Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Packing for Ad Dawhah

For the fourth year in a row, I am headed to the United Nations conference on climate change with a small delegation from Moravian College.  We will be blogging, and to kick off COP18, I have posted the first entry for 2012:

Monday, October 1, 2012

What is the value of raptors?

I have been thinking a lot about birds lately, in part because of the impact that environmental changes may have on these creatures, in part because we are in the midst of fall migration, and in part, by a quote that I recently read:

"The legacy of Rachel Carson is that tens of millions of human lives – mostly children in poor, tropical countries – have been traded for the possibility of slightly improved fertility in raptors. This remains one of the monumental human tragedies of the last century."

You can find the reference in a blog post I wrote in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring:

This quote has been haunting me and thus, I am reaching out to a broad audience to get a range of thoughts for an article I am thinking of writing:
Please post your thoughts on the question of what value raptors have in our world or in our lives.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring –

Still searching for the truth and a better way

Golden Eagle Migrating over the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania
Photo by Corey Husic

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring – a book that begins with a simple fable and takes its title from a line by the 19th century English Romantic poet, John Keats.  The author of this now notorious book was a girl from Springdale, PA in Allegheny County, which has the distinction of ranking in the 90+ percentile for the dirtiest or worst counties in the country for eight different air pollutant measures.  For the other six measures, it only ranks in the 60th to 80th percentile for worst counties.

Rachel Carson, who was writing creative stories in grade school, chose instead to pursue higher education in science, graduating with honors in biology from what is now known as Chatham College, and going on to earn a master’s degree in Zoology from John Hopkins University.   She was the first woman to take and pass the civil service test, and was subsequently hired in 1936 by the Bureau of Fisheries.  Eventually, she would become both the chief editor of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the author of several popular books enjoyed by the public.

When Silent Spring was published in 1962, I wasn’t yet three years old, so didn’t encounter the book until much later.  In fact, I hadn’t even read it until a few years ago, although I knew of its key messages.  I now live in an area filled with raptor fanatics – hawk watchers and counters.  These folks are quick to tell stories of the decline of raptors decades ago, especially of ospreys and eagles, and how some of the fall migration count data from “the Ridge” helped to support the case that DDT might be leading to this decline.  Indeed, Rachel Carson spent time at Hawk Mountain – just down the Appalachian Ridge from where I live.  In her chapter “And No Birds Sing”, Carson speaks of Maurice Brown and Hawk Mountain, and the sharp decline of immature Bald Eagles noted in the 1950’s.  Early in my career, I worked at the same institution as the biologist, Larry Rymon, who was instrumental in successfully reintroducing Osprey to the region. [1] Today, we examine birding records to see if the timing of migration is potentially being impacted by changes in climate, especially the earlier advance of spring in the northern latitudes.

A few years ago, some students majoring in environmental studies asked if I would lead a reading group related to environmental literature.  This was an odd request, largely because I am a biochemist by training.  Over the years, my scholarship has shifted from bench science to ecological restoration, conservation, and climate change.  For fun, I immerse myself in nature, environmental, and conservation writings.  But, by no means am I qualified to teach literature.

Just because you have read a book, doesn’t mean you know the entire story.  Our small reading group became familiar with the messages of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold, and then moved on to some work by Carson.  I decided to ask the students to investigate the impact that Silent Spring had had on the environmental movement, on environmental legislation, or on the voice of women in activism.  Little did I know the deep impact this exploration would end up having on me.

Given that I had been trained in a predominantly chemistry-based education track and, for a few years did some research in chemical carcinogenesis, for my part in this assignment, I decided to explore the reaction of the chemical industry to the publication of the book.  To say I was shocked is an understatement.  Not that I would expect the chemical industry to be happy about a book (especially one written by a scientist) that took aim at chemical products.  But what I didn’t expect was the vitriolic nature of the criticism that targeted not only the message, but also the messenger. 

A rather negative (scathing, actually) review of book entitled “Silence, Miss Carson” was published in the magazine Chemical & Engineering News (C&E News), a publication of the American Chemical Society.  The review was written by Dr. William J. Darby whose credentials were touted at the beginning of the review[2]:

Dr. Darby is professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry and director, division of nutrition, at Vanderbilt University school of medicine; member and past chairman of the Food Protection Committee, National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council' and a member of the NAS-NRC Food and Nutrition Board.

