SOQUEL, Calif. — Across the country, Democrats are winning primaries by promoting policies like universal health insurance and guaranteed income — ideas once laughed off as things that work only on the “Left Coast.”
At the same time, national politicians from both sides are finally putting front and center issues that California has been grappling with for years: immigration, clean energy, police reform, suburban sprawl. And the state is home to a crop of politicians to watch, from Kevin McCarthy on the right to Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris on the left, part of a wave that is likely to dominate American politics for the next generation.
California, which holds its primaries on Tuesday, has long set the national agenda on the economy, culture and technology. So maybe it was just a matter of time before it got back to driving the political agenda, as it did when Ronald Reagan launched his political career in the 1960s. But other things are happening as well. The state is a hub for immigrants, a testing site for solutions to environmental crises and a front line in America’s competition with China. On all sorts of big issues that matter now and will in the future, California is already in the game.
In a way, California even gave us Donald Trump. So much of his “training” to be president came while he was an entertainment celebrity, on a show that, for a stretch of its existence, was produced in Los Angeles. And of course the means of his ascent — the smartphone, social media — came out of Silicon Valley. That’s a lot to have on a state’s conscience.
Governor Jerry Brown of California
California is a deep-blue state — only 26 percent of its residents approve of Mr. Trump, and Democrats dominate the Legislature, statewide offices and most large city governments. But the state’s leaders are also aware that setting the political agenda for the country means making a stark break with naked partisanship. Getting that right will determine whether California, in its newly dominant role, perpetuates the political divide or moves America past it.
For decades, California, even as it grew in size and wealth, was seen as an outlier, unintimidating, superficial and flaky. We were no threat. We were surfer dudes and California girls who got high and turned on, tuned in and dropped out. We spawned Apple and Google, but we also spawned hippies and Hollywood. For a time, our governor was nicknamed Moonbeam.
As recently as the 2000s, with California at the center of the subprime-mortgage crisis, it was fair to wonder whether we had a future; a popular parlor game was to imagine how the state might be divided up into more manageable statelets.That was the old California.
The new California, back from years of financial trouble, has the fifth-largest economy in the world, ahead of Britain and France. Since 2010, California has accounted for an incredible one-fifth of America’s economic growth. Silicon Valley is the default center of the world, home to three of the 10 largest companies in the world by market capitalization.
California’s raw economic power is old news. What’s different, just in the past few years, is the combination of its money, population and politics. In the Trump era, the state is reinventing itself as the moral and cultural center of a new America.
Jerry Brown — Governor Moonbeam — is back, and during his second stint in office has been a pragmatic, results-focused technocrat who will leave behind a multibillion-dollar budget surplus when his term ends in January. But he has also been a smart and dogged opponent of the Trump agenda, from his high-profile visits to climate-change negotiations in Europe to substantive talks in Beijing with President Xi Jinping.
California is hardly monolithic. The region around Bakersfield provides the power base for Mr. McCarthy, the House majority leader and an indefatigable defender of President Trump, who calls him “my Kevin.” Other sizable pockets of Trump supporters live along the inland spine of the state, especially in the north near the Oregon border.
Still, there’s no doubt California runs blue — so blue, people say, that its anti-Trump stance is inevitable. But that’s not right; in fact, California defies Mr. Trump — and is turning even more Democratic — not for partisan reasons but because his rhetoric and actions are at odds with contemporary American values on issue after issue, as people here see it, and because he seems intent on ignoring the nation’s present and future in favor of pushing back the clock.
California doesn’t just oppose Mr. Trump; it offers a better alternative to the America he promises. While Mr. Trump makes hollow promises to states ravaged by the decline of the coal industry, California has been a leader in creating new jobs through renewable energy.
While Mr. Trump plays the racism card, California pulls in immigrants from all over the world. For California, immigration is not an issue to be exploited to inflame hate and assuage the economic insecurities of those who feel displaced by the 21st-century economy, it’s what keeps the state economy churning.
For us, immigration is not a “Latino” issue. The state’s white population arrived so recently that all of us retain a sense of our immigrant status. My great-great-grandfather Gerhard Kettmann left Germany in 1849 and made his way to California during the Gold Rush. That’s why everyone is able to unite, even in our diversity.
And the draw of California is more powerful than ever. People come not only from countries around the globe to work in Silicon Valley — more than seven in 10 of those employed in tech jobs in San Jose were born outside the United States, according to census data analyzed by The Seattle Times — they come from all over the country.
It seems as if every other idealistic young person who worked in the Obama White House or on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign later moved to California. All these new arrivals create major problems, from housing shortages to insane Los Angeles-style traffic in Silicon Valley. They also create a critical mass of innovation.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom
Many Californians see the next decade as a pivot point, when decisions about the environment and the economy will shape America’s future for generations to come. “It’s ‘Mad Max’ or ‘Star Trek,’” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and leading candidate to succeed Governor Brown. It’s no mystery which movie he thinks Mr. Trump is directing.
Nationally, Mr. Newsom is known mostly as a cultural pioneer, having allowed same-sex marriage as the mayor of San Francisco in 2004 — among the first big-city mayors to do so. But he sees himself in more pragmatic terms, more like a latter-day Robert Kennedy, a believer in the idea that government can do more for the people if it’s smarter about trying new ideas and updating old assumptions.
Mr. Newsom doesn’t mind making bold claims, and he and his main Democratic challenger, the former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are both vowing to build 500,000 homes in California every year for seven years. He also wants to provide single-payer health care to everyone in the state and commit the state to 100 percent renewable energy for its electricity needs. Sure, these are campaign promises — but in California, they suddenly seem like practical, feasible ideas.
California for years was divided between its main population centers. Northern California, birthplace of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964 and the Summer of Love in San Francisco later that decade, was often at odds with large sections of Southern California, particularly Orange County, a bastion of suburban Republicans.
That divide is eroding. Orange County even went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. California remains diverse culturally, but politically, it is increasingly unified. That can be a potent engine for social and economic progress; it can also be an excuse for insularity and political grandstanding.
The key, many of the state’s politicians say, is to promote the former without falling into the trap of the latter — no easy task at a time when many Californians see their state as the base of the anti-Trump resistance.
