Monday, September 24, 2012

Silent Spring as a Spring Board for Scientific Discussions Today

Carson & wildlife artist Bob Hines looking for specimens in 1952. 

                In “The Human Price” and “Through a Narrow Window” of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson details the potential costs of pesticides to human life—effects that can be lethal, but are more often sublethal through changes in fertility, biological processes, or genetics—the very foundation of our own person biology.  I was struck by how Carson takes complex processes, like the role of mitochondria in powering the cell or the function of the liver, and laid them out clearly and beautifully.  Sometimes in communicating science to the public, we are advised to cut to the basics and keep it simple.  It’s not bad advice in many cases, but it is possible that some of the disconnection between complex processes (like global climate change) and public perception of the issues becomes clouded by oversimplification.  People can understand complex processes if it is explained clearly--and a little flair never hurts. 
                In these chapters, Carson turns from a weight of evidence approach laden with melodramatic and emotional language, to a thoughtful, scientific approach that does not lose its readability.  I can understand her use of histrionic language, given the widespread use of pesticides without a clear or contemplative plan resulting in exposure to wildlife and humans with the potential for large, long-term costs.  But the clear explanations in these chapters, the explanation that scientists are still continuing to understand how cellular structures like the mitochondria work and about the biochemical effects of pesticides exposure on biochemical approaches, it becomes a powerful, objective argument for using pesticides sparingly when necessary because of the potential for a ramification of effects in food webs and in individual bodies.
                When I started rereading this book with a seminar of graduate students, I expected to feel more cynical toward the text and Rachel Carson, but instead I find that I am just crazy about her and in awe of the strength of her argument in conveying scientific information to a general public.  Could the world have been blessed with a better advocate at the time?  She had a strong scientific background, she had spent years righting up reports and brochures for the public with the US Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish & Wildlife Service), she had written three other books which established her as a naturalist and a writer, and she was not working for any agency at the time which freed her to use her scientific knowledge to evaluate the information available and advocate for change and a better path.  And as I read these chapters in particular, I cannot help but think of the woman struggling with cancer and the treatments that were failing her; it is no wonder these pages are filled with urgency and passion, as well as a steady gaze on what science and observation have revealed.  
                “It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster” (in “The Human Price”).  As we as scientists and non-scientists struggle with issues like global climate change that can have long lag times like the impacts of some pesticides, Carson’s book serves as a reminder that an effective, logical, and yes emotional argument can turn the tide of public perception that results in needed federal changes to protect human life and natural life, on which our own lives are intricately tied.  Looking back 50 years ago to her text may serve as a useful guide for forging the way ahead with effectively conveying science to the public in a way that serves the public and puts the best scientific knowledge to use.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Feed the Birds

     “And No Birds Sing” in Silent Spring details the widespread spraying by the US government for Dutch elm disease to target the beetles that spread this pathogen.  Spraying that was so persistent and extreme that in attempts to eliminate this one species of beetle to save one species of tree, a multiple of birds, insects, and mammals were sacrificed.  And then there was the intensive chemical campaign to eradicate the fire ant, an invasive species whose impact appears to be relatively minimal.  It is a heartbreaking chapter in the book and in our history, and a reminder of how unthinking we humans can be in pursuit of a goal, even if that goal is just a bee in a bonnet.  Carson concludes that “not even the return of the birds may be taken for granted.”  In the face of horrible things, whether past or present, perhaps some small token of kindness if repeated often enough repays a debt.  I left the couch and any depression that could have seized me, and made for the bird feeders with buckets of seed.   I have neglected them and in summer, I don’t mind, since they have a variety of foods and seeds to choose from.  But, I couldn’t leave them without a few seeds after reading three chapters in Silent Spring. I enjoyed watching them eat their breakfast while I ate mine this morning, and I gave thanks that we were all here to enjoy this lovely end of summer day. 
     I do wonder, what would happen if we completely laid off the pesticides for a year…a sort of new year’s resolution for 2013.   I know it will never happen.  I’m just not sure that the long-term gains are worth it, and it would be interesting to see what the differences amount to.  We subsidize farmers not to farm so that the price of a crop will not drop.  We pay for pesticide clean-up.  We no doubt pay for healthcare costs associated with increased risks associated with some contaminants, like reduced fertility, immune disorders, cancer.  At the EPA atrazine Scientific Advisory Panel on which I served this last summer, the agricultural sector was there in support of the herbicide.  They highlighted that it had been used safely for fifty years and that the application rate had been reduced significantly over that period.  One panelist asked if they saw a reduction in production with the reduction in use, and they said they had not.  The high estimates of yield increase for atrazine are around 9% increase, but 4-6% increases are more common estimates.   Is that worth the risk of widespread application for a contaminant that sticks around for months?  There are many studies showing impacts at expected environmental levels on reproductive systems, suggesting some species are sensitive to this herbicide.  Maybe the risk is worth it, but it also seems possible that people want to keep using it because they always have, rather than the fact that it’s a making a large difference.  There are other tools though, like heterogeneous planting, allowing natural predators to eliminate pests, and pesticide use as a last resort.  I’d be much more comfortable in a world where we were more cautious about pesticide use than we are today, even if I was 4-9% hungrier.  (But I'm not saying people should starve...pesticides before starvation!)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Needless Havoc—Wouldn’t it Pay to Learn from History?

                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.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Scientists for the Party…That Supports Science and the Environment

Like many of us, I have been mildly obsessed with the presidential campaign.  Along these lines, I have been pondering about whether people whose major issue is the environment and science that supports understanding our world really have much of a choice in this election.  If “science and environmental issues” are your voting priority, are there really two choices?  Supporting good environmental stewardship is apparently enough of a joke to one party and its following that their nominee, Mitt Romney, will say at the Republican National Convention “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans to heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family.”  This plays to the “climate science is a hoax” crowd, and seems to miss the point that all of our well-being is intimately tied to the planet from extreme weather events to our health and food.  

Imagine a country where the political parties had scientific debates about the best ways to solve the problem of climate change, supporting renewable sources of energy, or environmental issues associated with fracking and drilling for oil using the best available science rather than whether or not climate science is valid or a hoax or why we shouldn’t invest in renewable energies (not to even mention whether evolution is valid!).  How we deal with issues—what the policies should be—is definitely complicated and requires balancing many variables, and politicians would have a lot to debate there.  Coming to conclusions about *what is going on* from the best available science is typically a lot more straightforward.  If you lay out and evaluate all the data, then you should be able to come to a general consensus based on the data, as climate scientists have done.  If new data contradicts the consensus, the framework has to be reevaluated—this is the way science works from evolution to astronomy.  In good science, there is no cherry picking of the data. 

The group Science Debate has been advocating for our elected officials to have a, you guessed it, science debate.  So far that has not been a priority for either party, although the presidential nominees have agreed to answer these questions in writing although only two congressional candidates have.  Why?  Do they not know enough about science to have this debate?  Do they not believe the public knows enough about science to evaluate such a debate?  Do they not think science and what it is telling us about the world is as important as the economy or foreign affairs? Do they realize a debate would make political cherry picking of the data more obvious?

Using the best available science or being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to be the MO of one party, and in the past it hasn’t been.  Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton have all made positive environmental and scientific impacts during their administration.  Democrat or Republican shouldn’t matter when it comes to supporting science and using the data responsibly.  But right now it seems to, and there is a high price to pay when a party that doesn’t support science or use its results responsibly wins elections.