At the end of the chapter “Needless Havoc” in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asks “By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?” She was speaking, of course, about the use of pesticides in a way that does not balance the benefits with the costs. So, yes, Japanese beetles may be an invasive nuisance, but does that mean we use a broad-scale insecticide to take the beetles out, if it also results in loss of life to birds, mammals, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates? Probably to most of us, that seems disproportionate, especially given that Japanese beetles do not cause mass destruction in their wake; but, dieldrin, as well as other toxic chemicals no longer on the market, was used for that purpose and apparently did wreak needless havoc on the network of nature that shares similar biological processes that made them all susceptible to the contaminants. Killing other life forms, should always give us pause, and we should always carefully consider the negatives with the positives, and whether it’s a necessity or an indulgence.
Reading Silent Spring makes me breathe a sigh of relief over how far we’ve come in 50 years. During my 40 years, I remember trucks driving through my childhood neighborhood spraying pesticides for mosquito control, something that still continues in coastal SC today with concerns over West Nile Virus. No one ever asked us if it was okay or let us know when the truck was coming through, and I don’t remember that it stopped us from playing in the yard. But, at least it didn’t cause birds to fall from the trees and convulse violently, as the early pesticide use described in Silent Spring did. So, even if we are still waging a war against life today, we are waging a more humane and perhaps more balanced war.
However, even with that sigh of relief, you also have a few groans as you find issues mentioned by Carson that are still not resolved, like the role of industry money in influencing science. Science is a pursuit that is meant to be amoral and objective. Can industry even do science if they have a goal that is based on finding a desired outcome? Perhaps they can, but to use their science in determining regulatory standards seems asinine, although that is exactly what we do in this country. In studying pesticides, I have been surprised to find both positive and negative impacts of pesticides on aquatic communities. I do not have a desired outcome; rather, my goal is only to understand what the outcome means for populations in nature that may be exposed. However, there’s a lot more money coming from industry than any of the federal granting agencies to examine effects of pesticides—but with industry collaboration, researchers give up their objectivity and (in many cases) control of their data, resulting in science that loses its objectivity.
But still, I was feeling pretty good about the state of things today by the end of Chapter 7 of Silent Spring. And then I started reading some articles on hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, which made me wonder if we ever learn from history. Or do we learn from it, but we just don’t care if there’s a buck to made? The Safe Drinking Water Act apparently excludes fracking from regulation by EPA (Kargbo et al. 2010), allowing liquids used in fracking to continue to be trade secrets. There are some studies indicating water contamination, fish kills downstream, and waste water treatments that aren’t able to effectively clean the water; but, there’s limited research and work addressing the potential problems. Why don’t we work on understanding the consequences of the risks BEFORE we start drilling? Instead, the public is being assured by the industry and to some extent the government and government agencies that fracking is safe. Well, thanks, folks, but we’ve heard that one before; and, if we’ve forgotten where that path can lead, a read of Rachel Carson’s magnum opus will make that mountain-stream clear. Maybe fracking is safe—in which case, contents in the “trade secret” formulations should be revealed so that research can more easily follow, and funding to support ecological studies can ensure more easily. Maybe it’s not—in which case we can expect the industry to hold out revealing anything and suppressing or harassing anyone who has evidence to suggest different. (This American Experience’s show “GameChanger” addresses issues associated with fracking in their usual engaging way.)
It’s no wonder the public has lost its confidence in science. We’ve allowed science conducted by objective scientists to be placed on a level playing field with scientists from industry who have specific outcome goals and financial ties to the products. This is no different than 50 years ago, but it desperately needs to change for sake of science, for the sake of the public, and for the sake of the environment. Shouldn’t we learn from history? Of course we should. But, apparently, truth doesn’t line the pockets of industry.