March 5, 2007

Comments by Moderator Linda Lear

Rachel Carson's last speech before the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group in San Francisco, titled "The Pollution of Our Environment" (Lost Woods, pp. 227-245) summarizes much of what she wanted most to talk about in her last months, and what she thought was most important for our future.
In this speech she expanded her criticism of a society that seldom evaluated the risks of new technology before it was entrenched into social systems. Carson's understanding of social dynamics was such that she understood absolutely that once a product was put out into the social system it could not be taken back.
This Sunday, The Washington Post, had a front page article ("FDA Rules Override Warnings About Drug") that struck me as something that would not surprise Rachel Carson in the least. The culprit in this case, was not DDT, but the implementation in the food-chain of a new class of antibiotics, known commonly as cefquinome, against a bovine pneumonia-like disease, carrying with it a risk of the emergence of resistant microbes in humans who eat the meat of cattle injected with the antibiotic. In spite of protests from health groups and the AMA, it appears that the FDA will approve the use of cefquinome this spring.
The advocates of putting this "new technology" out there are not the old chemical industry or food industry as Carson knew it, but the pharmaceutical industry and the cattle/beef lobby. These are more or less the same old personnae, with slightly different nuances, but the same agenda of profit now and "we'll worry about the result to humans and nature tomorrow, or sometime later... much later.
Why has the political and economic, and yes, the scientific culture seemingly changed so little since 1963? And what conclusions for the future of our environment do you draw from this seemingly endless cycle of repeating the same old mistakes? As Carson put it in 1963" man does not live apart from the world; he lives in the midst of a complex, dynamic interplay of physical, chemical, and biological forces, and between himself and this environment there are continuing, never-ending interactions."

Introduction by Linda Lear in Silent Spring. 40th Anniversary Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Introduction by Linda Lear in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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julie dunlap said...

What a beautiful essay. Carson begins gently, noting "a growing suspicion. . . that we may have been sometimes a little too ingenious for our own good," then progresses toward her damning conclusion that our failure to accept our own impacts on the planet may destroy us.

For me, she doesn't quite answer the question that Dr. Lear is posing--why? Why are we so short-sighted? Maybe humans just aren't good at understanding risks, especially those that aren't immediate, fight-or-flight situations.

In a book about the importance of getting children outdoors to play (Last Child in the Woods), Richard Louv reports that fear of strangers is the top reason parents give for not allowing kids to explore outdoors. Yet we expose our children daily to much higher risks such as driving in cars and poor nutrition.

What part of our failure to progress in our relationship to the environment can be attributed to our misperceptions of risk? And are those misperceptions caused more by media, phamaceutical lobbies, etc or by basic limits in human abilities to comprehend complex, uncertain, future, and even conflicting risks?

Mark Madison said...

What a useful book. As a professional historian I am always trying to find primary sources for students. "Lost Woods" is a great collection, thanks for editing and compiling it Linda.

As I looked up the essay you referenced, I reread another compelling essay. Carson wrote a letter to the editor to the Wasington Post protesting the firing of Fish and Wildlife Service Director Albert Day. Once again I was struck at her interest and outspokenness in public affairs and issues that we still grapple with. Also her faith in federal officials (like Day) to do the right thing.

As you and Julie noted Carson's words still resonate and those of us in the field of conservation are still trying to live up to her example and her hopes.

Anonymous said...

Linda, I would love to know what first attracted you to Rachel Carson and when you were moved to begin to research her life which led to your writing her biography. Could we detour a bit and hear stories about how and when we all first heard about Rachel Carson and why her writings and her life impacted us in such a big way? Perhaps look less through the political/intellectual perspective and more to the deeply personal.

Country Girl said...

Why of WHY have we not listened to and learned from the writings of Rachel Carson???
Do you think the time will come when Washington will understand the importance of protecting our Earth?
It would be nice if Rachel's writings would be required reading for our elected officials.
Just a Country Girl in Ohio

Jan Highland said...

There are lots of reasons why things have changed so little since 1963. One of the reasons is that as new technology becomes more sophisticated, so does everything else. In other words, people get better at "playing the game." That goes for the environmentalist side as well as the industry/lobby side.

One scenario that I see in this continuing dance between the partners who keep repeating the same mistakes has to do with the role of the earth itself in interrupting the cycle. The earth won't die, but it will eventually change; and the changes likely won't be hospitable to human life.

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