Vivek Viswanathan running for state treasurer of California
Take Vivek Viswanathan. Raised on Long Island by parents who immigrated from India, he did policy work for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and Governor Brown and is now running for state treasurer.
It would be easy for him to run far to the left, mixing anti-Trump rhetoric with unrealistic policy promises. Instead, he wants America to see a different California — a state that mixes pragmatism and progressivism.
“I’m one of those people that think the threats that we face from Washington are very real, and not just to the resources we need, but the values that make us who we are,” he said. “California is really a model for what the country can be if we make the right choices.”
The first test of a unified California’s newfound political heft could come this fall. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats in the House of Representatives to win control of it, and they have their eye on seven California districts carried by Mrs. Clinton in 2016 that have Republican incumbents, including four that are wholly or in part in Orange County.
Further north, in the Central Valley, a deputy district attorney for Fresno County named Andrew Janz is running a surprisingly competitive race against Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Mr. Nunes has used his position to defend the president, while providing little congressional oversight — something that doesn’t sit well with even moderate California Republicans.
“The momentum is definitely on our side,” Mr. Janz told me. “My opponent is more concerned about blaming Democrats than getting the job done. The people here honestly want Nunes to focus less on creating these fake controversies and more on doing the work that’s required to move us along into the 21st century here in the Central Valley.”
Again and again, this is the message coming from the state’s rising politicians — anger with the president and his allies not out of an ideological commitment, but because the president seems more interested in personal gain than national progress.
The more visionary among California’s leaders, including Mr. Newsom, recognize that their state has the highest poverty rate in the country, by some measures, and that addressing the problem — through affordable housing, job programs and early education — has to be a priority. To the extent these are national problems, too, other states may soon be looking to Sacramento, not Washington, for leadership.
It’s also a given that one or more Californians could figure prominently in the 2020 presidential race, including Ms. Harris, a first-term senator who has gained a reputation for her withering examinations of the president’s cabinet nominees. Mr. Newsom, particularly if he wins the governor’s race this year by a convincing margin, could also make the jump to the national stage, following Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown.
Billionaire Tom Steyer is the “Impeachment Guy” who has spent millions of dollars on television ads in which he speaks to the camera directly and makes a case for the urgent need to impeach President Trump.
To see how different the stereotype of California is from the reality, consider another of the state’s rising political figures, the billionaire Tom Steyer.
To most people in Washington or New York, Mr. Steyer is the “Impeachment Guy” who has spent millions of dollars on television ads in which he speaks to the camera directly and makes a case for the urgent need to impeach President Trump. Impeachment is a widely popular idea among Democrats, but political realists say it’s unlikely to happen absent a Democratic surge in the midterm elections — in other words, that’s California for you.
But at home, Mr. Steyer is anything but a dreamer. His organization NextGen America focuses on developing solutions to climate change and economic inequality, issues that resonate here, especially among the young. The goal is to show the way not through talk, not through TV ads, but through action.
“I think California has this great advantage, which is we have a functioning democracy,” Mr. Steyer said in a recent interview. “With all our problems — and we have a lot of them, the biggest one being economic inequality — we have a spirit in business and in politics that says, sure, there are big problems, but we can address them. That spirit is a great advantage and it’s not true in Washington, D.C., right now.”
Steyer’s bet — and that of millions of others in my state — is that soon, California will pick up the slack.
The house, on an island in Maine, perches on a rock at the edge of the sea like the aerie of an eagle. Below the white-railed back porch, the sea-slick rock slopes down to a lumpy low tideland of eelgrass and bladder wrack, as slippery as a knot of snakes. Periwinkles cling to rocks; mussels pinch themselves together like purses. A gull lands on a shaggy-weeded rock, fluffs itself, and settles into a crouch, bracing against a fierce wind rushing across the water, while, up on the cliff, lichen-covered trees—spruce and fir and birch—sigh and creak like old men on a damp morning.
“The shore is an ancient world,” Rachel Carson wrote from a desk in that house, a pine-topped table wedged into a corner of a room where the screen door trembles with each breeze, as if begging to be unlatched. Long before Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” her last book, published in 1962, she was a celebrated writer: the scientist-poet of the sea. “Undersea,” her breakout essay, appeared in The Atlantic in 1937. “Who has known the ocean?” she asked. “Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere.” It left readers swooning, drowning in the riptide of her language, a watery jabberwocky of mollusks and gills and tube worms and urchins and plankton and cunners, brine-drenched, rock-girt, sessile, arborescent, abyssal, spine-studded, radiolarian, silicious, and phosphorescent, while, here and there, “the lobster feels his way with nimble wariness through the perpetual twilight.”
“Silent Spring,” a landlubber, is no slouch of a book: it launched the environmental movement; provoked the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (both 1972); and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. The number of books that have done as much good in the world can be counted on the arms of a starfish. Still, all of Carson’s other books and nearly all of her essays concerned the sea. That Carson would be remembered for a book about the danger of back-yard pesticides like DDT would have surprised her in her younger years, when she was a marine biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing memos about shad and pondering the inquiring snouts of whales, having specialized, during graduate school, in the American eel.
Carson was fiercely proud of “Silent Spring,” but, all the same, it’s heartbreaking to see that a new collection, “Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment,” edited by Sandra Steingraber (Library of America), includes not one drop of her writing about the sea. Steingraber complains that, “while Carson’s sea books occasionally allude to environmental threats, they call for no particular action,” and, with that, sets them aside. Political persuasion is a strange measure of the worth of a piece of prose whose force lies in knowledge and wonder. In her first book, “Under the Sea-Wind” (1941), Carson wrote, “To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.” She could not have written “Silent Spring” if she hadn’t, for decades, scrambled down rocks, rolled up her pant legs, and waded into tide pools, thinking about how one thing can change another, and how, “over the eons of time, the sea has grown ever more bitter with the salt of the continents.” She loved best to go out at night, with a flashlight, piercing the dread-black dark.
All creatures are made of the sea, as Carson liked to point out; “the great mother of life,” she called it. Even land mammals, with our lime-hardened skeletons and our salty blood, begin as fetuses that swim in the ocean of every womb. She herself could not swim. She disliked boats. In all her childhood, she never so much as smelled the ocean. She tried to picture it: “I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like.”
