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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Note To Rachel Carson On The 50th Anniversary Of “Silent Spring”

What looks like it might be an original copy from 1962
Dear Ms. Carson,

On this, the 50th anniversary of the publication of your book, “Silent Spring” I’d like to tell you about the remarkable legacy of your book.  Many things have transpired over the last five decades that would give you considerable satisfaction. Unfortunately, I must also explain to you why many people today don’t understand how profound those changes have been.

Your Positive Legacy

The biggest change since 1962 has been in our societal appreciation of the need to carefully evaluate the environmental and health attributes of chemicals that we use for the control of agricultural pests or the vectors of human disease.  Whole new fields of science have developed to understand such risks (environmental toxicology, environmental science to name two).  Whole new regulatory bodies (Environmental Protection Agency, EPA) and processes (chemical registration) have been instituted to translate those risk assessments into sound policy.  DDT, which was central to your 1962 warning, is long-gone, as are scores of other, old pesticides that cannot meet high, modern, safety standards.  Billions of dollars have been invested in the discovery, testing, and introduction of new, low-risk pest control methods and practices. The net effect of all of this is that not only are our springs well-accompanied with bird songs, we also enjoy a safe, affordable and diverse food supply beyond anything one could have imagined in 1962.  I’m sure that when you took the risk of publishing your book, you hoped that it would initiate this sort of positive change, and that is certainly what has happened.


Your Legacy Obscured

Unfortunately, there are some today who seem to have a vested interest in convincing us that your legacy has not been this positive. Whether it is to sell certain products or to garner attention or contributions, these voices continue to promote a “sky is falling” narrative. When you wrote 'Silent Spring,' you employed highly emotive language, vivid mental images, and a good degree of hyperbole.  Such over-the-top prose was justifiable because you had to overcome the deep-seated complacency of your age. Today, many groups continue to employ that same literary style when talking about food and agriculture issues.  By doing so, and by engendering unnecessary fear among consumers, they effectively deny people the confident enjoyment of life and food that would otherwise have been another part of your legacy. I am confident that you hoped to initiate change, not to inaugurate a perennial state of alarm.

A Prime Example of Your Positive Legacy

Each year the USDA conducts an extensive sampling and testing program for the American food supply.  It essentially serves as a “report card” for agricultural pesticide safety, both in the US and in countries from which we import foods.  What the report clearly shows is that consumers have no need to be concerned about pesticide residues on their food.  The extremely low levels detected are virtually all well below even the conservative tolerances set by the EPA and mostly millions of times below toxic doses.  These results speak volumes about the positive impact of your book. 

A Prime Example of Your Positive Legacy Denied

There is an organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which takes that same set of data and quite effectively uses it to frighten consumers.  They do so by ignoring almost all the actual information in the USDA report.  They ignore that differences between chemicals as if we had learned nothing about what to look for in 50 years.  They ignore the actual levels detected as if we have forgotten the ancient Greek understanding that "the dose makes the poison."  Finally, they ignore the carefully set EPA tolerances as if over all these years, we have learned nothing about how to evaluate risk.  Unfortunately, their message is widely disseminated by a credulous press and believed by a great many consumers.

Real Environmentalism

Your book is widely credited as a major contribution to the development of the modern Environmental Movement.  That is, indeed, a very positive result of your influence. A strong segment of that environmental movement continues to make significant contributions to society.  That part of the movement acknowledges that there has been positive change that you helped to initiate and to which many entities have contributed over the years.  The segment of the Environmental Movement that effectively denies positive change does no service to your legacy.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com


'Silent Spring' book image from Sterling College

33 comments:

  1. Yes, Rachel Carson, thank you for your efforts to halt the use of DDT and the resultant millions of deaths around the world from malaria.

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    1. Many countries followed the US lead in banning DDT before they had worked out alternatives and that was a tragedy. Still, it is the massive investment in new chemical discovery for Ag uses that has provided the new tools for Malaria control.

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    2. So what? Tens of millions of human beings, mostly children, died. You are ok with that because of the good things that supposedly came out of it? You realize that there were things learned by the Nazi torturers that are used in medicine today? They remain monsters regardless.

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    3. Marshall,
      No, I'm not OK with it any more than I am with what was "learned" by Nazi torturers. What I do know is that a host of players have made things in the ag chemical space vastly better. Carson deserves a small bit of credit for that. The companies that have invested billions of dollars deserve most of the credit. The EPA that has mostly resisted political pressures and stayed science-based deserves some of the credit. The more rational environmental organizations deserve some of the credit.

