We’ve been thinking a lot about a book that profoundly affected our own life when we first read it as a high school senior a half-century ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
No other book in the last century played a greater role in precipitating the awareness that human’s are playing a deadly role in destroying the natural environment from which we all spring.
Carson’s devastating expose of the hazards of pesticides forced millions to reconsider humanity’s avid embrace to chemical cure-alls and led directly to the banning of the primary target of her book, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT — even though Carson herself hadn’t called for an outright ban, rather she advocated very careful and smaller-scale use.
Back in our childhood we remember the periodic sweeps through of the DDT truck, spewing clouds of white powder to control mosquitos, often attracting children who would run into the clouds and come out coated with the fine, white dust.
DDT was eagerly embraced by the academic community, who say in the pesticide an irreplaceable weapon against agricultural pests and promoted its use.
The chemical was promoted widely to the public, using the latest media tools of the day.
Here’s a remarkable 1946 promotional film, aimed at both children and adults, for the Sherwin-Williams DDT brand Pestroy via vlogger phobiazzzero:
Doomsday for Pests. 1946 [14:44]
But there were clear signs that DDT wasn’t harmless, and one of the principal sources Carson relied on was a Michigan State University scientist, George J. Wallace, whose interest was sparked when robins started dying en masse on the university’s campus.
When he correctly traced the deaths to DDT, his career was nearly destroyed after the chemical industry mobilized against him.
Here’s his story, told in a documentary from MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism:
Dying to be Heard, 2011 [27:20]
One of the leading attacks on Carson’s book came from UC Berkeley scientist Thomas H. Jukes, who arrived on campus after a career at chemical giant American Cynamid. We first learned of his role as white-coated hit man in historian Linda Lear’s 1997 biography, Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature.
By 1977, when Jukes and two fellow scientists sued the New York Times for libel stemming from a story about controversy over bird counts, U.S. Court of Appeals Justice Irving R. Kaufman could write this in a decision overturning a judgment against the paper:
The truth is that many species high on the food chain, such as most bird-eating raptors and fisheaters, are suffering serious declines in numbers as a direct result of pesticide contamination; there is now abundant evidence to prove this.
But Jukes remains a hero to the Right [including Glenn Beck] in their campaign to abolish government regulations on industrial products — including the American Competitice Institute, which has its own anti-Carson website.
Oh, and he was also the same fellow who gave rise to the ongoing, systemic dosing of livestock with antibiotics, another practice now coming under tighter control because of its role in fostering the rise of deadly antibacterial-resistant microbes.
UC Berkeley scientists targeted by industry
We posted repeatedly about two Cal scientists whose research has made them targets of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
Ignacio Chapela [previously], a plant microbiologist, has earned the hatred of Monsanto and Novartis [now Syngenta], two of the world’s leading corporate powers.
Chapela and researcher David Quist discovered that genes from Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn had leapt into the native Mexican varieties from which all modern corn originate.
Monsanto launched a fierce campaign, complete with black-ops-style false fronts as well as pressure on Chapela’s fellow academics. The research has since been vindicated, but it took a lawsuit for Chapela to win tenure at the campus that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement.
Another Cal scientist who has felt the wrath of industry is Tyrone Hayes [previously], a biologist whose specialty is frogs.
The attacks began after he linked Atrazine, the most widely used pesticide in the world, to birth defects in frogs. Syngenta, the pesticide’s manufacturer, has been waging a relentless war on Hayes in an attempt to discredit him.
Here’s a video of Hayes and documentary filmmaker Penelope Jagessar Chaffer from a TED talk that should give us all pause about the endless stream of chemicals we’re pouring into the environment.
Finally, here’s a presentation he made in October in the [irony alert] Monsanto Auditorium at the University of Missouri, “From Silent Spring to Silent Night: A Tale of Toads and Men”: