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From The Nation

Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters in the '60s.

Since I was born during the short window between John F. Kennedy's election and inauguration, I can claim with technical accuracy to be a child of the '60s. True, my main accomplishment over the next 10 years was learning to ride a bike, but the iconography of the decade is so inescapable that I've always felt as if I actually knew what it was all about: raised fists, civil-rights and anti-war marches, hippies, the Beatles, the hair -- an epoch of resistance.

Andrea Barnet's new biography of four women who helped shape that era rewrote that definition a little for me -- or at least broadened it. One thing that unites Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters is, of course, gender. But (perhaps in part because of that fact) what really makes them fit subjects for joint consideration is the idea they shared, which was in many ways quite new when they broached it in the '60s: that the world, both natural and human, is not a series of mechanistic interactions but rather a web. "Into a blustery, all-male world of patriarchs and company men, technocrats and cold warriors," Barnet writes, "walked four women who saw things differently and were unafraid to say so."

Carson, Jacobs, Goodall, and Waters weren't friends; they weren't all of the same generation, and they worked in different fields. But where the men who had made the world of the 1950s saw "strict hierarchies and separations, they saw entities and connections, the world as a holistic system...they saw movement and flow, evolution and process." Indeed, Barnet tells us, all four "intuitively grasped the overarching idea of 'connection,' which is the basis of what we now call 'web' or 'systems' thinking. If these insights seem self-evident today, it is only because of how thoroughly we have internalized their essence." Their ideas "not only turned out to be prescient, but culture-changing -- the catalyst to a radical shift in consciousness." There were others -- men and women both -- who helped push us in the same direction, but these four help us better understand the nature, and the beauty, of that shift.

Rachel Carson was much older than the rest of this quartet, and she was prominent before the '60s -- indeed, her books about the oceans were among the best, and best-selling, of the 1950s. Carson had aspired to a career as a biologist, but her father's illness left her the sole supporter of her family, and as a result she had to forgo getting a PhD. In 1935, Carson took a civil-service job with the Bureau of Fisheries, which later became a part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where she was given the task of writing radio scripts and brochures about marine life. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, described seabirds and fish in language both technically accurate and lyrical. Yet despite the fine reviews, its impact was effectively scuttled by the outbreak of World War II.

Before she started writing about pesticides, however, Carson returned to the sea, producing another manuscript about the oceans. This time, it caught the eye of Edith Oliver, a shrewd longtime presence at The New Yorker, who persuaded managing editor William Shawn to excerpt most of it. The check from the magazine, for $5,200, equaled Carson's government salary for a year, and so she quit to become a full-time writer.

That second book, The Sea Around Us, made her: It spent 86 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, at one point selling more than 4,000 copies a day, and earned her the National Book Award. Its sequel, The Edge of the Sea, was another considerable success. Had Carson's work stopped there, she would have left an imprint: She had helped open up 70 percent of the planet for humans to contemplate, understand, and enjoy. What Jacques Cousteau would later do with a camera, Carson did first with just a typewriter.

But she didn't stop there. The stories about the harmful effects of the powerful insecticide DDT, which she'd known about at least since the war, had always nagged at her. First she tried to persuade E.B. White to take on the issue (he had written on the question of nuclear fallout before), but when he demurred, Carson continued to investigate the dangers of the ubiquitous pesticide on her own. (Among other things, DDT was sprayed from the air over football stadiums before big games to keep the mosquitoes down; pocket-size dispensers were also sold for carrying in golf bags.) As she worked on the book that would become Silent Spring, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer, beginning a race against time. In the summer of 1962, The New Yorker began to serialize the book, and Silent Spring was published that fall to a cascade of plaudits -- as well as a full-blown assault by the chemical industry, which tried to discredit Carson as an "anti-business" subversive who lacked professional scientific credentials. The kind of public-relations campaign that the tobacco and oil industries later perfected had its crude birth in the response to Silent Spring.

The chemical industry was right to be alarmed. The book, Barnet writes, was "more than a polemic about the perils of synthetic pesticides; it was a critique of the values of the 1950s: its love affair with technology, its deference to big business, its scientific elitism, its mania for national security, its increasing disconnection from nature." When Carson testified before the Senate, her composure and gravitas left a strong impression on committee chairman Abraham Ribicoff. She made an equally important appearance on CBS Reports, where, as Barnet notes, nearly 15 million Americans saw her "answering every question with calm deliberation, never sounding anything but thoughtful throughout." Though she'd been careful and detailed in her critique of pesticides, Carson concluded the program on a more philosophical note. "We still talk in terms of conquest," she said. "We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Now I truly believe that in this generation we must come to terms with nature."

It's hard to imagine what a thoroughly bizarre operation urban planning had become in the 1950s and '60s. If the chemical industry thought that wiping out a broad array of pests would produce a happy society, many of the world's architects thought that standardizing our surroundings could achieve that end as well. Oscar Niemeyer, for instance, was designing Brasilia from scratch, with separate zones for work, pleasure, and habitation. The low-density, car-dependent suburb had also become a favored form of the era, and giant public-housing towers were seen as an antiseptic answer to slums.

Barnet opens her section on Jane Jacobs with an account of Jacobs's visit to Philadelphia to meet Edmund Bacon, the local version of New York master planner Robert Moses. Jacobs recalled Bacon greeting her at the city's grand train station. Then he took her to an area...

"where loads of people were hanging around on the street, on the stoops, having a good time of it...and he said, well, this is the next street we're getting rid of. That was the 'before' street. Then he showed me the 'after' street, all fixed up, and there was just one person on it, a bored little boy kicking a tire in the gutter."

"Where are the people?" Jacobs asked. "They don't appreciate these things," Bacon replied.

Excitedly he explained the need for order in the crowded and unruly downtown, the importance of providing a "view corridor."

Bacon's vision of an orderly and uncluttered city was more than just dogma found in many academic journals; it wrecked neighborhoods across the nation and around the world. Jacobs -- then a young editor at Architectural Forum, but not a part of the profession's establishment -- was one of the few who resisted this view of the city; indeed, she spent the next couple of decades pointing out that the kind of cities imagined by Bacon and Moses had no street life. She asked how these places felt to those who lived and worked in them, and she asked that question impertinently and persistently.

Jacobs's breakthrough piece came in 1958, with an article called "Downtown Is for People" that appeared in Fortune, which outlined her emperor's-new-clothes take on urban renewal. "Letters of praise poured into Fortune in unprecedented numbers," Barnet tells us. Careful readers will note a pattern here. As with Carson, an overlooked and under-credentialed observer used the wonderfully edited general-interest magazines of the era, then at their height of popularity, to advance her ideas at length and with enough reach to reconfigure a national debate.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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