Thursday, June 07, 2007

Rachel Carson: At the Commons

The Commons at the University of Kansas held a program about the legacy of Rachel Carson tonight (June 7) at the Spencer Museum of Art on the KU campus. Rachel Carson was a major influence on my development, so I naturally went to this program. The program consisted of a talk on art related to environmental issues followed by a showing of a 1993 documentary, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and a discussion about Carson.

I missed the art discussion , but did catch both the documentary and the final discussion. These were facilitated by Maril Hazlett (pictured), a local environmental historian and researcher at The Land Institute. Hazlett made several important points about Carson. She called Carson a "rare creature" in that she was a completely integrated person, one who combined science with a deeply spiritual reverence for life. Carson told people that they are ecological creatures and that if you put toxins in the environment they will come back to you. She discussed a famous quote from Silent Spring:

"It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used," she wrote. "I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem."

Hazlett noted that Carson was not, contrary to what some of her detractors think, against all use of insecticides and other pesticides, but very concerned about their abuse. Carson talked about "prudent concern" and cautioned against extremes and indeed was a moderate voice with respect to the environment and the use of chemicals, a fact that Hazlett noted, is largely forgotten.

I had seen the documentary before, and if you get the chance it is worth seeing. Younger viewers of the documentary might not believe some of the scenes of DDT and other pesticides being sprayed and kids playing in the spray, but in the 1950's that was common. I can remember eagerly awaiting the mosquito truck so I could play in the wonderful blue fog. We were never told it was potentially dangerous.

The documentary was not completely anti DDT and noted the pivotal role DDT played in World Was II in controlling typhus which is spread by lice. The documentary also re-enforced Carson's concern about the abuse of pesticides in the hands of untrained individuals.

After the discussion Hazlett took questions and comments from the audience. One questioner asked for Hazlett to comment on an essay in a recent NY Times essay by John Tierney who argues that Carson's legacy is one of chemophobia and that:

"The human costs have been horrific in the poor countries where malaria returned after DDT spraying was abandoned. Malariologists have made a little headway recently in restoring this weapon against the disease, but they’ve had to fight against Ms. Carson’s disciples who still divide the world into good and bad chemicals, with DDT in their fearsome “dirty dozen.” "

This echoes some of the claims made about Carson in websites such as Junk Science that I have blogged about elsewhere, and Hazlett correctly points out that DDT is still used in other parts of the world and that Tierney's tying of the failure to control Malaria to Carson is not accurate. As an aside, I believe Tierney also plays fast and loose with chemistry, not understanding that Malaria and other chlorinated hydrocarbons really are different from other more naturally occurring chemicals that we encounter. DDT and many of the newer pesticides is not part of the chemical background in which we evolved.

I asked Hazlett, why there seems to be a spike in criticism of Carson today. Hazlett attributes part of the spike to the fact that this year is the centenary of Carson's birth. But she notes that the ultimate reason maybe that we as a society still have not developed a consensus as to the best way to evaluate and deal with new technology.

The upshot seems to be that Carson really was a moderate and should not be blamed for people's misunderstanding of her position.

Other Links suggested by Hazlett:

Environmental Working Group

The Rachel Carson Homestead

Also see the Rachel Carson Centennial Blog

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