David Zierler


On his book The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment

Cover Interview of July 31, 2011

The wide angle

I arrived at this project because I was interested in tracing the development of an idea.

We are frequently told that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring “launched” the environmental movement after its publication in 1962.  But when one looks closely at Carson’s narrative, it is clear that her understanding of environmental issues was decidedly national in character.  Carson’s concern about humankind’s abilities to destroy natural environs took place upon an explicitly American backdrop.  And yet modern discourse on environmental politics and problems is bounded by no such distinctions.  Our culture takes at face value that deforestation in the Amazon, acid rain in Eastern Europe, or the ozone hole over the Antarctic are not simply problems isolated to those areas—they are global in scope.

As a historian, I was seeking answers to explain this intellectual transformation throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.  As it stood, there was a gap in the logic between modern global environmentalism and the credit normally bestowed upon Rachel Carson.  This led to my work on Agent Orange and Vietnam.

I think one of the reasons that the story of “Ecocide” resonated so powerfully at the end of the 1960s was that the sheer destructive power of herbicidal warfare clarified for many people what humankind was capable of doing.  The vast moonscapes of formerly lush rainforest (images of which appear in my book) presented an eco-dystopic harbinger of the future. For Americans, it mattered less that this program took place on the other side of the globe; more compelling was the speed and relative ease with which massive forests could be wiped out.

Further, the destructive power of Agent Orange set it apart from nearly all other forms of industrial environmental degradation of the modern era.  Whereas nearly all environmental problems are the unnecessary (but generally unavoidable) byproduct of human labor, environmental destruction for the sake of environmental destruction was the point of Agent Orange and herbicidal warfare.  Engineered across the backdrop of an unpopular war, the spray program became what I see as the tipping point by which environmental thinking and politics assumed an international scope.