Carson was born in 1907 in western Pennsylvania, near the Allegheny River, in a two-story clapboard house on a sixty-four-acre farm with an orchard of apple and pear trees and a barnyard of a pig, a horse, and some chickens and sheep, a place not unlike the one she conjures up in the opening lines of “Silent Spring”:
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.
The youngest of three children, she spent her childhood wandering the fields and hills. Her mother taught her the names of plants and the calls of animals. She read Beatrix Potter and “The Wind in the Willows.” At age eight, she wrote a story about two wrens, searching for a house. “I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer,” she said. “I have no idea why.” Stories she wrote in her teens chronicled her discoveries: “the bobwhite’s nest, tightly packed with eggs, the oriole’s aerial cradle, the frame-work of sticks which the cuckoo calls a nest, and the lichen-covered home of the humming-bird.”
And then: something of the coal-pit blight of smokestacked Pittsburgh invaded Carson’s childhood when her father, who never made a go of much of anything except the rose garden he tended, began selling off bits of the family’s farm; meadows became shops. It wasn’t the scourge of pesticides, but, to Carson, it was a loss that allowed her to write with such clarity, in the opening of “Silent Spring,” about the fate of an imagined American town sprayed with DDT:
Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among the adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.
Carson left home for the Pennsylvania College for Women, to study English. She sent poems to magazines—Poetry, The Atlantic, Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post—and made a collection of rejection slips, as strange as butterflies. Her mother sold apples and chickens and the family china to help pay the tuition and travelled from the farm to the college every weekend to type her daughter’s papers (she later typed Carson’s books, too), not least because, like so many mothers, she herself craved an education.
Carson, whose friends called her Ray, went to a college prom in 1928, but never displayed any romantic interest in men. She was, however, deeply passionate about her biology professor, Mary Scott Skinker. She changed her major, and followed Skinker to Woods Hole for a summer research project, which was how she came, at last, to see the ocean. By day, she combed the shore for hours on end, lost in a new world, enchanted by each creature. At night, she peered into the water off the docks to watch the mating of polychaete worms, bristles glinting in the moonlight.
Carson began graduate study in zoology at Johns Hopkins, completed a master’s degree, and entered a Ph.D. program in 1932. Her entire family moved to Baltimore to live with her: her mother, her ailing father, her divorced sister, and her two very young nieces. Carson, the family’s only wage earner, worked as a lab assistant and taught biology and zoology at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland. As the Depression deepened, they lived, for a while, on nothing but apples. Eventually, Carson had to leave graduate school to take a better-paying job, in the public-education department of the Bureau of Fisheries, and brought in extra money by selling articles to the Baltimore Sun. Her best biographer, Linda Lear, writes gravely that one concerned oyster farming, while “three others continued her investigation into the plight of the shad.”
Carson’s father died in 1935, followed, two years later, by her older sister, leaving Carson to care for her mother and her nieces, ages eleven and twelve; she later adopted her grandnephew, when he was orphaned at the age of four. These obligations sometimes frustrated Carson, but not half as much as they frustrate her biographers. For Lear, the author of “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature” (1997) and the editor of an excellent anthology, “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson” (1998), Carson’s familial obligations—in particular, the children—are nothing but burdens that “deprived her of privacy and drained her physical and emotional energy.” Lear means this generously, as a way of accounting for why Carson didn’t write more, and why, except for her Sun articles, she never once submitted a manuscript on time. But caring for other people brings its own knowledge. Carson came to see the world as beautiful, wild, animal, and vulnerable, each part attached to every other part, not only through prodigious scientific research but also through a lifetime of caring for the very old and the very young, wiping a dying man’s brow, tucking motherless girls into bed, heating up dinners for a lonely little boy. The domestic pervades Carson’s understanding of nature. “Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed,” she wrote in 1938, “but the home of the wildlife is also our home.” If she’d had fewer ties, she would have had less insight.
Early in her time at the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson drafted an eleven-page essay about sea life called “The World of Waters.” The head of her department told her that it was too good for a government brochure and suggested that she send it to The Atlantic. After it was published, as “Undersea,” Carson began writing her first book under the largesse of F.D.R.’s New Deal, in the sense that she drafted it on the back of National Recovery Administration stationery, while working for what became, in 1939, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Under the Sea-Wind” appeared a few weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and sank like a battleship.
Carson, who spent the meat-rationed war instructing housewives in how to cook little-known fish, grew restless. She pitched a piece to the Reader’s Digest about DDT. During the war, chemical companies had sold the pesticide to the military to stop the spread of typhus by killing lice. After the war, they began selling DDT and other pesticides commercially, to be applied to farms and gardens. Carson, reading government reports on fish and wildlife, became alarmed: DDT hadn’t been tested for civilian use, and many creatures other than insects appeared to be dying. She proposed an article on the pesticide, investigating “whether it may upset the whole delicate balance of nature if unwisely used.” The Reader’s Digest was not interested.
Writing at night, Carson began another book, hoping to bring to readers the findings of a revolution in marine biology and deep-sea exploration by offering an ecology of the ocean. “Unmarked and trackless though it may seem to us, the surface of the ocean is divided into definite zones,” she explained. “Fishes and plankton, whales and squids, birds and sea turtles, are all linked by unbreakable ties to certain kinds of water.” But the state of research also meant that mysteries abided: “Whales suddenly appear off the slopes of the coastal banks where the swarms of shrimplike krill are spawning, the whales having come from no one knows where, by no one knows what route.”
Carson had taken on a subject and a field of research so wide-ranging that she began calling the book “Out of My Depth,” or “Carson at Sea.” She was haunted, too, by a sense of foreboding. In 1946, she’d had a cyst in her left breast removed. In 1950, her doctor found another cyst. After more surgery, she went to the seashore, Nags Head, North Carolina. “Saw tracks of a shore bird probably a sanderling, and followed them a little, then they turned toward the water and were soon obliterated by the sea,” she wrote in field notes that she kept in spiral-bound notebooks. “How much it washes away, and makes as though it had never been.”
When Carson finished the book, The Atlantic declined to publish an excerpt, deeming it too poetic. William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, did not share this reservation. “The Sea Around Us” appeared in these pages, in 1951, as a three-part Profile of the Sea, the magazine’s first-ever profile of something other than a person. Letters from readers poured in—“I started reading with an o-dear-now-whats-this attitude, and found myself entranced,” one wrote—and many declared it the most memorable thing ever published in the magazine and, aside from John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” the best.
