Toxic Fear & its Geography

Another short. One of the challenges of engaging with toxic fear in the 1980s was to recognize that discrete events provoked specific fears. Inasmuch as the media played a role (it did, but it was not the sole driver of public anxieties towards chemicals), I found I needed to understand how and where stories received attention. Many incidents—from Love Canal to later, less-publicized events—received national attention, albeit briefly. Invariably, however, the local press told more stories and kept the discussion going for longer. And none of this explains variations in how environmental stories were told. More often than not, the media could have mitigated fears with clear and accessible scientific information. More often than not, however, it tended to pander to captivating readers through sound bytes that fuelled the fire. In national stories, however, sites of toxic fear still had distinct geographies. An example: the national apple scare surrounding the use of Alar, or daminozide, in the late 1980s. It received considerable mainstream news attention, after the Natural Resources Defense Council, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and the actress Meryl Streep brought the issue to the public.

 Media analysis also permits some opportunity to evaluate the geography of toxic fear. For example, a 1996 study on media reporting on Alar found that west coast newspapers—The Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The San Jose Mercury News—reported more frequently than comparable newspapers on the eastern seaboard.[1] Careful analysis of the reporting, however, revealed that many of the articles recounted the controversy without recording the competing scientific interpretations of the inherent risks. Many newspapers were captivated by the storm and rhetoric and debate, leaving readers with no better framework for understanding the potential hazards (or lack thereof) posed by eating apples.[2] Which is to say that an information deficit regarding Alar’s risks persisted. Media outlets capitalized on the controversy and sold newspapers and captured viewers by aggravating Americans’ latent fear of chemicals.

[1] Table on page 10 of Friedman et al., “Alar and Apples: Newspapers, Risk and Media Responsibility,” Public Understanding of Science 5 (1996), 1-20.
[2] Jane Gregory & Steve Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 168-173.

Anatomy of Fear: The Primitive

One of the pleasures of my current writing project on the history of toxic fear in the American 1980s has been the opportunity to engage with emotions history and to track the history of psychology as it pertains to fear and anxiety. Though I suspect I will cut my discussion of fear writ large from the manuscript, it was fun drafting some of this material. Here, in very rough draft form, is a brief anatomy of fear, in which I braid together three disparate identities of fear: the personal, the political, and the primitive, which I divide into three sections. I will share the subsequent iterations in future posts.

Fear is an atavistic trait, mired in primitive survival instincts. As the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård so eloquently put it: “Fear is archaic, it is embedded in the body, in its purest form untouchable to thought, and it is there to keep us alive.”[1] True. Upon the discovery of a potential threat, the body instantly generates a fight or flight mentality. Pulse quickens, hairs bristle, muscles tense. This is hardwired into our biology. It is little surprise, then, that Charles Darwin studied fear quite extensively in his less well-known (but popular at the time) work on emotions from 1872.[2] Fear, Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, “may be accounted for through the principles of habit, association, and inheritance,—such as the wide opening of the mouth and eyes, with upraised eyebrows, so as to see as quickly as possible all around us, and to hear distinctly whatever sound may reach our ears.” Just as in Duchenne de Boulogne’s famous pictures a decade earlier of facial expressions that sought to capture a universal essence of specific emotions, Darwin wanted to describe the biological nature of emotion. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals followed quickly on the heels of The Descent of Man (1871), and his intent was consistent with his broader work on evolution. Emotion, he contended, must be a universal and evolutionary constant. “Men, during numberless generations, have endeavoured to escape from their enemies or danger by headlong flight, or by violently struggling with them,” Darwin surmised. “Such great exertions will have caused the heart to beat rapidly, the breathing to be hurried, the chest to heave, and the nostrils to be dilated. As these exertions have often been prolonged to the last extremity, the final result will have been utter prostration, pallor, perspiration, trembling of all the muscles, or their complete relaxation. And now, whenever the emotion of fear is strongly felt, though it may not lead to any exertion, the same results tend to reappear, through the force of inheritance and association.”[3]

So far, so good. The easy assumption is to suggest that Darwin saw fear as an evolutionary characteristic, universal in its conception. Humans were simply exhibiting animalistic survival instincts, even if those instincts didn’t necessarily apply in the same manner as they might have done in the wild. But his conclusions weren’t so tidy. Darwin followed the description above with the claim that “the above symptoms of terror … are in large part directly due to the disturbed or interrupted transmission of nerve-force from the cerebrospinal system to various parts of the body, owing to the mind being so powerfully affected. We may confidently look to this cause, independently of habit and association.”[4] Indeed, throughout his work, Darwin qualified his analysis and shied from infallible emotional absolutes. The science of emotion required interpretation, and Darwin was unapologetic about this uncertainty: “When Shakespeare speaks of envy as lean-faced, or black, or pale, and jealousy as ‘the green-eyed monster’; and when [Edmund] Spenser describes suspicion as ‘foul ill-favoured, and grim,’ they must have felt this difficulty.” In essence, Darwin resisted a universal codex for emotion, which could be situated in time and place—and misinterpreted. “We are often guided in a much greater degree than we suppose,” he warned, “by our previous knowledge of the persons or circumstances.”[5]

