Book Review: The Invisible Rainbow

Nine years ago, I lived on a homestead in the piedmont of North Carolina. The folks who established the place had installed WiFi a few years previously, and one of them commented that the butterfly occupation on the property had significantly decreased since doing so. This observation really struck me, and I expected to hear more about this in the coming years from biologists, news reporters, etc. Since that time, connection to the cyber world has grown exponentially in our society, and is valued by many on the same level as clean water; it is now seen as a human right. As we become more intertwined with and dependent on such technologies, I hear less and less questioning their effects on the natural world (of which we are a part).

This summer I came across a book called The Invisible Rainbow; A History of Electricity and Life, by Arthur Firstenberg, published in 2017, updated in 2020. In short, it shares that human-harnessed electricity has been a death-dealing force in our world for 220 years. While reading it, I often found myself staring off into space, digesting the material and contemplating the widespread implications if this was indeed true. Since finishing it, I am seeing the world a bit differently, and so I thought I’d take some time here to recap and extrapolate upon its’ contents. I should note that I am finding it difficult to know how to best summarize this book because it is so full of information. Each page contains records from probably five or more sources (in fact, the “notes” section makes up nearly a third of the printed book). So while I am pulling out some stories that were striking to me personally, there are many aspects of this book that I will fail to mention in this review. If this piques your interest, you’ll just have to read it.

The book is what is says: a history book. It begins when humans first started using electricity in the 1740s; sharing accounts of early physicians and scientists who experimented with electrical currents as medicine. Early reports consistently observed that people responded on a wide spectrum to electricity, from very sensitive to not being able to conduct electrical currents at all (pg 32). Therefore, results of this therapy were not easily predicted or replicated. Electrotherapy was used for all sorts of ailments, and there are some amazing reports of deaf patients restoring their hearing (pg 18)! There were also reports of headaches, dizziness, seizures, heart palpitations, chest pain, and more. Beyond the patients, many of the practitioners exposing themselves regularly to electrical currents began to experience severe and debilitating symptoms from this collective experiment. Some concluded that electricity was dangerous and should be left alone, while others saw great opportunities to bulldoze ahead, progressing into the unknown and simultaneously making a name for themselves.

At the end of the 18thcentury, there was a major debate about the nature of electricity. Some thought that electricity was an element of life, an essential part of all beings and ecosystems, while others thought that “animal electricity” did not exist. This latter view, held by Alessandro Volta, won out and led to harnessing electricity on an industrial scale without considering its’ effects on biology (pg 45). Later on, many physicists proved that electricity was indeed a natural part of biology, but by then the foundation had already been laid and the road to hell was paved and well-traveled upon. Systematic electrification of Europe began with the magnetic telegraph along rail lines in 1839, and America wasn’t far behind. By 1875, there were already 30,000 miles of submarine cables barreling through the oceans, and 700,000 miles of wire covered the earth. It happened fast!

NYC in 1888

Firstenberg lays out various landmarks of widespread electrification: in 1889, power line harmonic radiation began; in 1918, radio waves commenced; in the 1950s, radars were in use; in 1968, satellites inhabited space; in December 1996, cell phones were under many Christmas trees. Alongside these landmarks, he analyzes physician records of illnesses and deaths. He focuses a lot on the health of those working with or near electricity, sharing that many experienced a variety of symptoms post electrical exposure, often diagnosed as “neurasthenia” in those early days (pg 51). Symptoms of this disease included anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations, arrhythmias, chest pain, shortness of breath, asthma, tremors, diarrhea, nausea, weakness, exhaustion, rheumatic pains, and more. With the influence of Sigmund Freud, the diagnosis of neurasthenia fell to the wayside, and “anxiety neurosis” (which could be treated with pills like Xanax, Prozac, and Zoloft) was the new label (pg 63). This classified these experiences as a mental disease, and ended the search for a physical cause; thus removing any suspicion that electricity could be affecting health.

