In just about a month, Silent Spring will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Fifty years ago in 1962, gas was $0.28 per gallon, Marilyn Monroe died, the Beatles were singing “Love Me Do” and people did, the first black student James Meredith was registering at University of Mississippi, and John F. Kennedy was the US president. That was a while ago, and before my time. But, as I have started rereading Silent Spring (the first time for me since graduate school in the mid-90s), it is striking how relevant the text is…still during the 2010s when we have our first black US president as well as Lady Gaga, whoever she is.
Silent Spring is relevant, but life today is also so much better than it was at the time of Carson’s writing—makes me so thankful that she put fingers to typewriter. Thank you, Rachel! Today we do have environmental problems, but our neighborhoods and farmlands aren’t being sprayed (without our permission or knowledge to boot) with DDT or dieldrin. We have not seen birds or livestock suffering neurological toxicity and perishing before our very eyes. Our contaminant issues today are much more subtle. Pesticide application and contamination are at least a little more thoughtfully approached, not to mention regulated.
In the first four chapters, Carson makes the point that “The chemical war is never won,” (Ch 2) because pesticide application will select for resistant strains leading to a cycle of greater outbreaks and then greater chemicals. In other words, we set the stage to see evolution in action. We could learn from nature by diversifying our agricultural activities so that we can employ nature’s safe guards: natural predators and heterogeneous environments (rather than homogenous landscapes) that prevent pests from increasing to levels that lead to devastation on crops. She also made the point that the increased yields with the use of pesticides leave us not only with contamination, but also overproduction: too much food, which leads to the government paying farmers not to farm some areas and lower profits from abundance. It does seem at some point, a good cost-benefit seems necessary. For instance, the herbicide atrazine’s use apparently increases yields 4-9%. Given that atrazine has been found to affect reproductive systems and behaviors in numerous species, it does make you wonder if that amount of increase in yield is really worth the tradeoffs. Well, it makes me wonder anyway.
But, Carson isn’t against using pesticides period, end of story; rather, she indicates that “control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects” (Ch 2). How thoroughly sensible: reality, yes. So, I wonder what Carson would make of the continued use of DDT in efforts to fight malaria. The Stockholm Convention seeks to eliminate a number of chemicals from use, including DDT, but it currently has exemption for use in malaria control. There are pros & cons to this, which are nicely outlined in a review by van den Berg (2009). He recommends using an integrated approach of nonchemical and chemical methods as necessary to combat the problem. DDT in this case is applied within the house to kill mosquitoes that carry malaria. It is a tough call—malaria can be lethal, but there are environmental and long-term health risks to DDT. But, people need something to take care of the most immediate threat, in a way that balances the long-term risks. Other pesticides that are “safer” offer some options, but there are issues with resistance as well as greater cost in some cases. Others from the non-profit Africa Fighting Malaria suggest that DDT is THE answer (Tren & Roberts 2009). I think Rachel Carson would favor assault on multiple fronts, including pesticides when outbreaks were severe, but also efforts to reduce mosquito habitat as possible and access into houses. DDT though, from what we know of it, seems like a last resort and definitely not the only solution. Would Rachel Carson have ever guessed we’d still be discussing DDT 50 years later? Ah…progress!