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Silent Spring: A Timeless and Haunting Classic

January 21, 2008

Global warming, and the urgent need to take action to combat it, have become news staples.

Former Vice President Al Gore has become a Nobel Peace Prize winner, earning a stature for his crusade to educate the world about the perils of global warming that he never achieved during his previous 30 years in public life. 

In An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning documentary that follows Gore as he makes several of the thousands of PowerPoint presentations he has done on the topic, he notes that a scientific consensus has emerged where hundreds of studies agree that global warming is occurring, while zero dispute that fact.

It wasn’t always that way, and Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s classic text about humans’ path of unrelenting environmental destruction, played a major role in the modern environmental movement of which Gore and his work is a current and major part.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring takes as its starting point and overarching metaphor a spring in which no birds sing because none exist anymore. “This town does not really exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world,” Carson writes in her eerily prophetic first chapter. 

What follows is a remarkably accessible and devastating expose of the various ways that human, through their modern way of life, according to Carson, have wreaked havoc on the environment. 

Already a National Book Award winner by the time she wrote Silent Spring, Carson makes her way through the levels of environmental wreckage, dedicating chapters to DDT, water, soil and plants, among others.  She takes consistent aim both at what she perceives as the arrogance and negligence of companies and the government as well as her insistence that humans are subject to the same environmental and health consequences as other animals.  Although Silent Spring deals with nature and ecology, it is fundmentally a moral plea for a more rational and considered approach toward environmental stewardship.    

As Pulitzer Prize winning-author Edward O. Wilson writes in the 40th Anniversary Edition of the work, Carson did not so much perform original research as synthesize the widespread effects of pesticides and other toxic pollutants on the environment into “a single image that everyone, scientists and the general public alike, could understand.” 

The image was a powerful one, and led to both immediate and long-term results.

Silent Spring, delivered a sharp slap to a somnambulant public provided impetus for the modern environmental movement-many credit the book as contributing mightily to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the banning of domestic production of DDT- and also provoked strong negative reaction from the polluters.   In her introductory essay, Linda Lear notes that the industrial chemical industry spent a quarter of a million dollars trying to discredit Carson and her work.  

The effort did not succeed.

The book is not without its flaws.  The documentation is general rather than specific, Carson’s explanation of alternatives are relatively thin and her position about intelligent spraying seems hard to reconcile with the tale of environmental wreckage she spends the vast majority of the book depicting. 

Still, the book is undeniably a classic, both in its content and its impact.  Although Carson died of breast cancer shortly after its publication, her work’s power endures and continues to challenges us to consider our own responsibility and the need to take constructive action. 

The questions she asks at the end of the chapter, And No Birds Sing, continue to be relevant to us today:

“Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond … Who has decided-who has the right to decide-for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?”


Other books by Rachel Carson:

The Edge of the Sea

The Sea Around Us

Under the Sea Wind


Gang Leader for a Day: Vivid Description, Incomplete Reckoning

January 13, 2008

Sudhir Venkatesh’s first trip to the Robert Taylor Homes is the stuff of legend.

A newly minted graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, the Indian-born Californian walked up to residents at the notorious housing project-at one point, America’s largest-holding a survey from MacArthur Award-winning professor William Julius Wilson.

“What does it feel like to be black and poor?” read the first question, which Venkatesh earnestly if naively tries to have the residents answer.

Far from answering, Venkatesh’s subjects proceeded to hold him hostage for close to day, debating whether to kill him before releasing him with a clear warning not to return.

Steven Levitt told the story first in the bestselling  Freakonomics, which included a chapter about the economics of drug dealing based, it turns out, on data Venkatesh said he got during his subsequent research.

Gang Leader for A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets Is Venkatesh’s turn to tell his own story of that first day, as well as of many of the ones that followed during his six and a half years of research during his doctoral studies.   And tell it he does, in a book that both intrigues with its memorable and intricate description of a community many people never enter, yet disappoints slightly with its incomplete moral reckoning.


Venkatesh’s relationship with J.T., a Black Kings leader, is at the heart of the book.  It is J.T. who intervenes on Venkatesh’s behalf to end his hostage saga,  After finding the pluck to return to Robert Taylor, Venkatesh eventually gains access, with J.T.’s approval, both to the projects and to much of the gang’s operations.  Venkatesh makes it clear that the gangs see themselves as community leaders, providing jobs, mediating disputes and keeping order in the area in a way that no one else can.  Venkatesh does talk about the violence he hears about, witnesses, and, in one instance, even participates, while also discussing the managerial structure and continual decisions a leader must make. 

The relationship with J.T. is not an easy one for many reasons, and J.T. makes it clear early in the story that Venkatesh must decide whether he is with J.T. or with other  elements of the community (Venkatesh eventually branches out, but appears comforted when he is planning to move to Boston at the end of the book that J.T. is writing a letter of introduction to East Coast members, saying, in essence, “Sudhir is with me.”)  Venkatesh depicts in extensive detail both the myriad mundane decisions gang leaders must make and the violence that underpins relationships within the gang and in the community. 

