Split in environmental movement? No. Facts still matter

December 21, 2012

Rachel Carson was right in her claims against DDT in Silent Spring, of course, as all subsequent research shows. Drawing by New York Magazine's immortal David Levine.

Rachel Carson was right in her claims against DDT in Silent Spring, of course, as all subsequent research shows. Drawing by New York Magazine‘s immortal David Levine.

Chris Clarke took on Keith Kloor at Pharyngula.  Kloor fell victim to the idea that there is a great split between old “tree-hugger” environmentalists and a newer breed of greens who are willing to work with business and industry to get actual solutions.  Kloor seems to be cheering those he calls “modernists.”

It’s not a new idea, nor is a particularly useful one.  There has long been a minor rift between people who believe it’s impossible to cut deals with polluters, and those who get into the trenches to hammer out or shoot out deals that result in practical legislation.  The group who called for a legislated end to personal automobiles, for example, are still around — but they applaud those who forged the Clean Air Act that drove the invention and development of catalytic converters and cleaned up urban air, even though it left America awash in cars.

Clarke wrote:

Kloor summarizes the better, smarter, more stylish and less embarrassing side’s position thusly:

Modernist greens don’t dispute the ecological tumult associated with the Anthropocene. But this is the world as it is, they say, so we might as well reconcile the needs of people with the needs of nature. To this end, [controversial environmentalist Peter] Kareiva advises conservationists to craft “a new vision of a planet in which nature—forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems—exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes.”

That doesn’t seem all that unreasonable on its face, if for no other reason that that it’s currently the best case scenario. You would be extremely hard-pressed to find even the most wilderness-worshipping enviro who disagreed.

In fact, were I to have to rebut Kloor’s whole piece in one sentence, it would be this:  the U.S. non-profit The Wilderness Society, founded by the authors of the Wilderness Act of 1964, is aggressively pushing for industrial development of solar and wind energy generating capacity on intact habitat on the public lands of the American west.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Wilder...

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Wilderness Act in 1964 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I replied at Pharyngula, noting that the rift Kloor talks about could be exemplified by Rachel Carson and DDT and “modernists” who don’t object to the use of DDT in Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS) to fight malaria — except, those are the same people, working on the same issue.  In short, I sorta agree with Clarke.  There’s no rift, only a lot of misunderstanding.

Heck, if I’m going to that trouble, I may as well capture it here for my indexing purposes.  Here’s my response — I may add links in the body that don’t appear at Pharyngula.

Interesting view of a bit of an inside-baseball (environmental protection politics) issue, but not particularly incisive. Other than its being published at Slate, should we worry about Kloor’s views much?

The piece completely ignores that the views of those he labels “modernists” and “pragmatists” come wholly out of the research demanded by those he ignores in the old movement, whom he unfairly ridicules as hippies.

For example: It’s politically correct (in some circles) today to say (1) Rachel Carson was too strident, and (2) probably wrong about DDT “since it’s (3) not carcinogenic, we now know.” Malaria fighters around the world (4) now have DDT in their arsenal again, this view holds, because (5) pragmatists in the environmental movement finally listened. “(6) Sorry about those ‘unnecessary’ malaria deaths,” some claim the pragmatists would say.

But that view is founded on, grown in, and spreads, historical, legal and scientific error. And the progress made was based on understanding the science, history and law accurately. It’s not that pragmatists finally succeeded where the tree-huggers failed. It’s that the tree-huggers hung in there for 50 years and the world has come around to recognizing good effects, even if it can’t or won’t acknowledge the true heroes who got the work done.

Carson was dead right about DDT. She urged the use of Integrated Vector (Pest) Management (IVM, or IPM) in place of DDT, but she forecasted (in 1962!) that unless DDT use were severely curtailed, it would cease to be useful to fight malaria and other diseases (because, as Carson understood, evolution works, and the bugs evolve defenses to DDT). By 1965, WHO had to end its ambitious campaign to eradicate malaria because, as Carson predicted, mosquitoes in Africa turned up resistant and immune to DDT because of abuse and overuse of the stuff in other applications. Notice, 1965 was seven years BEFORE the U.S. banned DDT use on agricultural crops, and 19 years before the last U.S. DDT manufacturer scurrilously fled to bankruptcy protection to avoid penalties under Al Gore’s SuperFund cleanup bill.

