April 8, 2007

Comments by Tom Dunlap

The chapters for this week use descriptions of the fate of chemical residues in the environment to show the damage to other life and to show that we are part of the nature we are conquering, not outside it. What we do in nature will come back to us. It begins with a chapter on contamination of streams, underground waters and ends, in "Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias," with residues of pesticides in our food. Many of her conclusions were, necessarily, speculative, for the evidence she had did not give a clear picture of either damage or dangers.

Readers can find some material on later developments in my book, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton: 1981), and library research will reveal other sources. Although research has made some of this "old news," the larger issues she raised remain up to date. We still grapple with the perils of residues in food chains--to us and to wildlife--and we have some examples of the damage done as residues drained to estuaries and sinks--still have to worry about the destruction of the microscopic life at the base of food chains, still deal with the unintended and unforseen consequences of apparently well-tested materials and progams. On a larger scale, the biological controls she cited and recommended rested on a radical vision (certainly radical at that time) of basing controls on an understanding of biology and a determination to live without doing unecessary damage to the world.

The control campaigns she described came from a belief that seems odd to many of us today: that science will solve our problems and will not produce more. That technological optimism and awe of science grew out of the accomplishments of military medicine and technology during World War II, and after the war antibiotics, new surgical techniques, and better methods of public health saved millions and made life better for even more. The best place to find these attitudes and appreciate the atmosphere in which Carson wrote are back issue of journals like Popular Mechanics which can still be found in university libraries. In 1950 they were telling us that in 2000 we would commute by helicoper from factory-built homes that would clean themselves with the push of a button. Meals could be cooked in minutes and television would educate all the children (well, some things did work out, though not quite as the visionaries thought). We would control nature and farming would be an entirely mechanized process. The future is not what it used to be.

At a time when we view genetic foods and cloning with suspicion and read of the environmental destruction from industrial farming, her detailed case, backed by scientific papers in the footnotes, seems overkill, but then DDT was still the wartime miracle, deadly to bad insects and harmless to everything else.

The last chapter for this week leads into the next set of readings, so keep in mind one of Carson's themes: that damage can come from apparently safe materials in low doses, only show up after much time has passed, and take forms very different from the ones that large doses produced.

See April Reading Schedule


Mark Madison said...


You nicely lay out the themes for this week. In reading Chapter 4, I was struck by Carson's choice of case studies. She notes in that chapter how California National Wildlife Refuges (run by her former employer the Fish and Wildlife Service) were becoming contaminated by agricultural runoff. Earlier in the chapter she describes Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver, an infamous chemical dump resulting from chemical weapons and later pesticide production. Ironically in 1989 Rocky Mountain Arsenal became a National Wildlife Refuge. One wonders if Carson would have taken a positive message or a chilling message from this transformation?

Tom you also alluded to increasing "doses" leading to death. It seems that the symbolism of nuclear fallout is becoming more prevalent in this section of the book ranging from the illustrations to the chapter titles (e.g., "Indiscriminately from the Skies.") Once again, as in TV dinners and scientific positivism, one is gently reminded Carson was indeed a product of a specific era and intellectual context. One wonders if the common knowledge of fallout and atomic destruction had already prepared a public for Carson's metaphors, scientific skepticism, and alarm.

A. R. said...

That is so interesting to go back and read about what people thought the "future" would be like. Maybe a lot of the details aren't exact and do sound "dated" but in many ways they got it right. For example, we don't push one button to clean our house but we do push lots of buttons like on all those appliances, gadgets, etc. What is amazing me about re-reading this book at this time is how current it all seems. Almost every issue I come across in a day makes me think of the warnings and predictions in Silent Spring. The poisoning of the environment is reaching more and more into our food from many sources. The E. coli contaminations, the mercury-laden fish. And there are still a lot of people who believe technology will fix everything.

Tom Dunlap said...

A.R, Your comment about finding the details dated but Carson's stand applying to situations today is just the reason people keep coming back to Silent Spring. Carson criticized not just a particular chemicals or set of chemicals, or even the way they were used, but the attitudes that led people to use them in what turned out to be very dangerous ways. She spoke for a way of living with nature, and a regard for nature's processes, that fit with many people's experiences and beliefs and which form the background to even her most technical discussions. This underlying philosophy gives the book much of its power.

julie dunlap said...

Some things aren't as dated as I wish they were. Carson describes a typical lawn chemical ad, with children & dog tumbling over the ultra-green grass. That ad's on tv this spring!

I'm struck by Carson's deft balancing of hard science and emotion in her rhetoric. Especially effective and unusual in scientific arguments I think are her stories of individuals' illnesses and deaths, both human and animal. Those anecdotes remind me that she was honored by humane organizations as well as environmental ones. Linda Lear's bio says (I think) that she valued her Albert Schweitzer medal above all her awards.

For me, one of Carson's greatest strengths, which sets her apart from many writers from old school conservation, is her respect for individuals as well as species. The inability to reconcile the needs & sufferings of individual animals versus the needs & interests of species and ecosystems has caused rifts between environmental and humane groups; if more of us could take Carson's broader view, perhaps the groups could work together more often toward shared goals.

Lisa said...

I find it interesting that Europeans seem to be more concerned about genetically-modified foods and cloning than Americans seem to be. There has been much more skepticism in Europe over the impact of these new technologies, especially since so little is known about their long-term effects.

As Carson pointed out, there are some scientific discoveries that take a long time to show their consequences to humans, but modern industry rushes to get them to market, often aided by a business-friendly government that relaxes oversight and enforcement.