“The Sea Around Us” won the National Book Award, and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for a record-breaking eighty-six weeks. Reissued, “Under the Sea-Wind” became a best-seller, too. “Who is the author?” readers wanted to know. Carson’s forcefully written work drew the supposition from male reviewers that its female author must be half-man. A reporter for the Boston Globe wrote, “Would you imagine a woman who has written about the seven seas and their wonders to be a hearty physical type? Not Miss Carson. She is small and slender, with chestnut hair and eyes whose color has something of both the green and blue of sea water. She is trim and feminine, wears a soft pink nail polish and uses lipstick and powder expertly, but sparingly.”
Carson shrugged that off and, resigning from her government post, began to question federal policy. When Eisenhower’s new Secretary of the Interior, a businessman from Oregon, replaced scientists in the department with political hacks, Carson wrote a letter to the Washington Post: “The ominous pattern that is clearly being revealed is the elimination from the Government of career men of long experience and high professional competence and their replacement by political appointees.”
But the greatest change wrought by Carson’s success came when, with the earnings from her biography of the ocean, she bought a tiny patch of land atop a rock in Maine, and built a small cottage there, a Walden by the sea. Carson once dived underwater, wearing an eighty-four-pound sea-diving helmet, and lasted, eight feet below, for only fifteen clouded minutes. Her real love was the shore: “I can’t think of any more exciting place to be than down in the low-tide world, when the ebb tide falls very early in the morning, and the world is full of salt smell, and the sound of water, and the softness of fog.” To fathom the depths, she read books; the walls of her house in Maine are lined with them, crammed between baskets and trays filled with sea glass and seashells and sea-smoothed stones. She wrote some of her next book, “The Edge of the Sea,” from that perch.
“My quarrel with almost all seashore books for the amateur,” she reflected, “is that they give him a lot of separate little capsules of information about a series of creatures, which are never firmly placed in their environment.” Carson’s seashore book was different, an explanation of the shore as a system, an ecosystem, a word most readers had never heard before, and one that Carson herself rarely used but instead conjured, as a wave of motion and history:
In my thoughts these shores, so different in their nature and in the inhabitants they support, are made one by the unifying touch of the sea. For the differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment, determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea. Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.
Paul Brooks, Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, once said that, as a writer, she was like “the stonemason who never lost sight of the cathedral.” She was a meticulous editor; so was he. “Spent time on the Sand chapter with a pencil between my teeth,” he wrote to her. But she didn’t like being fixed up and straightened out, warning Brooks, “I am apt to use what may appear to be a curious inversion of words or phrases”—her brine-drenched jabberwocky—“but for the most part these are peculiar to my style and I don’t want them changed.”
Writing by the edge of the sea, Rachel Carson fell in love. She met Dorothy Freeman in 1953 on the island in Maine where Carson built her cottage and where Freeman’s family had summered for years. Carson was forty-six, Freeman fifty-five. Freeman was married, with a grown son. When she and Carson weren’t together, they maintained a breathless, passionate correspondence. “Why do I keep your letters?” Carson wrote to Freeman that winter. “Why? Because I love you!” Carson kept her favorite letters under her pillow. “I love you beyond expression,” Freeman wrote to Carson. “My love is boundless as the Sea.”
Both women were concerned about what might become of their letters. In a single envelope, they often enclosed two letters, one to be read to family (Carson to her mother, Freeman to her husband), one to be read privately, and likely destined for the “Strong box”—their code for letters to be destroyed. “Did you put them in the Strong box?” Carson would ask Freeman. “If not, please do.” Later, while Carson was preparing her papers, which she’d pledged to give to Yale, Freeman read about how the papers of the writer Dorothy Thompson, recently opened, contained revelations about her relationships with women. Freeman wrote to Carson, “Dear, please, use the Strong box quickly,” warning that their letters could have “meanings to people who were looking for ideas.” (They didn’t destroy all of them: those that survive were edited by Freeman’s granddaughter and published in 1995.)
After the publication of “The Edge of the Sea” (1955), another best-seller that was also serialized in The New Yorker, Shawn wanted Carson to write a new book, to appear in the magazine, on nothing less than “the universe.” And she might have tackled it. But, when her niece Marjorie died of pneumonia, Carson adopted Marjorie’s four-year-old son, Roger, a little boy she described as “lively as seventeen crickets.” She set aside longer writing projects until, with some reluctance, she began work on a study whose title, for a long time, was “Man Against the Earth.”
In January, 1958, members of a citizens’ Committee Against Mass Poisoning flooded newspapers in the Northeast with letters to the editor calling attention to the dire consequences of local and statewide insecticide aerial-spraying programs: the insects weren’t dying, but everything else was. One Massachusetts housewife and bird-watcher, Olga Owens Huckins, who called the programs “inhumane, undemocratic and probably unconstitutional,” wrote a letter to Carson. The committee had filed a lawsuit in New York, and Huckins suggested that Carson cover the story.
Carson had wanted to write about the destruction of the environment ever since the bombing of Hiroshima and the first civilian use of DDT, in 1945. Nevertheless, she couldn’t possibly leave Roger and her ailing mother to report on a trial in New York. In February, she wrote to E. B. White, “It is my hope that you might cover these court hearings for The New Yorker.” White demurred—he later told Carson that he didn’t “know a chlorinated hydrocarbon from a squash bug”—and said that she should write the story, forwarding Carson’s letter to Shawn. In June, Carson went to New York and pitched the story to Shawn. “We don’t usually think of The New Yorker as changing the world,” he told her, “but this one time it might.”
