7 Dec 2010

Silent Spring -- The Review

Holy cow. What a well-written book. I can totally understand how Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) jump-started the modern environmental movement.

The 300 page book starts and ends with hopeful fables of a healthy environment full of vibrant flora and fauna. The middle 15 chapters document, in painful detail, the damage that synthetic chemicals inflict on life. The book is famous for exposing the dangers of DDT (and aldrin and heptachlor), but I was shocked and angered by the bigger problem: All knowing bureaucrats over-applying chemicals in places that do not need them, to fight bugs that may not be present, without a clue of the collateral damage that they are causing.

Yes, we're talking about the USDA (and various government "landscaping" bureaucracies).

I took a few notes while reading the book:
  • Carson started speaking out about DDT in 1945. It was banned in the US in response to her book.
  • She too respected, intelligent and careful to ignore. She died in 1964, of cancer.*
  • DDT went everywhere, even hundreds of kilometers from where it was sprayed.
  • She wrote, consistently, about the need to be careful about using chemicals and pesticides. She did not advocate bans on chemicals, per se.**
  • Monsanto appears as the face of evil -- as they have recently, twice, thrice.
  • Western Sagebrush was labeled a "weed" and sprayed with herbicides, with massive bad results.
  • Same thing in Maine and Michigan, where they devastated thousands of acres of ALL life, by overspraying for insect populations that were NOT out of control. Spraying frequently led to massive rebounds and much more damage, often by killing predator and competator species.
  • California rice growers sprayed their fields. Local insects, fish and migratory birds died.
  • Fisheries (salmon, trout, bass, etc.) were destroyed (by direct damage and starvation for lack of insect food), but people were also harmed by eating fish that had bioaccumulated DDT and related chemicals.
  • The USDA's campaign against the fire ant is a case-study in the chemical abuse, money waste, and massive environmental destruction [p. 171]:
    In 1959... the Agriculture Department offered the chemicals free to Texas landowners who would sign a release absolving federal, state and local governments of responsibility for damage. In the same year, the State of Alabama, alarmed and angry at the damage done by the chemicals, refused to appropriate further funds to the project. One of its officials characterized the whole program as "ill advised, hastily conceived, poorly planned, and a glaring example of riding roughshod over the responsibilities of other public and private agencies."
    [USDA incompetence made me want to throw the book across the room at this point. I feel the same about corn ethanol. I bet politicians were involved...]
  • Many entomologists (bug scientists) worked for chemical companies, either on staff or at universities, because these companies funded their research. Not surprisingly, these "professionals" supported chemical control of insects.
A big thought: Most farmers will tell you that they minimize the volume of chemicals (and fertilizer) that they apply to their land, because they do not want to waste money and time on over-application. It's thus important (and sad) to note that the biggest abusers of chemicals in Silent Spring are bureaucrats whose jobs dictate that they should "do something" with other people's money (OPM!) and homeowners who do not understand the dangers of the chemicals they use and who think that "some is good, so more is better" when applying them to their yards. Both groups are convinced to buy and use by salesmen and advertising;*** both groups have little idea of how effective chemicals are (they do not watch yields); and both groups do not suffer the consequences from over-use of chemicals. Bureaucrats apply them to other people's land; homeowners just wash excess into storm drains and distant environments. Farmers may be willing to chemically sterilize their land, but at least they experience most of the costs and benefits of those actions.

She concludes with [p. 297]:
The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from the Stone age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.
Bottom Line: FIVE STARS. Be careful with poisons; they can kill you and everything that you love.

* Scientists suggest that cancer is purely man-made, as in the Egyptians -- old Egyptians -- didn't have it. Mukherjee claims that it's been with us for a long time, but his book summarizes ancient references to "tumors" that may not be cancerous.

** Protecting rainforests and draining hatching sites is more effective controlling mosquitoes (malaria) than DDT.

*** My favorite is pine-scented bug killer. I guess you can spray it on your kids too!


  1. Caron was unaware that US servicemen in WWII were sprayed bodily with DDT. It was hush hush at the time but on a current knowledge basis, if DDT did give people cancer we would have found out from the millions of uniformed soldiers, both male and female.

  2. It is good to see Silent Spring revisited, but I don't understand the basis for your theory that the "biggest abusers" of pesticides were bureaucrats because bureaucrats have a need to "do something" with other people's money while farmers have to pay for their pesticides and experience both the full costs and the benefits of use. Agriculture has always been the largest use for pesticides, by far. There is good historical data in Aspelin, Pesticide Usage in the United States: Trends During the 20th Century (2003), http://www.google.com/url?url=http://www.pestmanagement.info/pesticide_history/full_doc.pdf&rct=j&sa=U&ei=WLIFTbzmMYSBlAe7pKibCg&ved=0CB8QFjAI&sig2=yoW9UEzbD4URfSRvUosubA&q=pesticide+usage+1960&usg=AFQjCNEIDdb_50cO5VCgyW_MBjoYKbc1Rw. In 1961, the year before Silent Spring was published, agriculture used 954 million pounds of pesticide out of 1,338 million. Industrial, commercial, and governmental use combined was only 228 million pounds. Rachel Carson has some USDA anecdotes that evidently got your attention, but that is no basis for concluding that government was the crux of the problem. Furthermore, it is simply wrong to say that farmers experience both the costs and benefits of pesticide use. There are few clearer examples of the tragedy of the common. Only the decision-maker's own costs and benefits count in determining whether the existence of external costs distorts a decision, and there is no reason to think that a farmer's own use of pesticides contributes more than infinitesimally to such costs as residues in food he consumes, damage to wildlife, and the development of resistance in the target pest. He might as well benefit since he experiences these along with everyone else.

  3. I read Rachael Carson in the '60s. I have subsequently heard that the banning of DDT lead to a huge increase in malaria in African countries. Is this true? If so, what does it mean about 'environmentalism'?

    Did the pendulum go too far to the banning of DDT rather than its ability to be used in specific circumstances? Did the baby get thrown out with the bath water? Also, what do you think of other dire predictions during this time about environmental destruction. Did the predictions come true? I admit I haven't gone back and re-read these treatises.

  4. @anon -- she didn't say much (as I recall) about human cancer from DDT; she was upset about ecosystem destruction.

    @PST -- (1) Use does not mean abuse. (2) Abuse is easier when you don't even have to pay (i.e., bureaucrats) (3) Carson doesn't say "don't use pesticides." She says "don't abuse them."

    @CM -- I've heard the same about DDT (ban was too strong), but local (hut) spraying can work fairly well. Recent research (see ** footnote) suggests that behavioral modification is better still.

  5. @ CM:

    DDT was banned in the United States and Europe (for farm use only, not vector control) in the 70s. It was not banned in Africa and other tropical parts of the world, and certainly not in response to "western environmental concerns". I grew up in a developing country in the 80's and remember walking through clouds of DDT during the monthly spraying. Rather the over and improper use of DDT led to resistance by insects rendering it effective.

    DDT is still legal (even in the states) for vector control.


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