For thousands of years, we’ve found ways to scorch, scour, and sterilize our surroundings to make them safer. Sometimes these methods are wonderfully effective. Often, however, they come with catastrophic consequences—consequences that aren’t typically understood for generations.
The Chemical Age tells the captivating story of the scientists who waged war on famine and disease with chemistry. With depth and verve, Frank A. von Hippel explores humanity’s uneasy coexistence with pests, and how their existence, and the battles to exterminate them, have shaped our modern world. Beginning with the potato blight tragedy of the 1840s, which led scientists on an urgent mission to prevent famine using pesticides, von Hippel traces the history of pesticide use to the 1960s, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring revealed that those same chemicals were insidiously damaging our health and driving species toward extinction. Telling the story of these pesticides in vivid detail, von Hippel showcases the thrills and complex consequences of scientific discovery. He describes the invention of substances that could protect crops, the emergence of our understanding of the way diseases spread, the creation of chemicals used to kill pests and people, and, finally, how scientists turned those wartime chemicals on the landscape at a massive scale, prompting the vital environmental movement that continues today.
The Chemical Age is a dynamic, sweeping history that exposes how humankind’s affinity for pesticides made the modern world possible—while also threatening its essential fabric.
About the Author
Frank A. von Hippel is a professor of ecotoxicology at Northern Arizona University. He has taught ecology field courses in over twenty countries, and conducted research in the Americas, Africa and Australia. He hosts the Science History Podcast.
"The story of Fritz Haber’s work to feed humanity on the one hand and gas it on the other lies at the center of The Chemical Age. . . . Von Hippel is interested in the ways people have solved problems with chemicals and, in the process, created new problems."
— New York Review of Books
"Ecologist Von Hippel delves into historical accounts to tell the stories of the scientists who developed pesticides and chemical weapons, and trace their impact on the world."
"Reveals that while the chemical industry has averted famines and vanquished diseases, it has also driven countless species towards extinction."
— New Scientist
"The Chemical Age is a timely exploration of our environmental present."
— Physics Today
"Von Hippel’s leisurely and wide-ranging history will raise readers’ awareness about the power of toxic chemical compounds introduced into our environment.”
— Library Journal
"Von Hippel has accomplished something remarkable in having written a book on science and modern history covering famine, plagues, wars, and ecology that is very readable and even compelling. . . . Highly recommended."
"The Chemical Age by Frank A. von Hippel is a rich source of information on human inventions related to the fight against diseases and hunger, as well as a thought-provoking compilation of issues emphasizing the great need for humanitarian and environmental ethics."
"I recommend The Chemical Age to everyone that is curious or concerned about the current pandemic. Von Hippel's narratives on epidemics should help lay public understand how natural epidemics arise and are characterized. . . . [Buy], read, and enjoy."
— Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management Journal
"Von Hippel takes us through the surprising relationship of disease and war, from how the treatment of malaria facilitated colonialism, how weapons against disease carrying pests were used against human beings in war and riot, the development of tear gas, and the coming insect apocalypse."
— Jessa Crispin, Public Intellectual Podcast
“A superbly written and riveting account of scientific myopia: the employment of chemistry to solve major problems while doggedly oblivious to the consequent ravages those solutions cast upon life on earth. Destined to be a classic, this would top the fiction bestseller list, except it is solid truth. The Chemical Age should be required reading for everyone.”
— Thomas E. Lovejoy, coeditor of Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere
“Our love affair with industrial chemicals may have heroic origins, but it also has Promethean consequences that we are only beginning to fully comprehend. The Chemical Age is an essential addition to this comprehension, and a delightful mix of deep research and vivid anecdotal storytelling.”
— McKay Jenkins, author of Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet
“The Chemical Age is a vital and refreshing synthesis of public health, agricultural development, war, and pesticide history. With crisp writing, von Hippel draws from an impressive breadth of sources to tell a revealing and truly thought-provoking story.”
— David Kinkela, author of DDT and the American Century
"I’ve focused on human-chemical interactions for 67 years and shared enemies with Rachel Carson, yet I learned a great deal from this fascinating book. Chemicals can avert hunger and disease, but unwisely used could destroy our future. Read The Chemical Age and donate copies to your local high schools and colleges!"
— Paul R. Ehrlich, author of 'The Population Bomb'