Freeman, wise woman, was worried that the chemical companies would go after Carson, relentlessly and viciously. Carson reassured her that she had taken that into account, but that, “knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.” Marjorie Spock, the daughter of the pediatrician, sent Carson reports from the trial, while Carson did her research from home, in Maryland and Maine, often with Roger at her side. She absorbed a vast scientific literature across several realms, including medicine, chemistry, physiology, and biology, and produced an explanation written with storybook clarity. Freeman wrote to Carson that she was “like the Mother Gull with her cheese sandwich,” chewing it up before feeding it to her young. Carson wrote back, “Perhaps a subtitle of Man Against the Earth might be ‘What the Mother Gull Brought Up.’ ”
In the fall of 1958, her mother had a stroke. Carson cared for her at home. Carson’s mother had taught her birdsongs; the first time they visited Maine together, Carson had taken an inventory: “And then there were the sounds of other, smaller birds—the rattling call of the kingfisher that perched, between forays after fish, on the posts of the dock; the call of the phoebe that nested under the eaves of the cabin; the redstarts that foraged in the birches on the hill behind the cabin and forever, it seemed to me, asked each other the way to Wiscasset, for I could easily twist their syllables into the query, ‘Which is Wiscasset? Which is Wiscasset?’ ”
Late in the autumn of Carson’s mother’s illness, Spock sent her a record album of birdsongs. Carson listened with Roger, teaching him each song. “He has a very sweet feeling for all living things and loves to go out with me and look and listen to all that goes on,” she wrote to Spock. Carson’s mother died that December, at the age of eighty-nine. The spring of 1959 was Carson’s first spring without her mother. “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song,” Carson would write. It was Paul Brooks who had the idea of using the title of the chapter on birds as the title for the entire book: “Silent Spring.” A season of grief.
And, still, Carson worried that she herself might be silenced. She grew sick; she and Freeman told hardly anyone, not even Brooks. Early in 1960, while immersed in a growing scientific literature on the consequences for humans “of the never-ending stream of chemicals of which pesticides are a part, chemicals now pervading the world in which we live, acting upon us directly and indirectly, separately and collectively,” as if we were all fish, swimming in a poisoned sea, she found more lesions on her left breast.
On April 4, 1960, Carson had a radical mastectomy. Her surgeon provided her with no information about the tumors or the tissue he’d removed and recommended no follow-up treatment; when she asked him questions, he lied to her, as was common practice, especially with female patients. The surgery had been brutal and the recovery was slow. “I think I have solved the troublesome problem of the cancer chapters,” she wrote to Brooks from Maine in September. But by November she’d found more lumps, this time on her ribs. She consulted another doctor, and began radiation treatments. In December, she finally confided in Brooks.
Carson kept her cancer secret because she was a private person, but also because she didn’t want to give the chemical companies the chance to dismiss her work as having been motivated by her illness, and perhaps because, when the time came, she didn’t want them to pull their punches; the harder they came after her, the worse they’d look. This required formidable stoicism. Beginning early in 1961, she was, on and off, in a wheelchair. One treatment followed another: more surgery, injections (one doctor recommended injections of gold). One illness followed another: the flu, staph infections, rheumatoid arthritis, eye infections. “Such a catalogue of illnesses!” she wrote to Freeman. “If one were superstitious it would be easy to believe in some malevolent influence at work, determined by some means to keep the book from being finished.”
Early on, Carson was told that she had “a matter of months.” She was afraid of dying, but she was terrified of dying before she could finish the book. Freeman, who thought the work itself was killing Carson, or at least impeding her ability to fight the cancer, urged her to abandon the book she’d planned and to produce, instead, something much shorter, and be done with it. “Something would be better than nothing, I guess,” Carson mused, weighing the merits of recasting her pages into something “greatly boiled down” and “perhaps more philosophic in tone.” She decided against it, and in January, 1962, submitted to The New Yorker a nearly complete draft of the book.
Shawn called her at home to tell her that he’d finishing reading and that the book was “a brilliant achievement.” He said, “You have made it literature, full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” Carson, who had been quite unsure she’d survive to finish writing the book, was sure, for the first time, that the book was going to do in the world what she’d wanted it to do. She hung up the phone, put Roger to bed, picked up her cat, and burst into tears, collapsing with relief.
“Silent Spring” appeared in The New Yorker, in three parts, in June, 1962, and as a book, published by Houghton Mifflin, in September. Everything is connected to everything else, she showed. “We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die,” Carson wrote:
We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.
Its force was felt immediately. Readers wrote to share their own stories. “I can go into the feed stores here and buy, without giving any reason, enough poison to do away with all the people in Oregon,” one gardener wrote. They began calling members of Congress. E. B. White wrote to Carson, declaring the pieces to be “the most valuable articles the magazine had ever published.” At a press conference at the White House on August 29th, a reporter asked President Kennedy whether his Administration intended to investigate the long-range side effects of DDT and other pesticides. “Yes,” he answered. “I know that they already are, I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.”
“What she wrote started a national quarrel,” “CBS Reports” announced in a one-hour special, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” in which footage of Carson was intercut with footage of government and industry spokesmen, to create a de-facto debate. (Carson refused to make any other television appearance.) In the program, Carson sits on the porch of her white-railed house in Maine, wearing a skirt and cardigan; the chief spokesman for the insecticide industry, Robert White-Stevens, of American Cyanamid, wears thick black-framed glasses and a white coat, standing in a chemistry lab, surrounded by beakers and Bunsen burners.
White-Stevens questions Carson’s expertise: “The major claims of Miss Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring,’ are gross distortions of the actual fact, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field.”
Carson feigns perplexity: “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”
White-Stevens fumes: “Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist believes that man is steadily controlling nature.”
Carson rebuts: “Now, to these people, apparently, the balance of nature was something that was repealed as soon as man came on the scene. Well, you might just as well assume that you could repeal the law of gravity.”
He may be wearing the lab coat, but, against Carson’s serenity, it’s White-Stevens who comes across as the crank. Carson wasn’t so much calm, though, as exhausted. She was fifty-five; she looked twenty years older. (She told Freeman she felt ninety.) She begged Freeman not to tell anyone about the cancer: “There is no reason even to say I have not been well. If you want or think you need give any negative report, say I had a bad time with iritis that delayed my work, but it has cleared up nicely. And that you never saw me look better. Please say that.” But, if no one knew, it was not hard to see. When Carson was interviewed by CBS, she wore a heavy wig; she had lost her hair. She was not shown standing, which would have been difficult: the cancer had spread to her vertebrae; her spine was beginning to collapse. After the CBS reporter Eric Sevareid interviewed Carson, he told his producer Jay McMullen that the network ought to air the program as soon as possible. “Jay,” he said, “you’ve got a dead leading lady.”
In December, while shopping for a Christmas present for Roger—a record-player—Carson fainted from pain and weakness. The tumors kept spreading. “CBS Reports” aired “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” in April, 1963. The following month, Carson testified before Congress.
