Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Legacy Of Rachel Carson- A Pathway to a Sustainable Future by Moderator Patricia DeMarco

Patricia Demarco
 Discussion Topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Read about Patricia DeMarco - Director, Rachel Carson Institute in the School of Sustainability and the Environment at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA

September 27, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s powerful book Silent Spring.  Her position on the impact of synthetic pesticides and herbicides grew from her deep understanding of the systems of the living earth from her fifteen years of study of the oceans and estuaries for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Though the environment movement launched with Silent Spring accomplished tremendous strides in the early 1970’s in regulating the most blatant of pollution activities, the approach adopted addresses treatment of symptoms rather that curing the underlying causes.  Fifty years after Rachel Carson’s plea for caution in imposing
a barrage of “biocides” upon the earth, we see the impact of massive fossil fuel combustion reversing the global atmospheric conditions. We see evidence of synthetic chemical contamination even in the bodies of newborn infants, all around the world.  The industrial monoculture approach to agriculture has propagated a chemical dependence around the world with pesticides and herbicides and massive infusions of fertilizer replacing indigenous crop cycles in all quadrants of the globe. Fifty years after Silent Spring, the problems of our polluted environment may be less visible, but they are more urgent.

In January 1963, in a speech to the Garden Club of America, Rachel Carson gave “A New Chapter to Silent Spring in which she said: “The battle for a sane policy for controlling unwanted species will be a long and difficult one.  The publication of Silent Spring was neither the beginning nor the end of that struggle, and I would like to assess with you some of the progress that has been made and take a look at the nature of the struggle that lies before us.  We should be very clear about what our cause is.  What do we oppose? What do we stand for?”  In the 50 years since Silent Spring, environmentalists have come to be defined by what they oppose, from NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) to BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth.)  The extremes of the movement gave rise to the widely held supposition that environmental protection costs jobs, opposes progress, and is a marginal position of the far left.  What the environmental movement opposes has been clear and loud, and difficult to sustain in the face of industrial development entrenched in the structure of the economy that panders to instant gratification and increasing convenience for the consumer.  Progress as we measure it today depends on ever-increasing consumer spending on goods and services for which protecting the environment receives a passing mandatory intrusion into profits. 

We live on a planet in crisis facing the loss of our life support system – fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species.  As we look to the next fifty years, we must be more effective in the defense of what we stand for.  It is nothing less than the survival of our beautiful blue planet.  Rachel Carson’s writing and her life’s work give excellent guidance for a way forward.  Her environmental ethic provides guideposts for the challenges we face in the 21st century.  Her message distilled from all of her writing can be summarized in four basic principles:  First: live in harmony with nature.  We assume that nature is at our command, for our convenience.  Rachel Carson’s revolutionary premise that we are part of the natural world and subject to its laws needs to become the mainstream basis of our economic pursuits.  All living things require fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species as our life support system.  These are services of the living earth upon which our health, our economy, our very lives depend.

Second: Preserve and learn from natural places.  This is a critical need, as evident today in the changes worldwide to the fragile ecosystem of the oceans, the tropical and temperate forests, and grasslands. We can learn much from the functioning of natural ecosystems, and model human behavior from these abundant examples. The complex interconnections among parts of a food chain, a watershed, a community of animals follow natural laws for energy flow, resources and nutrients.  We understand too little of the intricacies of such systems.  We destroy them on a massive scale with impunity in the name of progress.

Third:  Minimize the effects of synthetic chemicals on the natural systems of the world.  A recent study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found over 79 known carcinogens and mutagens in the bodies of average Americans in statistically valid samples.  We all serve as living laboratories for the effluent of the chemical age.  Of about 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use, fewer than 200 have been tested for health effects.  This problem Rachel Carson first expressed as a fear and a concern in Silent Spring has come full circle.  She urged caution in producing and releasing synthetic materials into the biosphere without fully understanding the consequences to humans and other living systems. It stands as a valid position today.

Fourth: Consider the implications of all human actions on the global web of life.  We do not live in isolation from the natural world.  The fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species are our life support system.  As human activities around the world compromise these elements, we all suffer a degraded state of being.  Precaution in preventing pollution must guide our decisions on all fronts.

Pathway to a Sustainable Future:
The twenty-first century marks the transition point from a fossil-fueled economy to a renewable and sustainable economy.  This is the central challenge for our time because it is the surest way to abate the effects of fossil fuel combustion on climate changing gas emissions, and it will preserve the land from increasingly invasive and destructive methods of extraction.  The fossil age is due for replacement.  Our energy system wastes quantitatively more energy than we use for work.  Electricity generation uses only 35% of the fuel value to create salable electricity, the rest is rejected heat.  The transportation system converts 12% of the gasoline to forward motion; the rest is lost as friction and heat.  These two systems use technologies invented in the Victorian Age: The Rankin cycle for electricity invented in 1855, and the internal combustion engine in 1856.

