Friday, February 6, 2009

"The classic that launched the environmental movement"

The title of this post is a quote taken from the front cover of the 2002 edition of "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. Heralded as the seminal piece of work that kicked off the environmental movement as we know it today, this book is basically a must-read for anyone interested in matters relating to the environment. This week, we watched a documentary (sorry, I'm blanking on the name) about Rachel Carson's life and the story of how this important but unlikely bit of scientific writing came about. 

Since I acknowledge that most people aren't taking an environmental communication class and may not have read this specific book, I'll provide a bit of a summary. Essentially, Carson wrote this book to expose the horrible truth about the dangers of pesticides. At the time (1950's-early 1960's) pesticides were all the rage. Not only were they used in vast quantities to increase agricultural production, but the government enacted programs that allowed the spread of pesticides all over the United States. In the documentary we watched, the producers repeatedly showed images of young children being doused by the chemicals while eating and of government vehicles dispatching the potent spray all over suburban neighborhoods to kill annoying pests like mosquitoes, bees, and ants. 

 I guess what shocked everyone in the class, was that people thought DDT and other pesticides were great. They felt as though the government was actually doing something for them: getting rid of nuisance insects. Most Americans didn't even bother to ask what the effects of these chemicals might possibly be. What is especially horrifying is that these chemicals were made from derivatives of nerve gases, yet people still didn't question their safety. 

The concept of pesticides and our willingness to use them shows that no matter how incredible science and technology can be, we must remember to always question new technological advances before we accept them as a godsend. While pesticides/insecticides are great for increasing crop production and controlling diseases, they are really only a very short-term fix. What scientists and our government didn't realize, or probably more accurately chose to ignore, is the biological impact of these products. Aside from the deadly effects on wildlife, especially birds, pesticides led to the proliferation of "super bugs," insects that were somehow evolutionarily protected from these compounds. 

So, not only was the government "unknowingly" poisoning the general population (without their knowledge) but they were helping to create stronger strains of insects that could cause even more damage to agriculture and even more annoyance to the American public. 

This brash assumption that we can simply put down natural biological systems with our technology has gotten our civilization into a lot of trouble. It's unbelievable that even though history shows it is better to work with instead of against the environment, to this day we still can't convince ourselves it is the right thing to do. 

Looking back it easy to pass judgment on the American people by calling them ignorant for not questioning the safety of chemicals like DDT. Still, it makes you wonder how many hazardous chemicals and other technologies we use that we have never bothered to question. Are we really any smarter or less ignorant than they were?

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