By fall, the cancer had moved into her pelvic bone. She wrote, “I moan inside—and I wake in the night and cry out silently for Maine.” When Carson delivered what would be her final public speech, “Man Against Himself,” hobbling to the stage with the use of a cane, a local newspaper described her as a “middle-aged, arthritis-crippled spinster.” She wrote to Freeman that returning to Maine “is only a dream—a lovely dream.”
Rachel Carson did not see the ocean again. Nor would she be remembered for what she wrote about the sea, from its shore to its depths. “The dear old Sea Around Us has been displaced,” Freeman wrote, with sorrow. “When people talk about you they’ll say ‘Oh yes, the author of Silent Spring,’ for I suppose there are people who never heard of The Sea Around Us.”
Early on the morning of April 14, 1964, Freeman wrote to Carson, wondering how she’d slept and wishing her the beauty of spring: “I can be sure you wake up to bird song.” Carson died before dusk. Three weeks later, on their island in Maine, Freeman poured Carson’s ashes into the sea. “Every living thing of the ocean, plant and animal alike, returns to the water at the end of its own life span the materials which had been temporarily assembled to form its body,” Carson once wrote. Freeman sat on a rock and watched the tide go out.
Before Carson got sick, and even after, when she still believed she might get better, she thought that she’d take up, for her next book, a subject that fascinated her. “We live in an age of rising seas,” she wrote. “In our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.” She died before she could begin, wondering, till the end, about the swelling of the seas.
This spring, in the North Atlantic, not a single newborn right whale has been spotted: the water, it seems, is too warm; the mothers have birthed no calves. The sea is all around us. It is our home. And the last calf is our, inconsolable, loss. ♦
Industrial heat makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand and almost one-fifth of global energy consumption. It also constitutes most of the direct industrial CO2 emitted each year, as the vast majority of industrial heat originates from fossil-fuel combustion.
Yet despite these impressive figures, industrial heat is often missing from energy analyses. That is why this year’s World Energy Outlook takes a deep dive in this important segment of our energy system.
While industrial heat demand – at all temperature levels – grows in the central scenario of the World Energy Outlook 2017, the underlying drivers are different depending on temperature requirements. Low- and medium-temperature heat (below 400C) is expected to account for three-quarters of the growth in heat demand in industry by 2040, driven by less energy-intensive industries.
This is a reversal of historical trends: in the last 25 years, high-temperature heat represented two-thirds of overall heat demand growth, driven by China’s rapid development of heavy industries such as steel and cement. That said, developing Asia continues to drive industrial heat demand growth in our outlook: the growth in low- to medium-temperature needs in this region alone represents about half of the global industrial heat demand increase in use to 2040.
Low-temperature heat use grows in most regions through 2040, except in the European Union and Japan. The outlook for high-temperature heat varies even more across regions, including among developing countries. It decreases in China with the country’s shift to a less energy-intensive development pathway, while it increases in India as the country becomes, by large distance, the main global driver.
As industrial heat demand continues to grow so does its share in energy-related CO2 emissions, accounting for a quarter of global emissions by 2040. Any efforts taken to reduce this global trend face unique challenges. First, industrial heat is often generated on-site, making it more difficult to regulate than a more centralized sector such as large thermal power generation. There is also limited policy focus in this area compared with other sectors.
Second, while heating needs for residential and commercial buildings are fairly standard, industrial heat encompasses a wide variety of temperature levels for diverse processes and end-uses. For instance, cement kilns require high-temperature, while drying or washing applications in the food industry operate at lower temperatures.
Different technology and fuel options are available depending on the required temperature level, but these are often not interchangeable. For example, low-temperature heat from a heat pump cannot be substituted for high-temperature heat from a gas boiler.
Today’s industrial heat demand relies mainly on fossil fuels, biomass and electricity, and only very small shares of renewable resources in certain sectors. Therefore decarbonisation would require a dramatic shift in how industrial heat is generated. Yet this goal is instrumental to following a low-carbon development pathway as defined in the Sustainable Development Scenario, a new global scenario providing an integrated way to achieve three critical policy goals simultaneously: climate stabilisation, cleaner air and universal access to modern energy. The best option for reducing energy use of industrial heat will depend on the specific use and required temperature.
In his seminal classic, Geopolitics of Technology, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic states: “…, the main problem with Green/Renewable (de-carbonized) energy is not the complexity, expense, or the lengthy time-line for fundamental technological breakthrough; the central issue is that it calls for a major geopolitical breakthrough. .. Ergo, oil (and gas) represents far more than energy. Petroleum (be it a finite biogenic mineral or not) is a socio-economic, psychological, cultural, financial, security and politico-military construct, a phenomenon of civilization … In a broader historical, more vertical or philosophical sense, the hydrocarbons and its scarcity phychologization, its monetization (and related weaponization) is serving rather a coercive and restrictive status quo than a developmental incentive. That essentially calls not for an engagement but compliance…”
Fuel switching can provide some benefit, for instance substituting gas for coal, but for more ambitious climate targets more transformative solutions are needed. For example, under certain conditions, electrification can be a low-cost and sustainable option – heat pumps can be economical solutions for low- and medium-temperature needs. Electrification may also be possible for specific high-temperature industrial processes, such as electricity-based steel production. However the sustainability of electrification depends on broad decarbonisation of the power sector to actually reduce emissions at the system level.
Direct renewable heat sources such as solar and geothermal can also be economical for applications below 400 degrees Celsius, but they are not easy to integrate in all industrial facilities. Bioenergy can be used for high-temperature heat demand, but is resource-constrained and only economical and sustainable under certain operating conditions and in certain regions.
Industrial heat can be decarbonised through the deployment of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). This can include, for instance, technologies to remove CO2 emissions from flue gas before recycling the CO2 in industrial processes, such as for methanol production, or storing it permanently.
Finally, end-use efficiency, through the use of modern equipment, improved insulation or heat recovery, can reduce final demand before the heat is even generated – often, limiting overall heat requirements is the first strategy adopted, before taking actions to decarbonise remaining heat use.
Ultimately, widespread deployment of energy efficiency and a least cost mix of these options can point to a more sustainable future for industrial heat. Putting the appropriate regulatory framework in place will be key to ensuring that investments are targeted in a way that makes this future possible.