J.T. eventually comes to trust Venkatesh, believing that Venkatesh is writing a book about his life, and supplies him with access to events that would otherwise be impossible to attend.  The title, which is a bit misleading, refers to a day when the gang chief and his associates appoint Venkatesh the leader for a day-but only after he has established his unwillingness to mete our or assign physical punishment.  Within the parameters he has established for himself,Venkatesh’s judgment and instincts are solid, according to J.T.

Although central to the narrative, J.T. is just of many characters in Gang Leader for a Day.  Other memorable people include T-Bone, the gang’s bookish accountant who supplies Venkatesh with four years of records of the gang’s finances, J.T.’s  warm-hearted mother, already ready with a smile a plate of home cooked fun and home spun wisdom, and Ms. Bailey, the Local Advisory Council leader and one of the most compex people in the book. 

Ms. Bailey does tend to the needs of the families in her building—in one memorable scene, she chews out Venkatesh when he feels she has been hoodwinked by a drugged mother whose children Venkatesh buys groceries for, telling him that no one in her building goes hungry-largely by dealing with the gangs.  Because he had such detailed access, Venkatesh is able to create the feeling of an entire world in which strong ties community and chilling violence coexist, in which cops are more  feared than criminals and in which connection to political leadership and traditional sources of resources is utterly non existent.

Gang Leader for A Day  is Venkatesh’s third mining of the material and experiences he had during the period from 1989 to 1996, and  is by far his most personal work to date.  American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto was converted from his dissertation and told the history of the Robert Taylor Homes from its inception through its planned destruction under the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan For Transformation.  While a major contribution to several bodies of literature and far more readable than many converted dissertations, the book was far from intimate in tone and substance.

Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, an examination of the underground economy in “Marquis Park,” a thinly veiled neighborhood on the city’s South Side, was Venkatesh’s second look, and one in which his voice appeared more frequently.  To his credit, Venkatesh includes a number of excerpts of interviews in which residents tell him that, despite his having been in the community, he still “doesn’t know shit.

Gang Leader For A Day’s signature strength is in its depiction of the world inside the Robert Taylor Homes and in the gang members’ lives.  Far from being caricatures, many  people in Venkatesh’s book have hidden desires for a different path-one gang member confesses that he wants to leave and start teaching dance-that often do not get realized.

Venkatesh also effectively shows just how trickly moral judgments can be tricky, especially when applied from an outsider to the community.  As in Off the Books, Venkatesh includes the words of women who prostitute themselves to help pay for the children’s needs are not judged negatively by the community, but a drug consuming mother who does not tend to her children is. 

Venkatesh does not back away from depicting his own moral quandaries, which are many and, at times, unanticipated.  An example of the latter comes when he shares the substance of his conversations with residents about their underground economic activities with J.T. and Ms. Bailey leads to both shaking down residents for money they didn’t know was coming in and to Venkatesh being perceived as a snitch.  

Venkatesh’s years-long misleading of J.T. about his plans to write about him-a plan that Wilson, who eventually becomes Venkatesh’s advisor, quashes, instead directing him to write about the whole community-is another (He appears to have written the book in part to honor his earlier commitment.).

But the most basic, of course, is how Venkatesh strikes an uneasy balance between her fascination with gang life, his admiration for J.T.s charisma and leadership and his revulsion both with the violence that undergirds their community control and the drug dealing that drives their income.  At different times in the book, Venkatesh takes solace in also being seen as a hustler of a different stripe who won’t take no for an answer.   J.T.’s having left the gang and gone straight, but more particularly, appearing not to be bitter that Venkatesh has continued on his path toward academic stardom and has moved on to other research subjects is another. 

Venkatesh does an effective job of articulating the moral challenges he encounters, but he does far less well with reckoning with the implications of what he has seen and learned for his responsibilities as a scholar, a citizen and his allegiance to his moral code.  This is a significant omission, both because his insights would be valuable and because judgment of these actions raises questions of responsibility and accountability for Venkatesh and the people with whom he interacts so extensively.  

Ironically, several of the residents nudge Venkatesh in that direction.  One woman states emphatically the first time she meets Venkatesh: Don’t treat us as victims.  We know what we are doing. 

Venkatesh, however, does not apply the same standards to himself.  While he clearly would be overstepping his boundaries were he to offer sweeping conclusions that could be widely applied from his experience, his failure to apply the same compass to himself that the woman urges him to bring to bear on community residents them leaves an unsatisfying savory taste in the reader’s mouth.   

A vivid description of a world many people never see, and that in a certain way has been altered fundamentally with the destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes through the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, Gang Leader for A Day feels in the end more an exercise in personal catharsis than moral reflection and confrontation.    

 Books by Sudhir Venkatesh:

 Gang Leader for A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto

Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor