Friday, November 11, 2011

Again, does science education matter?

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book about the environmental consequences of widespread pesticide use, was published in the fall of 1962 -- 49 years ago. The book kept coming up, in talks I was hearing, in conversation, but I had never read it. I've just done so -- the chemical names may have changed (e.g., largely as a result of this book, DDT is no longer in widespread use in this country), but the issues and the fact of polarized corporate interest vs environmental concern remain the same.  In many ways, this book could have been written today.

Book-of-the-Month-Club selection
Silent Spring is about the consequences of widespread use of pesticides, yes, but it's more than that.  Carson describes the effects of DDT, the insecticide most people think of when they think of this book, but also of dieldrin, parathion, heptachlor, malathion and other compounds much stronger than DDT, on all forms of life, particularly when they are used with the kind of abandon they were being used with at the time. 

Carson documents the immediate effects of these chemicals, as well as their effects once they get into the water and the food chain.  She discusses the problem of growing pesticide resistance.  And I think significantly, she includes examples of how to deal with pest infestations either without pesticides at all (Dutch elm disease can be controlled with good sanitation and the elimination of infected limbs, e.g.) or by limited, targeted application.   She offers a view of life on earth as interconnected, and was the first to give widespread attention to the downstream consequences of disturbing an ecosystem.

The book was the subject of intense vilification by the chemical industry at the time of its publication.  Indeed, the author herself was vilified as well at the time -- and continues to be to this day.

As Peter Matthiessen wrote in an essay in Time magazine in 1999
Silent Spring, serialized in the New Yorker in June 1962, gored corporate oxen all over the country. Even before publication, Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid--indeed, the whole chemical industry--duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.
Mattheissen further writes that eventually the chemical companies realized that their response to the book, rather than discrediting Carson, was only bringing attention to the issues, so they stopped.  Indeed, Silent Spring became a runaway bestseller, and launched the environmental movement.

Norman Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on increasing wheat yield in Mexico, as well as horticultural techniques that eventually led to the Green Revolution.  He is credited with having saved 1 billion lives from starvation.  But the Green Revolution relied on widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, and increased the practice of monocropping around the globe.  Thus, it has been criticized as unsustainable, and in fact the cause of decreased food security in much of the world. Borlaug himself was highly critical of Silent Spring, calling environmentalists hysterical, fear-provoking, irresponsible, having had their genesis in the 'half-science half-fiction novel' Silent Spring. Borlaug is a hero of the American right, and Carson the devil incarnate, much of this because of a campaign by right wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.  Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, on the other hand, credits Silent Spring with raising his awareness of environmental issues. 

Paul Krugman in the New York Times wrote a recent column about solar power, mentioning along the way the currently contentious issue of hydrolic fracturing (fracking), as newly adapted to the release of the methane gas now sequestered in the Marcellus Shale that extends across New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The industry insists that their methods are environmentally safe.  If you don't believe that, you're surely unAmerican.  As Krugman writes:
...the industry-backed organization declares that “there are only two sides in the debate: those who want our oil and natural resources developed in a safe and responsible way; and those who don’t want our oil and natural gas resources developed at all."
But if Silent Spring launched the environmental movement, and the fact of the interconnectedness of all of life is now almost a cliché, why is the book still so timely?  And what's with the widespread defense of DDT from the right wing?  Why is the issue of GM crops still so polarizing, with the likes of chemical companies such as Monsanto still on one side and environmentalists on the other, with little to no common ground in between?  Why the polarized debate over consequences of fracking?  Indeed, why is it that if you know someone's position on these kinds of questions, or on Rachel Carson herself, you can predict their politics?  Why isn't science resolving these issues?


Holly Dunsworth said...

Great piece Anne. I too need to read Silent Spring (finally).

And my answer to your last question is money.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Holly. Silent Spring is beautifully written and well worth reading. And, I mean, if Rush Limbaugh is still ranting about Rachel Carson 50 years later, there must be something to it!

And, yes, I agree with your answer to my question, as far as it goes. But that doesn't answer why science isn't convincing about evolution. It's not monied interests preventing acceptance of the scientific evidence in that case, as it is with pesticides and fracking.

Holly Dunsworth said...

If evolution's wrong (because god is right) then all of science is up for question.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, yes. Newton was working to show God's mind in the sense of what God intended for the universe. I don't know if he philosophised about that at all (e.g., does an immaterial God intervene in the material world, or did God just start things?), but I think he was to a great extent a biblical literalist.

I don't think literalists have problems with the laws of gravity and so on that God set up 'in the beginning', so long perhaps as they allow miracles (Red Sea parting and so on). But biology is different because while the universe could have had a point creation (Big Bang) life science claims nothing more than a point creation of life itself (in the primordial soup), but a very different process by which species arose, and that does not involve point creation.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Corporate raping of the environment continues to be tolerated because we welcome corporate solutions for increased energy/food demands of our growing population, because most people in charge of these things love money, and because the whole system is backed by a large enough populace that doesn't like ecology because it goes against a Creator (but more proximally because caring too much about the environment limits the possibility of their becoming wealthy one day too).

Anne Buchanan said...

I agree, Holly, if god is right, that's a huge problem for science.

As I understand it, many fundamentalist religions are embracing ecology, because it's right to take care of God's Creation. So, there may be less religious objection to environmentalism than corporate these days. But I completely agree with you about why monied interests object to it.

It's odd, though, that anti-Carsonists accuse her of single-handedly being responsible for the death of millions of children in Africa because she is responsible for the elimination of DDT from the anti-malarial arsenal. Even by 1962 it was clear that DDT resistant insects would quickly evolve. DDT might have helped at one time, but its lifetime as a potent pesticide in the fight against malaria would have been brief. And, the more widely it was spread, the more rapidly that would have happened.