Élie Bellevrat and Kira West are World Energy Organization analysts. An early version of this was published by the International Energy Agency
COMMENT | Mission accomplished – we have finally hit the target of raising RM350,000!
That milestone was reached yesterday (January 23) – 12 days after we launched the Defend Malaysiakini Fund following the Court of Appeal’s decision on January 11 which reversed the High Court judgment.
The decision was a major blow to Malaysiakini – it was ordered to pay RM200,000 in damages and RM150,000 in legal costs to Raub Australian Gold Mine (RAGM) for publishing three articles and two video clips on health concerns expressed by villagers regarding mining activities near their village at Bukit Koman in Raub, Pahang.
To raise such a huge sum within two weeks is indeed a feat of great proportions. But it couldn’t have been accomplished without YOU. A big thank you to all those who have participated in the effort.
Some of you have asked why we needed to reach out to Malaysians to raise the money. Here’s why:
Malaysiakini’s annual budget is RM6.5 million. This goes towards funding the operation of four of the country’s top news websites in English, Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese as well as KiniTV. In addition, we serve 4.3 million Facebook fans and 1.3 million Twitter followers. Apart from journalists and editors, we have a team of advertising executives under our sister company FG Media, another team to handle technology and of course, the subscriptions and administrative department.
Our aim for each financial year is simple – to make sure that we earn enough to cover our expenses. And we have been doing that over the past 18 years. Yes, there were good years and there were bad years. In good years, we reinvest much of our profit back into the company. In bad years, we tighten our belts.
Our major income comes from advertising and subscriptions. However, as most online news portals have discovered, earning money from advertising is extremely tough.
While online advertising has grown by leaps and bounds, those who benefit most from it are not content providers; they are the big technology companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter, to name a few. Search engines alone control almost 50 percent of the market.
Websites such as Malaysiakini are competing not just with other local brands for advertising but with super companies, the likes of Google. Moreover, online advertising does not bring in the kind of top dollar that print or broadcast advertising once commanded.
Old media may earn, say, about RM100 in advertisement revenue for every reader. News websites earn just RM1 per reader, per year. That’s 100 times less than what the print media used to earn. So advertising alone cannot support a news website like Malaysiakini.
Our saviour is our paywall. Income from subscriptions is more stable and predictable than advertising, which is tied to the health of the economy since companies spend more in good times. Without the income from subscriptions, Malaysiakini would have folded up a long time ago.
And to maintain this hand-to-mouth existence, we have kept a tight rein on our expenses, in particular salaries, which is our biggest outlay. Many of those who work for Malaysiakini get lower than what the market pays.
Indeed, those in senior management earn almost half of those in similar positions elsewhere. Clearly, everyone in Malaysiakini is making tremendous sacrifices to keep the operation going.
We are not complaining. It is a sacrifice we are willing to make. We embarked on this journey with our eyes wide open. We knew there would be little money to make. We knew there would be harassment, arrests and attacks.
Malaysia’s notorious couple: Najib Razak and Big Momma, Rosmah Mansor
I enjoyed my attachment with Malaysiakini as a SEACEM Fellow some years ago during which I got to know Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran and their team of some of the most outstanding journalists at close range. I cherished every moment I spent with them. The experience made me a better Malaysian. I learned how hard it was to be a journalist in an increasingly repressive Malaysia. Congrats, Guys, thank you for your sterling public service. I urge you to keep on going because we all can individually and collectively make a difference.–Din Merican
And it was difficult for us to hire good people with the salaries we offered. However, we believed that if we trained those who were a little wet behind their ears, they would one day be among the giants in the industry.
Other legal battles
So, this is why we had to raise money from the public. We don’t have a contingency for such unexpected off-budget items. Our legal battles are mostly fought by lawyers who represent us pro-bono.
The last time we went to the ground to raise funds was four years ago – the ‘Buy a Brick’ campaign which raised RM1.7 million for our new building in Petaling Jaya. We hope we don’t have to do this very often.
And yes, there are other legal battles – the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) lawsuit which we won in the High Court and has now gone up to the Court of Appeal. There is also the lawsuit by Deputy Agro-Based Industries Minister Tajuddin Abdul Rahman over our reports on the fracas at Parliament grounds. That has yet to be heard in the High Court.
And there is the big one – the lawsuit by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak over comments by our readers. Again, this has yet to be heard by the High Court as our lawyers are filing constitutional challenges.
On top of that, both of us have to fight criminal charges over the KiniTV video which has upset Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali. That will soon be heard in the Cyber Court.
We are confident that we will prevail in these court battles. And we are confident, perhaps more so now, that you will stand by us again should the law fail us.
More than 2,175 supporters have contributed to the Defend Malaysiakini Fund in the past two weeks. Almost all are small amounts, the biggest being RM3,500. The Bukit Koman villagers also helped to chip in as well. And some of you even contributed more than once.
There were no tycoons, no corporate sponsorship. Only people like you – wage earners, the self-employed, retirees – giving their hard-earned money to the fund. It is this spirit which we promote among those who work in Malaysiakini. And it is this spirit that we want to see among our supporters and among all Malaysians.
The power of one, working alone, can achieve the extraordinary; but the power of many, working together, can achieve the impossible.
For that, we tip our hats to each and every one of you. Thank you!
STEVEN GAN and PREMESH CHANDRAN are co-founders of Malaysiakini and editor-in-chief and chief executive officer respectively.
While Malaysiakini is officially ending the RM350,000 campaign, those who want to contribute can continue to do so, as any additional money will go into Malaysiakini’s legal defence fund for future cases.
Those wishing to contribute can bank in their donations to the following account:
Account name: Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd
Account no: 514253516714 (Maybank)
Swift Code: MBBEMYKL
Branch address: Dataran Maybank, Level 1 Tower A, Dataran Maybank, 59000 Kuala Lumpur.
Donations can also be made through credit card by calling +603 7770 0017 or via PayPal.
India’s River Ganges is a mess. The great and awe-inspiring sacred Ganga, as it is generally known, is revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus who foul its waters and assume that all will be well, however awful and health-endangering it becomes.
That in many ways is the story of modern India, a country that manages to be awe-inspiring and brilliant, but also frequently dysfunctional, defying most efforts to make it work better.
