The Chemical Age: How Chemists Fought Famine and Disease, Killed Millions, and Changed Our Relationship with the Earth

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by Frank A. von Hippel

University of Chicago Press

11/20/2023, paperback

SKU: 9780226829562


A dynamic and sweeping history that exposes how humankind's affinity for pesticides made the modern world possible-while also threatening its essential fabric.

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.


"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

"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

"This book confirmed for me so much of what has shaped my environmental concern, and I found many aspects of it especially powerful and appealing. For one, it has a strong narrative force and telling anecdotes that will engage a broad reading audience. Second, like all good narratives it is informed by a moral sensibility. It is a rich diversion, with broad temporal and geographic coverage."-- Mark Lytle, author of The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement

About the Author:

Frank A. von Hippel is professor of environmental health sciences and lead of the One Health research initiative at the University of Arizona. 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.