By Kang Hyun-kyung
Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” though written more than 50 years ago, may still be valuable for Korea today, especially amid the public’s fear of toxic chemicals spurred by the recent humidifier disinfectant scandal.
The 1962 book, which warns of the danger of pesticides, fueled a pros and cons debate about the use of pesticides in the United States and eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But perhaps another important contribution of the book is the idea that a committed, trusted intellectual can change the direction of society.
In the aftermath of the humidifier disinfectant scandal that killed over 100 Koreans and damaged the respiratory systems of hundreds others, some experts put forth the role of experts in preventing similar incidents. The scandal is made even more unfortunate by the fact that the toxic chemicals involved had already been prohibited in Europe.
Observers point out that the public may not have a full understanding of chemical ingredients, and to educate the public on safe products, easy-to-understand publications about the possible harmful effects of chemicals are needed.
The experts’ opinions raise two important questions. Why is there no meaningful public debate about toxic chemicals in Korea? And why is there no intellectual like Rachel Carson in the country that could lead such a debate?
Emanuel Pastreich, a professor at Kyung Hee University, said a structural barrier hinders a serious debate about environmental issues in Korea, including toxic chemicals. “The whole system here is set up in a way that makes it almost impossible for intellectuals to devote themselves to writing for the general audience,” he said.
He said the commercialized media and publishing industry, along with the limited readership and the narrowly focused environmental movement, is responsible for the absence of such debates.
“Books about the environment are almost sidelined by commercialized media and commercial publishing. There are probably people like Rachel Carson, but their writings are not visible,” he said.”Writing for the media regarding environmental issues is almost suicidal for a professor like me because writing about the environment or environmental issues is not considered to be research by my university. They only count academic journal articles.”
Pastreich is one of the few active environmental contributors in the Korean media. His regular opinion pieces in major media outlets express his concerns about issues such as the desertification of North Korea and the water shortages and dying forests in South Korea.
He cites the way the environmental movement has developed in Korea as another setback. “Even today, education on the environment is not as high as you would think,” said Pastreich, whose experience in the Korean environmental movement includes two years as a board member with a Seoul-based environmental group.
The environmental movement in Korea has its roots in the human rights and democracy movements going back to the 1970s. At the time, many people were fighting for democracy and protesting against the authoritarian Park Chung-hee government. However, few were concerned about the country’s ecosystem partly because urbanization and industrialization were widely accepted as virtues, and few paid attention to the destructive impact of human activities on the ecosystem. A handful of people who were knowledgeable about the environment teamed up with students and labor unionists to start the pro-democracy movement, focusing on helping workers who were poisoned by toxic chemicals and promoting workers’ rights and safety ahead of other environmental concerns, such as conservation and the ecosystem.
In the early 1990s, environmental groups were officially established in the country, and activists have since expanded their activities to such previously overlooked environmental issues.
“It will be great if someone like Rachel Carson would be working in Korea today,” Pastreich said. “Carson was successful because she was able to write about a relatively complicated subject for the general audience in the 1960s.”
A biologist and naturalist, Carson was a dedicated intellectual who campaigned on several environmental issues, including pesticides and the oceans. In Silent Spring, Carson warned of the long-term harmful effects of prevalent pesticide on the ecosystem and on humans. She also raised the possible relationship between toxic chemicals and cancer. Prior to Silent Spring, she had already established herself in the field of science, having published articles in newspapers and magazines. From 1940 to 1952, she was also the editor-in-chief of U.S. Fish and Wildlife publications, after which she retired from government service to write full time.
Linda Lear, author of the biography “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature,” describes Carson as a lone, single female who challenged the corporate chemical giants.
According to Lear, Silent Spring was the product of Carson’s fears brought about by the 1945 atomic bombing. She said the book was born out of Carson’s belief that science needed to be regulated and that the public had the right to know what science was doing to the earth.
“She had the ability to synthesize large amounts of information not only into a form that was readable by the expert but was understandable and even eloquent for the average reader,” Lear said. “When it came to telling the public about the misuse of synthetic pesticides Carson had a huge reputation for telling the truth, for being a voice of reason and scientific accuracy and for caring for the natural world and about human health.”
Lear, a former professor of environmental history, said that Carson had to withstand the withering criticism heaped upon her in a backlash from the chemical industry in the wake of her book’s publication.
“Carson did not expect the hatred and vitriol that came to her from the chemical lobby and the petroleum companies,” Lear said. “Their attack on her was personal and gendered. Before Carson, no one questioned scientists or challenged the idea that they knew best. After Silent Spring, the general public was not so easily written off. And that was one of the reasons the scientific establishment tried to silence her.”
Despite the hostility and criticism hurled against her, Carson told the public what she believed was true and stood up against the chemical industry.
“Carson not only wrote about the damage to the biota and to the human system caused by misused chemicals, she questioned the government’s right to put chemicals into the environment without the public knowing,” Lear said. “She questioned the power of money behind the chemical lobby and their representatives in government, and she insisted that the general public could ask questions of government and science that they had a right to know.”
Lear admired Carson’s courage and determination to stand up against bureaucracy and the chemical lobby. She said she was further motivated to write the Carson’s biography through her personal ties with the naturalist. Lear hails from the same area outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Carson was from. She said Carson’s childhood home was not far from hers, which made her feel an affinity with Carson.