The challenge for an author is how to combine a study of all the enormous potential and the failings of this magical and frustrating country, and to explain how people tolerate the faults but do little to improve them, while making the most of what is available.
Successive foreign correspondents based in India have tackled this in different ways, mostly with broadly based surveys of political economic and social life, but with an increasing awareness in recent years of the negatives.
Victor Mallet (pic above) a widely experienced Financial Times journalist who is now the paper’s Hong Kong-based Asia news editor, has chosen a neat solution by writing about the Ganges after spending four years in Delhi as his newspaper’s South Asia correspondent.
He has explored the 2,525 km river’s history, religion, economics, industry, environmental and health issues, and the people, while using it as a metaphor to explain how India functions, or doesn’t. Politics comes in too because Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, has failed so far to fulfil his 2014 promise to clean the river that Hindus both revere and pollute.
A keen yachtsman, Mallet first developed an interest in the river when he spotted an image on a Delhi map of a sailing boat in a red circle – the universal sign for a yacht marina. It is in an industrial zone called Okhla on the banks of Delhi’s (filthy) Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges.
There he found “an immaculately kept building and garden called the Defence Services Sailing Club” with sailing dinghies nearly stacked on racks. “It was obvious that the boats were rarely used. The caretaker confirmed it. The reason was there in front of the club: the stinking, foamy black filth that was once a river.”
Keeping Ganga clean? Fanatics don’t bother, feel the river is self-purifying, will take care of itself – COUNTERVIEW.ORG
After explaining how the Ganges was portrayed in India’s legends and paintings “as a natural paradise of lilies, turtles and fish” where “the cheerful god Krishna would play his flute amid a troupe of adoring female cow herds,” Mallet reports that “the water at Okhla is so polluted by human waste that it contains nearly half a million times the maximum level of faecal coliform bacteria established as the Indian standard for bathing water.”
That is a good introduction to modern India, enabling the author to show in the first two pages of his preface why the Ganga is such a great vehicle for exploring all the contradictions of a country that could be a world leader but somehow is not (yet?) getting there. As he travels, he meets a contrasting series of people from Saffron-clad Hindu priests to engineers and well-meaning environmental activists, and from tannery businessmen and bureaucrats to ashram devotees.
The most horrifying part of the book is a chapter headed “Superbug River.” Many of us living in Delhi (and elsewhere in India) tolerate air pollution many times above safe limits, as well as undrinkable tap water, because we are protected by purifying filters in our homes and offices.
Mallet however uncovers much worse health hazards in the Ganges, saying that people are liable to pick up a recently discovered bacterial gene that can make various diseases highly resistant to antibiotics.
He stumbled on the gene, known to scientists as NDM-1, while researching “normal” pollutants such as sewage and industrial waste. “It only takes a short visit and exposure to acquire such genes in your gut,” he was told in Britain by an environmental engineering professor. As Mallet notes, this is a politically sensitive matter – Indian officials and doctors “were furious” when The Lancet medical journal in 2010 named the new gene NDM after New Delhi.
Devout Hindus, says Mallet, are unwittingly spreading diseases, and antibiotic resistance to diseases, in the very river to which they have come to pay homage. Water samples have demonstrated that even what are usually regarded as the relatively pristine reaches of the upper Ganges near Haridwar suffer surges of bacterial pollution during visits by thousands of urban Indians during the May-June pilgrimage season.
Throughout the book, the Ganges is the main focus but, along the way, there are many other subjects and issues ranging from the poisoning of vultures and a state government suggesting the use of cow urine as a hospital disinfectant, to corruption among water tanker drivers (and others), and India’s desperate need for jobs that Modi’s Make in India campaign cannot begin to solve.
Modi was elected in 2014 both to change the way that India is run by making the machinery of government cleaner, more effective, and less bureaucratic, and to create jobs and opportunities for the aspirational young. Make in India is one of a myriad of high profile schemes that he has launched to try to inject focus and drive into a somnolent government, but it is difficult as yet to assess how much has actually been achieved as a result of all the razzmatazz.
Modi’s pledge to clean the Ganges and reverse the failure of many earlier attempts can however be assessed, especially at the holy city of Varanasi which he chose as his parliamentary constituency. Little seems to have been achieved in the city apart from some beautification of the ghats, or flights of stairs, on the Ganges banks.
Varanasi’s disillusioned residents reminded Mallet about Modi’s televised launch of a plan to clean tonnes of mud off the city’s famous Assi Ghat, and criticised the lack of progress on the more important problem of sewage. Such cosmetic projects were like “putting lipstick on a woman with a dirty sari”.
Curiously, Modi made Uma Bharti, a religious activist and politician the minister in charge of water, and thus the Ganges. Mallet says “she appeared more interested in proving the existence 5,000 to 6,000 years ago of the extinct Saraswati River… than in solving the very real crisis facing the contemporary Ganges.” That demonstrates one of the Modi government’s limitations – that several ministers and leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party are more interested in Hindu religion and mythology (and nationalism) than they are in building a strong nation that works.
Mallet is however too optimistic about the prospect of the Ganges being cleaned. He cites great and well-organised religious festivals like the Kumbh Melas, which bring millions of worshippers to the Ganges, as examples of even the most corrupt state governments being able to perform. “Good organization and efficient infrastructure, in short, are no more impossible in India than anywhere else,” he declares.
This misses the point that the Kumbh Melas are one-off events where a single official is given overall charge without political interference (though politicians are quick to claim credit when all goes well). There are other similar examples, such as the building of the Golden Quadrilateral highways around India 15 years ago and the construction of the Delhi Metro railway. In each case, politicians stood aside and left officials to get on with the job – and there was overwhelming support for what was being done.
Sadly, that is unlikely to work with cleaning the Ganges because there are too many interests and the project is neither time-bound like a Kumbh Mela nor of clear immediate benefit like a metro or highway.
Cleaning the Ganges is therefore a perfect metaphor for modernizing India. The task is just too huge and too complex for quick solutions – as Modi is discovering with a general election just over a year away.
A former “Financial Times” South Asia correspondent, John Elliott now writes for Asia Sentinel from New Delhi. He is the author of “Implosion: India’s Tryst With Reality” http://amzn.to/2gwrfjb (HarperCollins)