We need to make renewable and sustainable energy sources part of the mainstream solution.  If we examine other transition times, such as the shift from horse and buggy to cars, we see public policies adopted to accelerate the change. We paved the roads; licensed drivers, wrote traffic laws, installed a system for fuel delivery, and replaced hostelries and blacksmiths with mechanics and garages.  We taxed the railroads and subsidized the car factories.  We need to address the institutional barriers that prevent widespread application of technologies based on fuels that fall on the Earth for free every day.  For example, taxpayers still provide tax incentives, legal and regulatory support for the oil, gas and coal industries to the tune of approximately four billion dollars per year!  Support for renewable systems is inconsistent, variable from state to state and uncertain over time.  Advancing sustainable technologies faces massive opposition from the fossil fuel interests.  Rachel Carson’s apprehension about the impact of the income tax act of 1962 allowing lobbying expenses as tax-deductible business expenses has proven prophetic.  The public hears only that the renewable resources are for “the future” and “too expensive.”  But technologies for zero net energy/zero net water buildings are available and useful now.  The technical issues of a distributed electricity system are within the grasp of current technology, but are impeded rather than expedited by the current utility structure.

The sustainable economic future is tangible, attractive and accessible.  We need to incorporate into the economy the value of our life support system services – the fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and biodiversity of species that supports all life on earth.  The elements of a new economy meet the criteria of the 1985 Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability: to meet the needs of all people on Earth today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  The new sustainable economy runs on four economic engines:
1. Renewable energy systems that do not operate by combustion to control the carbon dioxide emissions and air and water contamination of fossil fuel use;
2. Green chemistry for production of goods and products by design to avoid forming toxic properties or by-products;
3. Closed loop manufacturing that conserves raw material and operates to re-purpose products at the end of their useful life; and
4. Organic agriculture to restore and retain the biodiversity of crops and rebuild the fertility of the land. 
We must empower people to stand for a better future.  Our grandchildren and their great-grandchildren deserve a living Earth, not an Earth devastated by exploitation.  A sustainable system promotes a condition of abundance within the laws of nature.  We must understand the unintended consequences of convenience, and find better ways to meet our needs, to waste less, to keep the Earth intact.   Rachel Carson’s environmental ethic provides guideposts on this quest.

(This article is part of my forthcoming book: A Vision Splendid: Building a Sustainable Economy for the 21st Century.  All rights reserved.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Silent Spring: Beacon in the Darkness by Cristina Eisenberg

Discussion topic:  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Cristina Eisenberg has a PhD in Forestry and Wildlife from Oregon State University. She is the author of  The Wolf’s Tooth: Trophic Cascades, Keystone Predators, and Biodiversity, and is at work on her second book for Island Press, about carnivore conservation. In her scientific research she focuses on the effects of carnivores, such as wolves, on whole food webs, termed trophic cascades. She lives in a remote part of Montana with her family.

Credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS
No single book heralded the beginning of the contemporary conservation era as did Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Its 1962 publication effectively dropped a bombshell on the complacent American public, which was still reveling in the afterglow of post-WWII seemingly unlimited economic growth. Such economic growth was supported by advances in science that had put powerful chemicals, such as the pesticide DDT, on the market.

I consider Silent Spring a classic in the genre of science and environmental literature, a book that has changed the world. In it, Carson, a marine ecologist, had the audacity to suggest that human-caused modification of nature, in the interest of progress, was having disastrous environmental consequences. With the precision of a surgeon and unflinching, lucid prose, she laid out her argument and presented incontrovertible evidence.
Carson alerted the public to the fact that for the first time in the history of humanity, every human being was being exposed to dangerous chemicals, specifically synthetic pesticides. She presented example after example of how in our arrogant attempt to control nature, we were naively unleashing potent toxic biological agents that could cause great harm to all life, including humans. From the silencing of songbirds to the elimination of pollinating insects, Carson’s heartbreaking case studies raised a clarion call to action that has reverberated through the decades since her book’s publication. She concluded her book by urging us to honor life on this earth in all its forms and to acknowledge that we are but one of many species that make up life as we know it.

Additionally, in an era when women often did not have equal stature with men in the sciences, Carson boldly stepped to the forefront of the science of ecology. Considered a rebel and even a pariah in her field when this book was published, today she is widely regarded as one of our most esteemed ecologists. I recall reading her book with a mix of horror and fascination when I was in high school. I read it in one sitting, because I couldn’t stop turning the pages. And by the time I had read the last page, I had decided to become a scientist. Carson inspired me to help find ways to create a more sustainable future.

