Tag Archives: climate change

Rachel Carson’s Tangled Web

In the midst of the deluge of news coming out of the White House this past week, many environmentalists have paid tribute to Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring has silent-springbeen hailed by many as the impetus that started America’s environmental movement. Carson’s book called attention to the impact of the insecticide DDT on the deaths of birds, fish, and other animals up the food chain. The book called for an end to the indiscriminate spraying of DDT on crops, in houses, and on children and other people who spent time outdoors.

After the book was published, it was predictably attacked by the chemical industry, especially Dupont  Chemical Company which produced DDT. One Dupont scientist, Robert White-Stevens, was particularly vehement: According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Rachel Carson was called to testify before Congress on the validity of her findings, which she defended strongly despite being critically ill at the time. She died of cancer in 1964, less than two years after the publication of her most famous book.

Silent Spring was widely publicized, appearing as a series of articles in the New Yorker as well as being the subject of a CBS documentary. The public soon embraced the idea of the rachel-carson-illusdanger of pesticides and other technological advances in science. The use of DDT on crops was banned in the United States and in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was set up to monitor the effect of various scientific advances on the lives of Americans.

Controversy continues, however. When Google paid tribute to Rachel Carson on the 50th anniversary of her death, Breitbart News asked the question: “Will Google be paying tribute to any of the other mass killers of the 20th century? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Probably not. But then, none of the others have had the benefit of having their images burnished by a thousand and one starry-eyed greenies.” 

The idea of Rachel Carson as a mass murderer comes from the fact that deaths from malaria, which had been decreasing with the use of DDT to kill malarial mosquitoes, began to climb. But the increase seems to have been due more to the fact that mosquitoes evolved so that DDT no longer killed them. And critics of Carson fail to recognize that she never suggested that all pesticides be abolished. Environmental issues are complex and simple solutions seldom solve them.

The truth is that science is difficult. Discovering the truth about the natural world takes time and requires the cooperation of many scientists. And trying to use the facts of science to make the world better usually has mixed results. Rachel Carson was right—pesticides do disrupt the natural order and kill birds as well as insects. And other scientists are also right in saying that malaria is a terrible disease and that killing the mosquitoes that carry the disease saves human lives. We need to find a balance between the two. Gradually scientists are finding new pesticides which are again bringing down the rates of malaria around the world.

The struggle over science continues. Climate change is one of the most hotly contested scientific issues today, especially because President Trump has said that he does not believe in the concept of climate change caused by human activities . His nominee for the head of the EPA is a man who has scoffed at the need for the U.S. and the world to make any effort to climate-changeaddress climate change. On January 24, 2017, according to the New York Times, “President Donald Trump’s administration has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change page from its website, two agency employees told Reuters, the latest move by the newly minted leadership to erase ex-President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives.”

As citizens we need to recognize the complexities of science and accept that changes are necessary even though they may be uncomfortable. Old jobs and old ways of life may disappear, but new ones will be found. We must protest when government officials forbid scientists to study how the world works and to make projections about what will happen in the future.

This blog is called Teacups and Tyrants. Most of my posts have focused on the quieter teacup parts of life, but recently the country has seen the growth of tyrants. From now on I expect to focus more on the harsher side of life and the threats that tyrants pose for our future.

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Who told us about climate change?

Just a few miles from where I live in San Francisco, the effects of climate change are obvious to everyone. This winter’s record El Nino has brought rain storms that have eroded beach communities along the Pacific. This photo from the San Francisco Chronicle Pacifica_2016shows how some of the homes in the city of Pacifica are teetering on the edge of a cliff over the ocean. Scientists are predicting that climate change will bring stronger and harsher El Nino storms in years to come because of the warming oceans caused in large part by human activity. Anyone who reads newspapers or watches news on TV know that this is true, yet somehow many of the Republican candidates who want to lead the country cannot seem to accept the facts.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still get candidates saying things like this: “If you look to the satellite data in the last 18 years there has been zero recorded warming. Now the global warming alarmists, that’s a problem for their theories. Their computer models show massive warming the satellite says it ain’t happening. We’ve discovered that NOAA, the federal government agencies are cooking the books,” Ted Cruz is quoted as saying that in 2015. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the

Humboldt and Goethe

Alexander von Humboldt with Goethe and other friends.

greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. One of the other ideas that he developed in South America was a hatred of slavery, because he saw the cruelty of the European practice of enslaving native peoples. Slowly many of his Humboldt in his libraryideas have been accepted by mainstream thinkers. Slavery has disappeared in much of the modern world.  Let’s hope that more of the climate change deniers will continue to think about the questions and ideas that he raised.

We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world.  

 

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