwanted plants on farms, in gardens, along roadsides and elsewhere.

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Considering Tyranny on Independence Day

The founding fathers did something special when they designed the United States of America, with its branches of government designed to keep one another in check and protect the personal freedoms of individual citizens. For many Americans, though, the Constitution is something of a magical document, and the ideals of freedom and justice amount to some mighty magical thinking. For many Americans, oppression, corruption, human rights atrocities and war are things faced by other people in other countries — here in the USA, we’re protected by that magical document. We’re exceptional. We’re safe.

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, would like you to consider that this magical notion of safety is nonsense, which you may entertain at your extreme peril. On November 15, 2016, Snyder wrote on Facebook, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.”

He’s right.

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

In his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Snyder presents the expanded and fleshed-out versions of the 20-point list (from that much-circulated Facebook post) of ways free citizens can protect their liberty and each other in politically unstable and frightening times. This slim volume is packed with ample reasons why we should care about doing so, and chilling, cautionary illustrations from 20th century history.

This 4th of July, as we take a day off to meditate on what makes our country special, let’s also consider how we can keep it. On Tyranny offers grim warning alongside essential hope.

One of Jasper Johns “Flag” paintings, 1960-66.

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