      The real point is that even if you are someone who just wants to credit someone like Rachel Carson, you should at least acknowledge that something good has come out of her influence. To pretend it hasn't is just wrong

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  2. 50-100 million dead because of malaria over the last 50 years that could have been prevented by DDT. That is the legacy.Enviromental hysteria has killed more people than the world experienced in WW@.

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    1. Hah! What a laugher! Sorry, but there is no factual basis to that claim. There were, and continue to be, alternatives to DDT. The chemical industry didn't want to do the hard work to assess the risks, but instead just wanted to keep making the easy money. That kind of behavior is perfectly understandable (if devoid of ethical or moral grounding) for a company, but it means there must then be strong governmental oversight to make sure the drive for short-term profit doesn't affect the rest of us long-term. A company makes money by externalizing as many costs as possible. The government has to counteract that tendency. My guess is that you work for the chemical industry, am I right?

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    2. Actually, there is clear documentation that there was an increase in Malaria deaths in several countries between the DDT ban and figuring out what to use instead. The point of my post is that there has been a huge change in the thinking at chemical companies in terms of risk assessment etc. In modern times companies typically spend on the order of $250 million per product to do all the testing to demonstrate safety. Ag Chem is a very well regulated industry and it is about giving farmers safe, effective tools. I think that if you met the people who work in this industry you would understand that your cynicism is unjustified.

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  3. Your assumption that Carson wouldn't be a full-throated screamer of the Environmental Working Group is a bit of a stretch.

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    1. The EWG actually now says that no one should worry about eating conventional produce, yet they continue to publish their list. I don't think that Carson was that hypocritical

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  4. Everything the stupid lezzo said in the book was wrong. The idiot didn't even understand that it was tobacco which hurt people. She thought it was da chemicals.

    The woman was a moron and you ought to feel embarrassed suggesting she is some sort of saint. She also had the effect of leading other morons down the misanthropic path of da 'virnomental movement creating millions of zombies in America.

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    1. Anonymous,
      My policy is to publish all comments, but I believe that you damage the credibility of your argument by getting nasty. There were many things that Carson didn't understand, but she was not alone. That is the point of the post, that what the book helped to trigger was a huge advance in what we do know and we now have a regulatory process that is science-based. Even if Carson got a lot of things wrong, it got people thinking and innovating. Not such a bad outcome

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  5. The fact is her research had non reproducable results. That is bad research. Should we test and find out what the chemicals we use do to us? Absolutely, good on her for raising that flag and we are doing so. But she got there on poor research and bad science. Good result from bad science I guess. That is also her legacy. If your intention is good, no rules apply. For that she should booed.

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    1. I don't think she actually did any of the research - just referred to what she heard from others. I don't think there is any dispute that DDT bioaccumulates because its high fat solubility. It is also very persistent. Those characteristics would disqualify any new pesticide registration today

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  6. "- just refered to what she heard from others", that is NOT research espically if any actual research were not referenced. Anecdotes should not be used in place of science.

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    1. OK, I have not been in the lab doing research for about 16 years. That does not mean that I can't, as a trained scientist, read the scientific literature and then responsibly blog about it. What I do is called "scholarship." Carson interacted with researchers of her day that were trying to figure out things like why raptor eggs were getting brittle/soft. Science writing by folks that don't do the science is actually a very good thing if they translate it from the science lingo into something that people can understand. Carson may or may not have done that right, but the general role of science interpretation for the general public is something that we need more of, not less.

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  7. Consevatives love eagles.
    Consevatives hate Rachel Carson and all she stood for.
    Without her effort eagles may have gone extinct by now.
    How's that for irony.

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    1. Everybody loves eagles except the animals they eat. Still, I'm always a fan of spotting irony

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  8. Fred who likes to watchJuly 26, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    Was she really a carpet muncher?

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  9. YEP. Any good idea, such as an awareness of the environment, will also lead to distorted uses, such as unscientific fear-mongering.

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    1. number commenter,
      I know hundreds of people in the ag chem industry who have a very "sincere awareness of the environment." In their case it has lead to a led to the discovery of far better options for pest control. Distortion is always possible. I like to focus on the positive

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  10. I have difficulty understanding why Rachel Carson's work is still controversial. Does anyone still deny that certain chemicals in our food or environment can be detrimental? She was a modest, thorough person who made her points using the best research at the time, but much of the research was suppressed by industry influence.