If there is a universal component to fear, it is in its physiology. Emotion is simply complex chemistry. In the early twentieth century, psychologists located irritation in the medulla oblongata as the source of these instinctive responses.[6] A century later, neuroscience could more accurately describe fear’s chemistry, as an oxytocin activation in the hypothalamus and release from the pituitary. (amygdala here?—appropriately buried deep within the brain’s inner sanctum). Fight or flight hormone: epinephrine.

…and so it goes. The next instalment considers fear’s political dimensions, also in incomplete form.
[2] Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (London: John Murray, 1872).
[3] Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 166.
[4] Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 166-167.
[5] Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 142. Darwin’s intent has been the subject of much intellectual controversy since its publication. The anthropologist Margaret Mead and the evolutionary psychologist Paul Ekman have been the primary combatants, the former advocating a social constructivist reading of Darwin’s work and the latter championing a universalist approach For a good summary of the debate, see Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 164-172.
[6] Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (XXX, 1920), Part 3 General Theory of the Neuroses XXV. Fear and Anxiety.

Survival Science

I included in the title my book about Barry Commoner: “The Science of Survival.” At the time, I interpreted the science of survival as a way of describing Commoner’s social and scientific activism—and most significantly, his advocacy of the science information movement. After the book was completed, however, I turned my attention towards Commoner’s role in producing a vernacular science during the 1960s. This was an implicit feature of the book, but I felt it deserved greater attention. I dabbled. I still think there’s a book project that treats the history of this vernacular or public science, especially in light of recent events (I’m thinking, especially, about the Flint lead water crisis) to talk about how citizens engage with, participate in, and understand scientific findings, and what place these findings control in public policy debates.

So, there’s that. It’s been awhile since I thought about much of this material, until I was invited to a couple of workshops in Europe this past fall. The first, in Århus, interrogated the place of science in the 1970s (arguably, an under-examined and underestimated decade in the history of science). The second, in Lugano, considered the relationship between “collapse,” environmental justice, and the role of evidence. Both workshops were fascinating—complete with gracious hosts, fantastic presentations, and stimulating conversations. Working from different vantage points, these two workshops provided me with the opportunity to reimagine some of the earlier vernacular science work, but also to frame in a new light as “survival science.” I post a link to a special issue of Intervalla, which published a version of the Lugano paper. So, here’s a first stab at making sense of “survival science” in its historical context.

History for a Sustainable Future

I’ve been grumbling under my breath instead of typing on a number of topics, recently. Or typing, but in book manuscripts rather than this blog. I should get back to writing/thinking here. But a sort of placeholder in the short term.

Along with Benjamin Cohen, Adam Sowards, and Peter Alagona, I edit a book series at MIT Press under the title “History for a Sustainable Future.” The fourth book in the series will be published in April. We aim to stress the importance of historical context when addressing current environmental problems. From our series statement:

The series takes as its primary mission the dissemination of accessible historical information and resources for scholars and teachers, policy makers, activists, and concerned citizens.  The driving theme behind this series involves making environmental history more relevant to 21st century concerns about the environment.

More to the point, we are still soliciting manuscripts. Please feel free to contact any one of us (or our partner in crime at MIT Press, Beth Clevenger) to discuss projects that you think might fit the series. Our proposal summary and guidelines are listed at the top of this page under the hamburger menu, but I also link to them here.

Secretary of Survival

I’ve spent this week going through some old Barry Commoner material to write a biographical encyclopedia entry. I find these increasingly difficult to write, not least because I have written a number now, but also because Barry shifted from research subject to friend in the years between my dissertation and his passing. I take the task no less seriously, but I feel the weight of an added responsibility to render a synthesis of his life and career while stressing the aspects of his work that he most valued.