Carson did not claim DDT causes cancer. So the basis of the argument that DDT is “safe for human use” because it doesn’t cause cancer, is an historical non-starter. Research since Carson’s death shows that DDT does indeed cause cancer, though we think its a weak carcinogen in humans. DDT was banned because it’s a deadly poison (else it wouldn’t work!), and it kills for a long time, and it is nonspecific — so it will kill an entire ecosystem before it can eradicate some insect pests. It was in 1971, and it still is.

Photo taken at Rachel Carson's 100th Birthday ...

Photo taken at Rachel Carson’s 100th Birthday celebration at Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Carson did note that DDT kills birds, in vitro, by incapacitating chicks to thrive, by outright poisoning insect-eating and predatory birds (or anything near the top of the trophic levels) and through a then-mysterious scrambling of reproductive abilities. About ten years after her death, it was discovered DDT also rendered female fowl unable to make competent eggshells, and that provided a fifth path for death for birds.

Much of the research Carson cited formed the foundation for the science-based regulation EPA came up with in late 1971 that ended in the ban on DDT in the U.S. None of those studies has ever been seriously challenged by any later research. In fact, when Discover Magazine looked at the issue of DDT and birds and malaria in 2007, they found more than a thousand peer-review follow-up studies on DDT confirming Carson’s writings.

Over the past decade we’ve seen a few bird species come off of the Endangered Species List. Recovery of at least four top predators should be credited squarely to the ban on crop use of DDT in the U.S, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons, osprey, and bald eagles. 40 years of non-use, coupled with habitat protection and captive breeding programs, brought these birds back. (Five years ago I sat on the lawn of Mt. Vernon and watched a bald eagle cross the Potomac to a snag 100 yards from George Washington’s porch; the director told me they’d been watching several eagles there for a couple of years. 15 years earlier, one nesting pair existed in the whole Potomac region, at a secret site; now tourists are told where to go see them. A friend wrote today he saw a bald eagle in Ft. Worth, Texas. The gains from the DDT ban are real.)

Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia, the war on malaria continued. After the DDT advocates screwed up the malaria eradication program of WHO in the 1960s, progress against malaria continued, but slowed; in the late 1980s malaria flared up in some regions where the malaria parasites themselves had developed resistance to the most commonly-used pharmaceuticals (as Darwin would have predicted, as Carson would have predicted). After struggling to keep malaria from exploding, about 1999 malaria fighters latched on to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which couples occasional spraying of homes and other residences, even with DDT (which was never banned in Africa or Asia) — but calls for spraying only when it is very effective, and requires that no one pesticide be used to the point that it drives mosquitoes to evolve resistance, and pushes all other means to prevent disease-spreading bug bites.

Largely without DDT (though DDT is not banned), malaria infections fell from peak DDT-use years of 1959 and 1960, from 500 million infections per year, to fewer than 250 million infections today — that’s a decrease of 50%. Phenomenal when we consider the population of the world has doubled in the same time. Deaths dropped from 4 million annually in those peak-DDT-use years to fewer than 800,000 per year today — a decrease of more than 75%. Progress continues, with IPM; bednets now do better, and more cheaply, what DDT used to do but largely cannot anymore — stop the bites. Better medicines, and better educated health care workers, clean up the disease among humans so mosquitoes can’t find a well of infection to draw from.

Notice that at no point was progress made contrary to the “tree-hugger” model, but instead was made at every point because of the tree-hugger model. No compromises enabled the recovery of the bald eagle, but strict enforcement of the environmental laws. No compromises with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped beat malaria, but finally applying what Rachel Carson actually wrote.

Now along comes Kloor to say that Carson and her de facto acolytes block progress, and people who argue for compromise instead have the lighted path to the future?