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    1. The basic idea that chemicals (including natural products) need to be carefully evaluated before being used should not be controversial at all. I know that by the time I first started working with the ag chem industry in 1977 there was no effort to suppress any information, and the regulatory process was already working. As I mentioned, Carson's writing wasn't something you could call calm. It was alarmist and probably needed to be. Unfortunately, there are many who maintain that tone today.

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  11. Rachel Carson is a stone cold killer. While alive she knew that DDT when used appropriate was not dangerous to the environment and saved millions of poor children's lives each year. Yet she remained silent. Her reputation was more important than her humanity.

    In terms of actual deaths caused, she's among the worst people in the world.

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    1. I don't think all the blame can be applied to any one person. The head of the US agency that imposed an abrupt ban is somewhat culpable because that convinced many other countries to respond in-kind. Those other regulators also share in the responsibility. There were lots of mistakes made in the past - Dioxins in Agent Orange, Thalidamide, not recognizing the dangers of aflatoxin and other natural mycotoxins, lead in paints, mercury-based seed treatments, the accident at Bhopal,... We can't undo any of those things, but we can, and have learned from them. Most of us were either just kids or not yet born in 1962 - our responsibility is for today

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  12. Rachel Carson is a stone cold killer. While alive she knew that DDT when used appropriate was not dangerous to the environment and saved millions of poor children's lives each year. Yet she remained silent. Her reputation was more important than her humanity.

    In terms of actual deaths caused, she's among the worst people in the world.

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  13. And judging from the sloppiness of your arguments it looks like you are better at applying mythology than debunking it.

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  14. Hi Steve,
    I don't know a whole lot about the woman, but from reading the comments here about the strength (or lack of strength) of the data at the time and the fact that she was 'alarmist' anyway, it looks as though this was a case of 'science by press release'...the kind of thing we see from Jeffery Smith and Vandana Shiva, etc. Or with the Losey paper and the subsequent hysteria over the butterflies. Do we make policy based on the alarmism or on solid data? That answer should be obvious, but after 25 years in the biotech business, I'm beginning to despair!!

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    1. Loren,
      In a way Carson started us on the alarmism track, but she had a lot better reason than Smith and Shiva. Pesticide regulation is a reasonably science-based process, but biotech has been a different matter. We have a science-based system in the US, but in Europe politics trumps science. Even for the US and Canada, Green Peace has been able to block the technology for any crop where there is a powerful enough brand to blackmail ( e.g. McDonalds for Potatoes). They have also managed to set back progress on wheat by decades by getting companies in our major export destinations to be afraid for their brands. This isn't just about biotech, it is about the fact that such an important crop didn't get the kind of private investment that went to another, previous saved-seed crop like soy. Considering what is happening with global food prices, Green Peace may find that their legacy is a lot of hunger and political instability

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  15. DDT was outlawed in the U.S., where there is very little malaria, and with the proviso that if a public health issue arose, then DDT could be used under those exceptional circumstances. DDT was never made illegal in the countries where malaria is endemic. Rather, resistance to DDT made its unrestricted use inefficacious and threatened to render it useless. Moreover, Carson was clear about this risk as well, and never suggested a total ban, only taking into account the negative consequences of environmental damage and increased resistance when considering the way in which DDT might be used. Is there a more rational approach? I don't think so.

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  16. Rachel Carson was correct years ago, I suppose, when noting,
    “We stand now where two roads diverge…… The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road-the one “less traveled by”-offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” I fear we will not choose to take ‘the other fork of the road’ until it is too late to make a difference that makes a difference for the future.

    Steven Earl Salmony

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    1. Steven,
      Actually I think that is the point of this post. We did choose a different fork in the road when we established a science-based regulatory approach - particularly with regard to pesticides. Carson would have appreciated this as a scientist - particularly the tremendous progress that has been made in understanding ecosystems and how to evaluate risk in that context.

      There was a great example of why this matters today. England had an unusually wet summer and a serious disease called Fusarium Head Blight effected 97% of the crop. That is a problem for grain quality (the fungus makes a nasty toxin) but also for viability of the grain for seed for the next crop. The conventional farmers have ways to treat their seed so that the new crop does not start off infected, but the organic growers have no such options. If they plant their seed, the crop will likely fail. If the road we had chosen was something like Organic, we would run into lots of situations like this. The products that the conventional growers will use have been through a rigorous regulatory process and represent no significant risk to us or the environment.

      Carson advocated a change from the path of largely unregulated and poorly thought through product development and use. We haven't been on that path for decades now.

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