I include below two excerpts to give you the essence of what was printed.  The first:

Miss Carson's book adds no new factual material not already known to such serious scientists as those concerned with these developments, nor does it include information essential for the reader to interpret the knowledge. It does confuse the information and so mix it with her opinions that the uninitiated reader is unable to sort fact from fancy. In view of the mature, responsible attention which this whole subject receives from able, qualified scientific groups, such as those identified in the foregoing (and whom Miss Carson chooses to ignore); in view of her scientific qualifications in contrast to those of our distinguished scientific leaders and statesmen, this book should be ignored.

Darby latter interestingly states:

The responsible scientist should read this book to understand the ignorance of those writing on the subject and the educational task which lies ahead.
Robert H. White-Stevens, biochemist and assistant director of the Agricultural Research Division of American Cyanamid referred to Carson as "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature" and stated that

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.

Well, clearly, those in biochemistry who came before me didn’t think too highly of her book.  But criticism came from many other sources including Norman E. Borlaug, a Nobel laureate for his work contributing to the Green Revolution in agriculture, and the Entomological Society of America[3]:


Says a lady who writes of the sea

“I’ve espoused a new cause—DDT.

It’s sprayed all around us

By those pest control bounders,

And threatens my bonnet’s pet bee”

—Hector Monro (1963)

Bulletin of the

Entomological Society of America,

1963. 9(1): 2

Despite significant amounts of scientific research that now supports much of Carson’s claims and the speculation and proposed research directions she set forth in her book, the criticism continues.  In 2007, Rudy Baum, editor of C&E News wrote[4]:

May 27 marked the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth. In the run-up to the date, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) had planned to introduce a resolution celebrating Carson's legacy. However, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) announced that he would block the resolution by the use of a parliamentary device, because, according to a statement from his office, "Carson was the author of the now-debunked 'Silent Spring,' a book that was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT." As a result, Cardin delayed introducing the resolution [emphasis added].

As someone who does a lot of work in the field of climate change science and policy, the “now-debunked” phrase rings an all too familiar, but unpleasant, bell.  Not only have some individuals labeled Carson as a “hysterical woman” (if you know the history of the word hysterical, you know why I bristle at this phrase) who wrote one of the “most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries”, [5] but there are also those who claim that she has been responsible for millions of deaths. [6]   In “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” (published this year) authors Meiners and Morriss comment that the book

…encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world.[7]

And earlier this month, September 2012, this statement appeared in an op-ed in Forbes:

The legacy of Rachel Carson is that tens of millions of human lives – mostly children in poor, tropical countries – have been traded for the possibility of slightly improved fertility in raptors. This remains one of the monumental human tragedies of the last century [emphasis added]. [8]

“Mass murder”, “guilty of genocide”, “responsible for more deaths than Hitler” are all labels that have been applied to Rachel Carson in the last few years.  Clearly, some want to continue the controversy or rather the myth.  While DDT has been banned in the U.S. and several other countries, it still is produced and used in others, mainly for the control of malaria.[9]  I remain stunned at this ongoing level of criticism levied at a scientist, who also happens to be an accomplished author who has been cited more than any other environmental writer except for Thoreau.[10]  Several of today’s climate scientists receive regular death threats.  I wonder if Rachel had these too?

As part of this personal exploration into the aftermath of Silent Spring, I think of the crusaders against environmental toxins that have come since Carson—Theo Colburn, Lois Gibbs, Arlene Blum, Sandra Steingraber, Erin Brockovich, Terry Tempest Williams—journalists, housewives, chemists, biologists, authors, women…and wonder how they dared, knowing the toxic reactions that would be thrown their way, perhaps for decades, for their entire career, life, and beyond (Carson died of cancer in 1964, still in her 50’s.)  And I wonder why it has been mainly women who speak out so publicly.  I know that there are plenty of men who do toxicology and environmental health research, but they tend to limit their voice to peer-reviewed scientific journals.[11]

In searches easily done via the Internet (which admittedly can be a questionable source at times, but I did some fact-checking) we know that there are more than 100,000 chemicals on the U.S. market today, relatively few of which have been tested for their impact on human health.  Over 27 trillion pounds of chemicals, not all toxic, are produced per year in this country.  That is about 250 pounds of chemicals per person per day.  We depend on chemicals in our food, for our health, and in our demand for energy, fuel, and stuff.  (Yes, there are chemicals in those iPhones and iPads.) We know that Scotts, the lawn and garden products company, just received the largest judgment in federal court—$12.5 million in fines—for having insecticides (poisons) in their bird feed products.  Love Canal, Times Beach, and Bhopal are now bad chapters in chemical history.  We know the toxic effects of the 12 million gallons of Agent Orange used between 1965 and 1971 and the 2,4-D, one of the pesticides in that chemical mix is still used at an annual rate of millions of pounds in the U.S. alone.  We know that there are chemical carcinogens and environmental estrogens (hormone mimics) that alter the gender of reptiles.  In humans, accumulating scientific evidence is demonstrating that these persistent pollutants may be increasing rates of breast cancer, lowering sperm counts, and making us obese.