There are three diseases permeating the modern world that Firstenberg gives much attention to: heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. He presents an interesting case that electrical pollution a primary factor in all of these diseases. I personally found the diabetes chapter to be the most surprising (having been well-versed in the simple too-much-sugar-too-little-activity theory). Firstenberg goes on to illuminate that these diseases have to do with how electricity affects basic metabolism. Apparently, in the presence of electromagnetic fields, mitochondria (the power plant of our cells) becomes less active, slowing the metabolism of glucose, fats, and protein. Firstenberg writes that this leads to excess fat and glucose accumulating in the blood, ushering in a myriad of problems. He elucidates upon this slow metabolism, introducing molecules called porphyrins, which supposedly interface with the body’s use of oxygen (pg 136). This was a new biology lesson for me, and I feel inadequate to elaborate more on it. He writes, “Electricity, like rain on a campfire, dampens the flames of combustion in living cells”(pg 236). It is telling that Thomas Edison, immersed in electricity from a young age, developed diabetes (a rare disease at the time) at age 35 (pg 200).

There is perhaps no connection more obvious than that of electromagnetic radiation and cancer. And yet, Firstenberg writes at length about the inaccuracy of statistics. It seems that honest data on brain tumors has been nearly impossible to come by since the advent of the cell phone. While independent scientists report a tripling to quintupling of brain cancer, industry scientists report no increase, or even a decrease; assuring consumers that the microwave they hold to their head is completely safe (pg 254). 

I have no difficulty wrapping my mind around chronic illnesses being fueled by electrical exposure. But this book also presented a lot of evidence that there have been many acute illnesses related to those landmark events mentioned three paragraphs ago, when the electrification of the earth was taken up a notch. In 1889, when the electrical era began, there was also a four year influenza pandemic that killed at least one million people. In 1918, the well-known Spanish flu occurred. In 1957, there was the “Asian” flu , and in 1968, the “Hong Kong” flu occurred. There is further discussion in the book about influenza being a primarily electrical disease, historically making an appearance during increased atmospheric electricity (pg 81). This is definitely a paradigm shift that questions current understandings of influenza contagion. Beyond the flu, Firstenberg suggests that electrical exposure, especially when systematically increased, acutely stresses the body and can be damaging to those who are “electrically sensitive” or already suffer from compromised health. Firstenberg includes charts from the CDC showing mortality rates for nine US cities during the weeks that digital cell service began, and it is alarming; some showing a 70-80% increase in mortality within the very week this electrical pollution started there! (pg 369) 

It is not until the near-end of the book that Firstenberg shares his personal experience of being “electrically sensitive” and hearing electricity. He writes that there is no place on earth where he can fully escape the symptoms, which, to put it mildly, sound just awful. There are other accounts of folks dealing with electrical sensitivity, and the reality is that there are probably many more who’ve never been able to identify the cause of their pain. He brings to light the problem of putting the label “electrical sensitivity” on this condition: it’s not that they are the only ones affected, everyone is. He likens it to diagnosing someone with “cyanide sensitivity” (pg 368).

And this brings me to the chapter that was the most disturbing to me: how electrical pollution affects life beyond humans. Firstenberg shares the observations of many scientists, including one 15 year old student in Queens, NY: Alexander Chan. For a science fair project, Chan “exposed fruit fly larvae daily to a loudspeaker, a computer monitor, and a cell phone, and observed their development. The flies that were exposed to the cell phone failed to develop wings” (pg 337). Electrical pollution is implicated in the demise of so many species. In 1998, Motorola launched 66 satellites to provide cell service from space for the first time. Immediately following, for a two week period, pigeon races all over ended with up to 90% of the birds going missing. Since birds (and others) have an instinctual direction sense guided by the natural resonant frequencies of the sky, how can we not expect electromagnetic fields to disrupt their ability to travel? Beyond lost birds, those nesting near cell towers have significantly decreased reproductive success and behavioral changes. Bee colonies dying near radio transmission towers have been well documented. In 2002, the US National Park Service “issued a report warning wildlife biologists that radio tracking devices could radically alter the very behaviors they are using devices to study, and that not only the physical dimensions of the devices, but the radio waves they emit could be detrimental to the animals’ health” (pg 333). This report came out 18 years ago, and the use of radio tracking for the sake of education has only increased! And then there are the plants, which are also affected in a serious way. Firstenberg shares some simple experiments that clearly communicate this point. After reading this chapter, I’ve thought a lot about how other critters, like my dog, might experience my devices. Can she hear the WiFi? Does she feel my phone searching for service?

