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ix A mong the historical phenomena leading to the rise of modern environmentalism in the second half of the twentieth century, one of the most striking was also one of the least visible: the proliferating presence of toxic compounds in the webs of ecological relationships that sustain life on the planet. What seemed like a new age of toxicity exploded into public view with the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, followed in turn by countless nuclear tests and the radioactive fallout they generated. As background levels of radiation rose during the 1950s and early 1960s, people around the globe became increasingly concerned that the foods on which they and their children depended were laced with contaminants like Strontium 90 and Cesium 137. In the early years of the Cold War, the “enemy within” symbolized the peril posed by communist agents (and organized criminals) capable of infiltrating and undermining national institutions, but the metaphor gradually extended to include other forms of infiltration and contamination as well. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 brought those fears into sharp focus. Environmental toxicity was hardly limited to radiation: the intentional use of poisons to control pests, she argued, was having devastating effects as toxins accumulated in the bodies of fish, birds, mammals, and human beings. F o r e w o r d : T HE PA IN OF A POISONED W ORLD b y w i l l i a m c r o n o n x Foreword Although Carson’s intervention might suggest to Americans that concern about toxicity first arose mainly in the United States, in fact this transformation in environmental thinking was world-wide. Japanese concerns about radiation and nuclear weapons made that nation a leader in pointing the way toward a new era. A year before Silent Spring was published, a mysterious wave of birth defects in the United Kingdom and elsewhere was linked to the new drug thalidomide, so that images of newborn babies with missing limbs joined the victims of Hiroshima as sinister icons of the havoc that toxic exposures can wreak. Whereas an earlier era had habitually looked to science and technology for solutions to social and environmental problems, by the 1960s these agents of “progress”—the scare quotes around that word are themselves symptomatic of the new era—seemed as often as not to cause those problems. For a generation growing up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, the idea that one’s own body might harbor the poisonous seeds of future cancers and birth defects became a potent source both of nightmares and political activism. In the history of human fear, the post-Hiroshima age was haunted by new forms of hidden terror that were all the more frightening for lurking so invisibly beneath the bright sunlit surfaces of everyday life. What was new, though, was less the poisons themselves than the public awareness of their presence. To be sure, radioactive fallout was peculiarly a product of the nuclear age and the widespread use of organic compounds as pesticides were an innovation of modern chemistry. But before DDT was used to control insects, it had precursors, like copper sulphate and lead arsenate, whose biological effects and long-term accumulation in the environment were hardly benign. Factories and mines had been generating toxic by-products world-wide long before World War II, so to really understand the rise of environmental toxicity one has to go much further back in time, to the dawn of the industrial era. This is what Brett Walker has done in Toxic Archipelago, his disturbing new history of industrial disease in Japan. The book’s argument is deceptively simple: toxicity was an inevitable outcome of cultural innovations that viewed nature as a resource waiting to be exploited toward useful human ends. The Enlightenment rationality that enabled scientists and engineers to break natural substances and productive processes into their component parts made possible efficiencies and economies of scale that would have been unthinkable to earlier generations. The benefits were obvious : dramatic increases in material outputs of all manner of goods and ser- Foreword xi vices, from foods to textiles to machines. The costs were often not so visible, concentrated as they were in the vicinity of individual factories or so diffuse that they could not easily be detected by unaided human senses. Every industrial product, Walker argues, also had by-products, unwanted materials that were inherent to production but undesirable in and...


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