Given my background in chemistry, I am by no means a chemophobe.  But I have seen firsthand what environmental damage chemicals can do through my work at a Superfund site, as well as the cellular impacts they can have from the days when I worked in a chemical carcinogenesis lab.  As a college student, I inadvertently ran head on into one of the protests near Mio, Michigan where state "leaders" were being hung in effigy as a result of the decision to bury in the region livestock carcasses from animals accidently contaminated with PBBs.  This incident from the 1970’s, while not well known in much of the country, became known as the "Poisoning of Michigan" (thanks in part to a book written by Joyce Egginton) and remains the largest chemical accident and incident of human and livestock poisoning in this country.  The anger of the protesters was directed at the chemical company, the Farm Bureau, and the state government.  But I was terrified, so much so, that I didn’t look up what the protest I encountered was about until about a year ago.

At times, I feel conflicted as to how to tell the story of risk to my classes, without creating paranoia.  This quest began at the simple request of some students.  I have since ended my membership in the American Chemical Society and routinely blog about environmental issues.  But somehow, I must continue to search for the truth and for the courage to ask, as Rachel did, “why”?  Why, now that we know the truth—that some chemicals are toxic to plants and animals, some alter our climate, and others damage our ecosystems—do we not work more diligently to find innovative and safer alternatives?

RIP Rachel.  I wish I had your conviction and your courage.

[1] For instance, you can listen to this interview with Dr. Rymon:
[2] Darby, William J. 1962. "Silence, Miss Carson." Chemical & Engineering News (Oct. 1): 62-63.
[3] Krupke, C. H., et al., 2007, Professional Entomology and the Forty-four Noisy Years Since Silent Spring,
Part 2: Response to Silent Spring, American Entomologist 53: 16-26.
[4] Baum, R., 2007, “From the Editor”, Chemical and Engineering News 85: 5.
[6] For example, see Lockitch, K. “Rachel Carson’s Genocide” in Capitalism Magazine (5/23/2007) available at and Swartz, A. “Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer? The Creation of an Anti-environmental Myth”, in Fair (September/October 2007) available at
[7] Meiners, R.E. and Morriss, A.P., 2012, Silent spring at 50:  Reflections on an environmental classic, PERC Policy Series No. 51, p. 1.
[8] Miller, H.I. and Conko, G. “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Fantasies”, an op-ed in Forbes (9/5/12) available at
[9] The Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention “continues to allow the use of DDT for use in public health for disease vector control as recommended by and under the guidance of the World Health Organization.”  A number of organizations, as part of a Global Alliance, are working to find effective, but safer alternatives, to reduce the malaria burden.
[10] Meiners, R.E. and Morriss, A.P., 2012, Silent spring at 50:  Reflections on an environmental classic, PERC Policy Series No. 51, p. 1.
[11] One notable exception is Tyrone Hayes, an African American scientist at U.C. Berkeley, whose own interactions with the chemical industry and the media have taken a very odd twist:

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A reason to conserve

Over the past few weeks, I have been immersed in writings by and about Leopold and Carson. Buried in the pages are some sentences of extraordinary wisdom and beauty beyond anything I could ever compose. One of my favorites from Leopold, perhaps because it reminds me of Wangari Maathai:

 Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree - and there will be one.”

And from Carson - in her "postscript to the day" written to Dorothy Freeman, about her last day in Maine - is about Monarchs.  
But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.
But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly – for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.
For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it – so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.
The letter can be found in Linda Lear's biography of Carson, Witness for Nature,  or at:
After reading these and pondering their power, I think, that if for no other reason, we need to conserve the beauty in the world around us so that people like Leopold and Carson can give us such beautiful and enriching words of inspiration.