There is a hopeful aspect of this book: when the source of electricity is removed, it seems that the ill-effects reverse quite quickly, and health can be restored. Firstenberg shares a story of an apartment building that housed cell phone antennas on the roof. Many residents were suffering from similar symptoms. Five months after the antennas were removed, the health of the residents had improved drastically (pg 392).

At this very time in history, we are living through one of those landmark moments, like the ones mentioned above, except this landmark moment is on steroids. Humans are yet again increasing the electrification of our world to a level not yet experienced. This is happening through a few events. One is the rollout of 5G, which looks like smaller cell towers being established on every block or so. These are boxes that sit atop telephone poles, and “they expose the population to tens or hundreds of times more radiation than the tall towers they are replacing” and will accommodate the development of more “smart” devices (pg 386). No need for humans to be smart anymore! On top of this change, there are also numerous companies competing to establish earth-wide WiFi through the presence of an unprecedented number of satellites in low orbit. This initiative is being led by rich boy Elon Musk (whom I really wish would just move to Mars already, and leave Earth alone!). At this moment, he has launched over 600 of his approved 12,000 satellites. Launches will take place every few weeks, with an end goal of 42,000. As I attempt a brief investigation into this situation, it appears the primary critique is that this will affect the astronomers’ views into space, with no mention of how this will alter the health of the natural world. I worry about the bird migration this fall. Yet again, we see a$$hole entrepreneurs progressing into the unknown, making a name for themselves, and annihilating life in the process.

But I digress…There is no shortage of folks currently questioning the impact of screen time on our mental wellness; especially as jobs, school, shopping, and friendships shift to solely online interactions. This research project takes that sentiment much farther, putting our mental state in the context of the physical health of our environment. Overall, this book moved me, challenged me, and influenced my feelings about daily life. And I say this as a person who lives off the grid, does not participate in social media, and lays awake at night wondering what to do when her flip phone will no longer be compatible with cell service. This book could be accused of siloing; that is, focusing so intently on one isolated issue that it fails to account for anything outside of that lens. While reading, I occasionally thought that there could be more mention of chemical and industrial pollution over the last few centuries, which increased right alongside the systematic electrification. But I guess the point is that electricity IS pollution, and most people don’t see it that way…so perhaps the intent focus is quite purposeful.

A few weeks ago, I spent a night camping just a half mile up the mountain from the cabin where I live. I noticed that the insect chorus was nearly double the volume it is at my home. Why would there be more insects in this particular area? I was along the same creek, in a cleared area similar to the cabin’s spot, and both places had springs rolling down the mountain into the creek. In fact the cabin area even has a small pond, which I would assume to draw more insect activity. The major difference that came to mind was that the cabin area has two sources of WiFi beaming out from it many hours per day. Of course I can’t prove this, and even if I spent years recording the appropriate observations to make a solid conclusion, what good would it do? We are beyond the point of pulling back from these technologies in the functioning of civilization. In fact, to participate within modernity, there is some amount of sticking one’s head in the sand that must take place to get through the days. (The irony of using this internet platform to write about the dangers of technology is not lost on me.)

Some part of me was looking for practical suggestions from this book. “Live in [these areas] to avoid electrical pollution”, “Instead of WiFi, plug into an ethernet cable”, “Use a headset when talking on your cell phone”, “Buy this gadget to protect yourself”…but this book is not one of self-help. It paints a picture of inescapable detriment for human and ecological health. Tech is just not compatible with life. It will not solve our problems, it is the problem.

Some further reading that treads these same waters, and dives deep into ecopsychology, can be found by Chellis Glenndinning, an American writer who has lived in Bolivia for awhile now. Her book My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization is one I reread every few years. She also has a book called When Technology Wounds.

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Content: Creative Commons 2020 Annie SewDev