Let’s review:

  1. Carson was not too strident; in fact the President’s Science Advisory Committee’s report, “Use of Pesticides,” in 1963 called for more immediate and more draconian action than Carson did.
  2. Carson was not wrong about DDT; it is still a deadly poison, and it still kills ecosystems; however, as Carson urged, careful use can provide benefits in a few cases.
  3. Human carcinogenicity was not an issue in DDT’s being banned in the U.S. in 1972, and it’s being only a weak carcinogen now does not rescue DDT from the scientifically-justified ban; we now know DDT is even more insidious, since it acts as an endocrine disruptor in nature, scrambling reproductive organs of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, and probably birds, too.
  4. Malaria fighters always had DDT in their arsenal; no reason to use DDT where it won’t work, nor where it’s harms outweigh its benefits (as the National Academy of Sciences said, in 1970, in a call to get rid of the stuff).
  5. If there were any pragmatists in this story, they abandoned malaria-affected areas of the world years ago and have not returned; they did nothing to help save the birds; to claim they listened is to suggest they did something and can do more. Not sure that’s a case that can be made.
  6. There were not deaths to malaria “unnecessary” due to a ban on DDT which never occurred in Africa or Asia, while DDT was plentiful and cheap to anyone who wanted to use it (still pretty much the case today). Let’s repeat that:  DDT has never been banned in Africa or Asia.  We can’t claim great disease exacerbation when the disease actually was abated so greatly over the period of time in discussion — can’t make that claim and also claim to be honest.

It was the hard-core, wilderness-loving, science-following environmentalists who were responsible for every lick of progress on that issue.

Is DDT unique as an issue? I don’t think so. And I think a fair history of the environmental movement from 1975 to today would point out that it was hard-core, save-the-planet-because-it’s-the-only-home-humans-have types who pulled things out. Do we have great canyons to hike in Colorado and Utah? Yeah, but keeping Exxon from digging up huge portions of those states for a now-failed oil-shale extraction scheme should get some of the credit. Is there wildlife in cities? Sure, but only because we had wilderness areas to protect those species in their darkest hours, and we may need those places again. Do we have other needs for wilderness? Only if we need clean air, clean water, huge sinks for CO2 emissions, and places to dream about so we stay sane and focused, and American (Frederick Jackson Turner was correct enough — Americans are more noble, more creative, wiser and more productive, if we have a frontier and a wild).

Isn’t it required that we compromise on standards to get energy independence, and economic prosperity? Don’t look now, but oil and natural gas production, and exploration, are at highs, under our “tough environmental laws.” If we look around the world, we see that future prosperity is best protected by such laws, even if they sometimes seem to slow some industrial process or other.

New generation of conservationist? Possible only because of the old generation, the Pinchots, Roosevelts (esp. the two presidents), the Lincolns and Grants, the Muirs, the Leopolds, the Bob Marshalls, the Udalls, the Morans, the Douglases (Marjory Stoneman and Justice William, both), the Rockefellers, the Nelsons, the Muskies, the Gores, the Powells, and thousands of others who were then ridiculed for being unpragmatic, and whose methods often required that they not “compromise.” We can’t talk about protecting wilderness today unless the Sierra Club was there to actually do it, earlier. We can’t talk about private efforts, or public-private partnerships, without standing on the ground already protected by the Nature Conservancy. We can’t talk about saving the birds without relying on the history of the Audubon Society. We can’t talk sensibly about protecting humans from cancer or poisons without touching every rhetorical string Rachel Carson plucked.

Get the science right. Keep your history accurate. Read the fine print on the law, and on the pesticide label. Conservation isn’t for the birds, bees, bears, trout and flowers — it’s for humans. That’s news to Kloor? Maybe that’s why his view is skewed.

Progress is made by unreasonable and stubborn people, sometimes? No, Martin Luther King, Jr., said — those are the only people who make progress.

We aren’t going to build a future conservation movement by giving away what has been conserved to now.


Quote of the moment: Why does the Clean Air Act mention “climate?” – Naomi Oreskes

June 3, 2011

From “The Invention of Lying” at the American Prospect:

This is ultimately about regulation — its’ about the proper role of government — and what we’re seeing in Congress right now is nothing new. We saw it back in the Newt Gingrich years. It’s about gutting the regulatory structure of the federal government and the main agenda now is to gut the EPA. The Supreme Court ruled very clearly that the EPA does have legal authority — not just authority, legal responsibility — to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.

You know, no journalist has ever asked me why the Clean Air Act, signed in 1973, mentions climate.

Q:  Why does the Clean Air Act mention climate?

Thank you. Because people already knew back in the 1960s that pollution could change the climate.

– Naomi Oreskes to Robert S. Eshelman, “The Invention of Lying,” The American Prospect, June 3, 2011

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