The following little exchange made me chuckled, however, and brought a bit of levity to work. In 1973, Commoner appeared on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” a conservative talk show that ran for many years. Buckley’s role in the rise of American conservatism is a story that probably ought to be examined more carefully. He was an erudite and articulate writer and broadcaster and a worthy debate foe. The subject was “Is there an Ecological Crisis?” In his preamble Buckley insinuated the question seemed less urgent than it had a few years earlier. Commoner had, in 1971, published The Closing Circle, which outlined his approach to the environmental crisis (which he felt was quite serious). Buckley acknowledged that Commoner was not an environmental doomsayer in the vein of Paul Ehrlich and other prominent environmentalists, but the discussion veered toward environmental policy, with Commoner criticizing Nixon for backing away from much of the strong environmental policy he had signed during the first two years of the decade. Commoner wanted more. More investment in environmental remediation. More enforcement of environmental legislation. More stringent guidelines for various production processes. In one of his traditional quips, Buckley attempted to skewer his interlocutor. I rather think Commoner got the better of the exchange.

Buckley: “I hope you, if President of the United States, would not appoint as Secretary of Defense somebody who would superordinate the problems of ecology over those of national sovereignty.”

Commoner: “Well, that is your hope; mine is the reverse.”

Buckley: “Why would you call him Secretary of Defense? Call him Secretary of Undefense, or Secretary of Surrender.”

Commoner: “Why don’t we call him Secretary of Survival?”

American Dreams & American Fear

I’m spending the summer frantically writing. The current project with an end-of-summer writing deadline is a history of toxic fear in the American 1980s. Title to be determined, but I hope to trace an American history of toxic chemicals in the 1980s, and how pollution produced unprecedented fears. From Three Mile Island and Love Canal to Times Beach and Woburn, the decade was punctuated by a series of local crises, which gained national media attention. But I mean to argue that toxic fear was a good deal more than a simple shift in media reporting. I’ll save themes and methodologies for subsequent posts.

After spending most of the last decade trying to escape my training as an American historian—much of my work on mercury has attempted more global and/or transnational perspectives—this project has been a happy return to US history. And the 1980s is a relatively new decade for me. Given, though, that 1980 marks the halfway point between the end of World War II and the present, it’s probably high time to acknowledge that the decade deserves careful study. Much groundwork has already been done, but the environmental history remains somewhat light.

This long preamble is a preface for a comparison that struck me this morning while writing. Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) features prominently in my reading of toxic fear in the 1980s. Not just because of the book’s “toxic airborne event,” which throws DeLillo’s narrative into chaos, but because of its funny, poignant, and deliberate descriptions of American culture run adrift. His final paragraph is wonderful (apologies for the poor reading):

I’m especially fond of White Noise, so its inclusion in my work is a special pleasure and a personal conceit. And while I am no literary scholar and only a “reforming” American historian, it’s hardly my place to claim that it is a definite candidate as one the great American novels, even if only for the moment in which it was written. I’m not alone, of course: White Noise was awarded the National Book Award for 1985. But I think it also holds up especially well.

DeLillo’s conclusion also put me in mind of another favourite concluding paragraph, this one from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which I read over and over when I first discovered Kerouac more than twenty years ago:

I don’t want to make a meal of the comparison, but I was struck by the disparate tones of hope and despair—or sad promise (Kerouac) and numbed satire (DeLillo). The youthful energy of On the Road contrasts with the implicit defeat of DeLillo’s America almost thirty years later. Of course, no one needed to wait thirty years: in Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962), Cody Pomeranz and Lorenzo Monsanto chop down trees. Cody, the vivacious reincarnation of Neal Cassady, formerly On the Road‘s Dean Moriarty, lays into his axe with gusto. The older Monsanto is slower, more deliberate. His tree falls first.

The road and the grocery store aisle as windows to knowledge and sustenance offer polar opposites to the American experience. What happened? Kerouac was writing at the dawn of the 1960s, an “age of contradiction,” as historian Howard Brick has contended. Brick’s chapter titles outline the coming tensions: this was a decade marked by knowledge and ideology; authenticity and artifice; community and mass society; systems and the distrust of order; peace and violence. Kerouac’s sunset in On the Road is also evening in an America bent on conformity. The 1960s would be loud. But DeLillo’s 1980s would be quite different again. In contrast to an age of contradiction, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers examined the last quarter of the twentieth century and described an “age of fracture.” The social, moral, and economic boundaries that defined previous American generations lost concrete definition, creating a certain ambivalence that trades on a new chapter of American exceptionalism—and, indeed, postmodernism, where scepticism towards metanarratives, heightened superficiality, and consumerism reign supreme. Which is very much the world of White Noise.

On the one hand, the lazy point to make is how these two literary conclusions suggest a dissolution of the American dream. But there is also a fascinating expression of the American sadness described some years later by David Foster Wallace in The Infinite Jest (1996). I need to do more to situate toxic fear within this grander context, but uncertainty, changing risk perceptions, and widespread fear are consistent with many of the cultural themes Rodgers sees in his age of fracture.