DEALING WITH COMPLEXITY: RACHEL CARSON AND SILENT SPRING
About 50 years ago Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that many critics have identified as launching the environmentalist movement. Unlike Teddy Roosevelt who was praised for founding the conservationist movement, Carson was denounced by many industrialists and chemists who regarded her as “hysterical” or incapable of distinguishing pseudoscience from science. We see similar responses today to scientists who warn of global warming, and even more when a politician, like Al Gore, adopts it as a cause. How does the public know when a product is safe, when an environment is polluted, when resources are depleted, or when the public is put to risk by “business as usual” practices of those who put an economic measure as their filter of what to believe or what to reject?
Carson’s book is worth reading even if it is outdated. She did not seek to ban DDT and other pesticides; she sought to regulate them. She recognized these as biocides because they killed or harmed more than their targeted pests. The farmer that wants to get rid of corn borers may not be aware that the DDT will also get rid of the bees needed for fertilizing other crops. That would be of little concern if the farmer only used purchased hybrid seed to plant each year. But a farmer dependent on bees would feel annoyed that his concern and financial loss was seen by his neighbor as just so much
”collateral damage.” It would also annoy those who enjoy a variety of birds that eat pests and delight the eye and ear to see some of those birds diminish in numbers as their egg shells thinned and they left fewer progeny. Carson felt chemists in the 1950s were not educated about ecology and the web of life that makes all living things connected.
Critics also argued that by banning DDT, malaria was allowed to fester in undeveloped countries. But if DDT were not banned there might well be DDT resistant strains of mosquitoes that would have replaced the ones that were killed. Pests evolve when they are put to the test by chemicals or antibiotics. Carson felt the problem was complex and most users of pesticides and herbicides were unaware of that complexity. She felt chemical companies should hire ecologists who could advise them on how to minimize the collateral damage to beneficial insects and how to minimize the damage to other forms of life in the vicinity. She also felt that it was simplicity to think that a single chemical was the answer to a complex relation of the living mass that we call the soil.
All people exaggerate and all politicians do too. Environmentalists can see cancers from industrial chemicals where there is no evidence for their induction. Environmentalists can see massive destruction of the environment with no recuperation and often after ten or twenty years recovery does occur. Environmentalists may favor natural over commercial foods although many natural or organic foods have abundant carcinogens and mutagens in them. Because we tend to make a lawyer’s case for one side only on complex issues, we do unintended harm. Hitler liked cream puffs. Does this mean, as one who abhors Hitler, that I should never eat a cream puff? We have to learn that complex issues require objectivity, regulation that is not politicized, and getting less than what are fantasies dictate.