I think Rachel Carson may have been intrigued by the genetic modification of crops to be resistant to bacteria. That is, she wrote about using bt rather than pesticides, and I suspect might have approved of the carefully managed use of bt crops. Obviously I can't speak for her.

But she would have readily seen through the claim that plants genetically modified to be herbicide resistant were a long term solution to anything.

Ken Weiss said...

To take a more distanced and disengaged anthropological view, I would ask whether 'tolerated' is the appropriate word. It assumes that these things are generally viewed as bad, but I am not convinced of that.

Industrial scaling and corporate profit and near-term satisfaction are what our culture is about. Advertising, marketing, and consuming are a major part of that. People have decided that today's car and SugarPops are important, and the future scenarios more abstract and removed. Even most opponents drive to work every day, have televisions, and eat at nice restaurants, etc. So even without those who take geopillage as God's gift to us, it's how our culture is. And some people who actually think beyond their short-term simply think that it's the next generation's job to figure out what to do in their circumstances, as all past generations have had to do in theirs.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Gosh, I thought my contribution two posts up was pretty anthropological and disengaged :).

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, sorry, it was. I should have phrased mine differently. But your tone was castigating (words like 'raping') So my point is just that even an innuendo that it's a false kind of love of money and so on is perhaps misplaced in that the love is not one people are apologetic for.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I was honestly trying to use the parlance of the larger dialogue when I wrote "raping" and wasn't casting aspersions with "love money" because I do too.

Ken Weiss said...

All I meant about 'raping' was it's a value judgment that the environment is being taken advantage of in a very bad way. But the majority of people in the country don't see it that way, or are willing to use the word but not give up their car. And we're not being hypocritical here, since we drive cars, heat our houses, and so on. But, I'll stress this: we do not eat SugarPops!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Me neither :).

James Goetz said...

I guess that I am a little confused about the problems with GM crops, which sounds 1,000 times better to me than the problems with chemical pesticides. I heard some cases where the GM crops can spread like a nearly indestructible weed, which definitely is a problem. Does that happen a lot? The other problem that I heard about on this blog is that GM crops sometimes opens up niches for other pests. Nobody would like this. But given that GM crops are not doing anything remotely close to what pesticide side effects do on the water and food supply, then tackling new pest problems instigated by GM crops sounds like a challenge worth facing.

Anne Buchanan said...

There is of course strong opinion both for and against GM crops. Those in favor say that they reduce the need for herbicides and pesticides, and because they don't need as much maintenance - tillage and so on - also reduce the farmer's fuel use. They are thus good for the environment and good for the farmer's bottom line.

Those against say, well, many things but the major issues are that GM crops increase the farmer's dependence on a single producer, who sets the terms of use (saving seeds to plant the following year is not allowed, you buy the seed and herbicide from the same producer; some crops have built-in suicide genes to prevent this, and so on); GM crops can in fact be more expensive if they don't increase crop yield, which they often do not, and the farmer has to dedicate more land to a crop than he or she once did; and, pretty much inevitably, they lead to the increased use of herbicides and pesticides when weeds and insects become resistant. That was known even 50 years ago, when Silent Spring was written.

Bt crops, plants that have been genetically modified to express a gene from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that codes for a toxin to specific pests in their larval stage. Use of Bt crops has been fairly effectively managed to slow the evolution of resistant larvae, at least in the US, but resistance is becoming a problem worldwide, so more and often more toxic pesticides are now required to deal with these insects. Herbicide resistant plants haven't been nearly as carefully managed, and resistance to glyphosate, the herbicide to which RoundUp Ready crops such as soy, corn and canola, are resistant is becoming epidemic, and, again, farmers are finding they have to spray more and more often to fight these new Superweeds.

Glyphosate is fairly benign, compared to the older generation of herbicides (although there is disagreement about this). But, it's not going to be useful much longer, and companies like Monsanto, the maker of RoundUp Ready products, are now working on genetically modifying seeds to resist the older herbicides. Which means of course that farmers will now be using these older, more toxic chemicals. And they will still be on the technological treadmill, and dependent on big chemical companies.

So, in the end, it may well turn out that GM crops won't mean less or safer pesticide or herbicide management, and they won't be cheaper for the farmer. Everyone, including Monsanto, knew this was likely, though Monsanto denied that herbicide resistance could happen. Which of course is like denying that evolution happens. People are talking about agroecology, and agroecological solutions to these problems, and I think Rachel Carson would have strongly approved.

Ken Weiss said...

It's tough because many factors are involved in peoples' views. There is always a reactionary doom-and-gloom response to new technologies. There is disgust at the greed. And there is the real possibility--whose likelihood may be small but cannot be known in advance--of some nightmare scenario.

There is clear short-term benefit of various kinds, including profit which is a legitimate part of our culture at present. Food becomes more ample and predictable, at least in some parts of the world. Maybe there are ancillary benefits, such as orders for tractors and so on, and for pesticides.

How a balance is struck with limited knowledge, that tolerates the good but at least tries to prevent the disastrous, is only partly a matter of science, and mainly politics of short- and long-term feelings people have. And the public is even less informed of course than the 'experts'

Even the question as to how many billions the world can support, for how long, is contentious. As in a similar way is the flash-word 'sustainable'.

Nobody has the answers because people in a sense don't agree on what the questions are.

But when cautionary tales like Carson's get abuse not for legitimate reasons, but for protection of vested interests, trouble lies ahead.