Silent Spring Revisited

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I generally try to avoid sensational blogging as there is already enough around. I have become skeptical that showing the horrific consequences of humans’ mistreatment of nature and other humans can change the course of history. There have been a few exceptions so I have only got as far as skepticism, not downright dismissal. The memories of these scenes quickly fades under the competition of the banal stream of media signals that capture public attention. Most people cannot make the connection between the catastrophe in the Gulf and the gas they pump at the local BP station. Just think for a moment about the irony the photo conveys. The fuzzy sign in the photo of a BP station says “You are responsible for spills.”

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I am moved today to join the sensationalists by posting this photo of an oil-soaked brown pelican. It is another irony that the brown pelicans are the species most selected often in photos depicting the effects of the spill on bird life.

This second irony is that this species was dropped from the endangered species list only a few months ago. Scientific American noted this a few days ago.

It is quite a blow for a species that was on the endangered species list until just six months ago. It had taken brown pelicans nearly 50 years to recover from the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides that nearly wiped them out.

This pelican, along with the bald eagle, osprey, and other raptors near the top of the food chain, was among those strongly affected by DDT and other highly chlorinated chemicals, and was nearly driven to extinction. It took the work of Rachel Carson to bring the disappearing species to the public attention and to suggest a reason for their losses. Her work and that of others who joined her was vociferously countered by the chemical industry who argued that the benefits of using these dangerous substances outweighed the costs. She was personally attacked in the media by the opponents of any kind of regulation or government intervention.

I suspect many of my readers may not remember the uproar accompanying the publication of Silent Spring. I do. In 1967, I had just founded a small company to do research on air pollution. I named the company, Walden Research, inspired by Thoreau’s concerns about environment especially since our office was only about 20 miles from Walden Pond. In many ways Silent Spring was the critical driver leading to modern environmentalism. The Environmental Defense Fund was founded, also, in 1967 to defend the claims spring from Carson’s book in the litigation that followed. The novelty of early environmental initiative is noted in the EDF’s website.

Four decades ago, Environmental Defense helped launch the modern environmental era by winning a ban on DDT, the pesticide Rachel Carson warns about in Silent Spring. DDT causes eggshells to thin and break, threatening the survival of magnificent birds like the osprey, bald eagle and peregrine falcon. It is also a persistent poison that works its way up the food chain, thus endangering humans as well. The fledgling effort by a handful of scientists on Long Island to halt the use of DDT was a remarkable demonstration of how individuals can bring about lasting change. The group incorporated as the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967.

Our founders tried a novel approach, common today but unheard of in the late 1960s: The scientists teamed up with a lawyer and went to court on behalf of the environment. Their efforts led to a nationwide ban on DDT and the birth of modern environmental law. The osprey has since made a dramatic recovery, and the bald eagle and peregrine falcon have been removed from the endangered species list.

The causal chain Carson wrote about was invisible, unlike the stark evidence of the effects of oil from the blowout in the pictures we are able to view through the ubiquitous of internet media. Have our senses become dulled by the Internet as Nick Carr writes? The only sign of concern I have seen so far from our Congress is a bill proposed by about 30 Representatives to quadruple the clean-up fund fee assessed on oil produced in US territory from 8 to 32 cents a barrel. Too little; too late. Rachel Carson, where are you when we still need you?

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