Why would the Europeans be more sensitive to biotechnology than Americans? Are Americans still too gullible when it comes to trusting technology?

julie dunlap said...

Lisa's comments about U.S. vs. European responses to biotechnology makes me think again of Carson's distress over our individual and collective irrationality. In the 19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote about a similar disconnect in reports recently collected in a fascinating book, The Cotton Kingdom. A journalist before he was a park designer, Olmsted was commissioned by the New York Daily Times to travel on research forays into the American South from 1852-1857. His letters home are vivid, first person documentation of the appauling conditions of enslaved Southerners. His observations led him to conclude that slavery was not only morally wrong but also an economically inefficient to the point of crippling the Southern economy. A gradualist, Olmsted's merely critical reports were widelly read but did little to galvanize abolitionist action. That took Stowe's outraged novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Now I'm wondering if Silent Springdidn't galvanize sufficient, lasting action on the environmental front, what book will?

Tom Dunlap said...

Julie's question is a good one and the anaogy with the abolition movement has possbilities. Let's break this down. I would argue that Silent Spring stirred action on persistent pesticides (Carson's main immediate target) and made the public aware of her larger target, the idea that we could do whatever we wanted to with nature. Perhaps Carson did as much as anyone could in getting things going and that the environmental conversation and debate that followed, right up to global warming, reflects a growing awareness among the public. In one sense this was not like abolition: slavery could be abolished by a law, and we need much more action over a period of time to solve our environmental problems, for they come in many forms and area the result of several centuries of ideas and action. And as for slavery, we abolished slavery in 1865, but we are still struggling with the legacy of race it left behind. Perhaps it is too soon to ask if Carson succeeded or failed in the larger sense.

Sandra Steingraber said...

What's amazing to me is how prescient Carson was about the unintended consequences of low-dose exposures. Analytical chemistry in the 1950s and 60s did not even allow researchers to study effects in the exposure range of parts per billion or parts per trillion. Now we know that many of the chemicals that Carson wrote about in Silent Spring actually exhibit non-monotonic dose-response curves, which means that one can't estimate effects at very low levels based on exposures at higher levels.

Moreover, Carson had no access to a cancer registry, a birth defect registry, or a pesticide registry--all tools that I've been able to make use of in my own writings--and yet, she was able to draw tentative conclusions and make predictions that, for the most part, have held up over the years.

DDT reached its peak usage in 1959, the year I was born. Nearly a half-century later, we are still learning about its human health effects. For example, studies published just in the past few months link low-level exposure to DDT with miscarriage as well as learning problems in children.

The first finding--that DDT can act as a chemical abortionist--is reframing the debate around its ongoing use as a malarial control agent in Africa.

I agree that Carson's advocacy of biological rather than chemical pest control was a radical vision...but I wonder if it really seemed so in 1962. At that point, the chemical pesticide industry was less than two decades old. Most of her readers could remember when all farming was what we now call organic.

Her ideas may seem more radical to those of us who came of age in the years after her death when the chemicalization of agriculture was long-standing and universal. We have no collective memory of anything but chemical pest control.

My own father, a very conservative Republican, was completely convinced by the arguments in Silent Spring and, after reading it, converted to all organic practices--including the use of biological controls--in his own gardens and orchards. He spoke about Rachel Carson as a latter-day Charles Darwin: rational, scientific enlightened. (I write about my father's relationship to Carson in the new Houghton-Mifflin anthology, COURAGE FOR THE EARTH.)

By contrast, Rachel Carson is, for many of us in the environmental health movement today, more like Che Guevara. But I think her revolutionary identity says more about how far our cultural and political practices have moved away from her vision in the years since Silent Spring's publication.

julie dunlap said...

It's especially nice to read Sandra Steingraber's comments after just finishing her beautiful essay on Carson in Courage for the Earth. I agree with her position that Carson was prescient, yet the speculations in Silent Spring, I think, also left her vulnerable to some of her critics. For example, she tells a story about a physician-gardener who uses DDT and malathion, then develops muscular weakness and other problems. It's implied that the chemicals, found in his body, caused the illness, but the correlation doesn't prove causation.

I think that anecdotes like this were used for polemic purposes and tugged at readers' emotions but opened Carson to criticism that still plagues Silent Spring and similar works of science-based advocacy. This kind of thing makes me almost wish she were more like Charles Darwin (who slaved over studies of barnacles, domestic pigeons, and other species for 20 years before publishing an unassailable treatise) than Che Guevera. Of course she didn't have 20 years. And you could argue that taking longer to gather evidence would have subjected the environment to another 2 decades of toxic abuse. Does anyone else see this as a weakness in Silent Spring? Or does the overall message and impact of her book outweigh this flaw?

Gene said...

I just found this blog and I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying reading this discussion. Some very thought-provoking ideas being raised and interesting parallels being considered. In trying to decide how to weigh in on this I’m smiling at the thought of Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, and Che Guevara as a trio of comparison. And I like considering the parallels of that because passion is a common denominator among them.

But…back to Silent Spring and the question of whether appealing to emotion constitutes a weakness. One of Carson’s gifts was the ability to make science understandable to the general public and I believe that was what gave Silent Spring its power. You could say that “weakness” made Carson vulnerable to her critics, but I doubt if anything “more scientific” and less emotional would’ve connected so strongly with the average person. A lot of scientists and officials seem to think that by giving people enough science and the right science it will make them “see the light” and then do the “right” thing. For environmental issues, it takes more than just laying out the facts. It takes showing how and why the facts matter to us. That’s what Silent Spring did.

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