The world has changed tremendously since Carson wrote her classic. We now know that all things are connected in nature, and that all life is precious. Our government agencies have acknowledged the problems Carson identified. Congress has created powerful laws, including the Endangered Species Act, that have helped recover many species, such as the bald eagle, which almost became extinct due to DDT. And Carson’s work continues to be a beacon in the darkness as we grapple with problems that have no easy solution, like climate change.

Discussion Questions:
What effects do think Silent Spring has on American sensibility about the environment?

What effects do you think Silent Spring has had on our environmental laws?

What about Silent Spring has made it such an effective vehicle of change?

If Rachel Carson were alive today, what conservation topic do you think she would focus on?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Things You Might Not Know About Rachel Carson. . .

Because Rachel Carson is so famous I think we instinctively think we know a great deal about her.  In many ways her biography has been lost within her iconic status as an environmental hero.  Yet historians like to focus in on the small details and here are some facts you might not have known about Rachel Carson:

1.  Rachel Carson was the subject of several Peanut's cartoons.  While Charlie Brown is not usually considered political satire, Charles Schulz used Carson as a counterpart to Lucy's uncontrolled temperment.

2.  Carson's first full-time job was as a Junior Aquatic Biologist in the Bureau of Fisheries at the princely sum of $38.48 a week.

3.  Carson's books have been adapted at least twice rather unsuccessfully.  In 1953 Irwin Allen won an academy award for documentary  "The Sea Around Us"--a very loose adaptation of her book of the same name.  Allen went on to fame as the "master of disaster" for films like "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno."  Later ABC made a film of "A Sense of Wonder" that is barely watchable today. The world still awaits (with trepidation) the film adaptation of "Silent Spring."

4.  Carson first became acquainted with the effects of DDT through her editing of scientific papers from Patuxent Research Refuge and early press releases she authored beginning in 1945.

5.  During World War 2 Carson penned many recipes for increasing the nation's consumption of seafood as "fish was a fighting food" in wartime.

If you want more details on Carson's life you can look to Linda Lear's biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy 50th Birthday "Silent Spring" by FWS Historian Mark Madison

Welcome to the WILD READ book discussion on Silent Spring perhaps the most important book written in the history of the environmental movement.  I sincerely thank you for taking the time to read this.

I am excited to be the first moderator for this book as those of us in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) consider Rachel Carson one of our own.  Carson worked for the agency for 16 years (from 1936-1952), longer than she did anything else in her life.  Much of her work for the agency helped inform Silent Spring.  The new miracle pesticide DDT had first been used in World War II and was heralded as scientific panacea—both crops and picnics could now be pest free.  Yet almost immediately after its introduction, scientists at the FWS began to notice the troubling effects of DDT on birds and fish.  Carson wrote her first press release on the dangers of DDT in 1945 and for the next 17 years she collected damning evidence as to its detrimental effects.  The result of her research and passion is Silent Spring (1962). 

When I was in Middle School (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) we were assigned Silent Spring and I remember my classmates being horrified and energized by Carson’s prose.  I am afraid the book is not much read today, which is a pity as Carson offers advice on many environmental maladies of today. 

As we read (or re-read) this book together I would like to hear your answers to a few questions:

Do you think this book still has relevance today?

Who is the best audience for this book?

Is this primarily a science book or a philosophical book?

I look forward to reading your observations and hearing your opinion of this groundbreaking environmental book!

For more information about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring:  Linda Lear and  her biography: Rachel Carson: Witness to Nature (1998) and William Souder's On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012).

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Silent Spring Discussion Starts Tomorrow with Mark Madison as WILD READ Moderator

Silent Spring WILD READ discussions begin tomorrow with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service historian Mark Madison as moderator.  WILD READ will feature Rachel Carson's Silent Spring for eight weeks in celebration of the 50th anniversary of this groundbreaking book. See schedule of moderators.

Here is a little bit about Mark so stay tuned to Mark's narrative and get ready for a lively conversation!

Mark Madison has degrees in biology and history and received a Ph.D. in 1995 from Harvard University in the history of science. He has taught environmental history, American history, environmental ethics, and conservation biology at Harvard University, the University of Melbourne, and Shepherd University. He is currently the national historian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lecturing on conservation issues around the country and helping run a conservation archives at the National Conservation Training Center. He has two books in progress on wolf restoration and the California condor. The NCTC Archives/Museum has records from Rachel Carson’s 16 years career as an employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service and its predecessors.
For more information about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring:  Linda Lear and  her biography: Rachel Carson: Witness to Nature (1998) and William Souder's On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012).