Happy Autumnal Equinox

I noticed today the early tinges of color in the trees along the mountain as I worked on a sustainability project for campus. I had forgotten that today was the autumnal equinox, the start to my favorite season. And then I stumbled on this passage and thought it perfect for the day.

A hidden fire burns perpetually upon the hearth of the world.... In autumn this great conflagration becomes especially manifest. Then the flame that is slowly and mysteriously consuming every green thing bursts into vivid radiance. Every blade of grass and every leaf in the woodlands is cast into the great oven of Nature; and the bright colours of their fading are literally the flames of their consuming. The golden harvest-fields are glowing in the heart of the furnace.... By this autumn fire God every year purges the floor of nature. All effete substances that have served their purpose in the old form are burnt up. Everywhere God makes sweet and clean the earth with fire. ~Hugh Macmillan

My friend, Drew Lanham, posted this on Facebook today:  “Happy Fall Y'all! 'Tis the season for chasing migrating warblers and wary whitetails. As summer relents to autumnal senescence, embrace the pace of things slowing down, moving on and storing up. It is my favorite time of year!”
I responded:  “For reasons I cannot explain, I love the word "senescence". Some find it sad and linked to death. I prefer to connect it to the cycle of life. And there is some pretty cool biochemistry involved as well!”

What do you like about the autumn season?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Coal mining vs. the Girl Scouts?

Avoiding the backlog of work that confronts me after traveling to visit family and the long list of tasks to tackle with the pending start of the academic year, I decided to check out the news of the day.  For a number of reasons, this story caught my eye on the CNN webpage: Mine Plan Puts Two Kentucky Fixtures on Collision Course.[1]

I have written before about our disturbing addiction to fossil fuels.  Need you more evidence?  We even sacrifice our children's last remaining places of refuge to scrounge more fuel from the ground.  Shame, shame on us.  “We pretty much, as a company, have to have this project,” says one of the company’s co-owners.  Really?  And our girls, our youth, don’t have to have a place that is undisturbed by the ravages of giant machinery, dynamite, and pollution?

There is a strong sense of resignation in the article, a realization of the inevitable, that the coal industry will win, again.  A necessary evil.  "There is talk of creating a coal badge, to teach girls about electricity from the ground up, all part of ‘discover, connect, take action,’ the Girl Scouts’ new leadership code."  How about examining the history of coal with its horrible legacy of environmental destruction (Can I say legacy of raping the land?) and human health problems.  Instead of exploring nature and just being kids at their camp retreats, the Scouts can now explore the perpetual cycle of poverty in coal mining regions.  “Under these piles of rock and this ash, lay the remains of Camp Pennyroyal which was sacrificed for progress” the sign will say.  “DANGER, Do Not Enter.”

Decades ago, when I was in Scouts, we had a pen pal program with a troop in a Kentucky coal region.  I was a grade school student shocked by stories of a type of poor I had not yet encountered:  a single community gathering area where the excitement was for the first television in the village—communally owned; the hope for shoes that fit for Christmas; genuine appreciation for the box of used clothes and games that we sent because we no longer wanted them and because our troop leaders thought it would be a good service project.

Years later, when I was more aware of the disparities in the world, I drove through the mountains and back roads of Kentucky where I imagined my pen pal must have lived.  To put it mildly, I was stunned by the shacks, the tattered clothes and dirty tattered children.  This was the United States?  I have since traveled around the world and, sadly, have seen poverty that is much worse in many places.  But the images from the mountains of Appalachia, many of which have since had their tops blown off, are still strongly entrenched in my memory.  Is this why I so often listen to mournful “coal music”?  A penance for my inability to make a difference?

In 2009, Diane Sawyer (born and raised in Kentucky) and ABC News did a documentary entitled A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains. Many segments of this documentary can be found online; this short clip ( gives a flavor of the ongoing poverty in the eastern part of the state and reminded me of the stories of my pen pal from so many years ago.  I was sad to see that things didn’t seem to have changed much, but glad that some attention was being called to the problem.  Little good has come from the effort though.  And some reviews of the work were not so positive.[2]  The second link that I reference provides the perspective from someone who lives in a coal mining region in West Virginia:  
But I wondered why Sawyer didn’t explore the causes of the poverty and the cycle that kept these places poor. I wondered why she did not bring in a panel of experts to explain how this cycle can be broken and if people want to help, how they can find it. I wondered why she did not cover more of the coal scene in the area, such as ravaging the mountains by mountaintop removal, loss of jobs and the failure of coal operators to give back to the community.

Can this cycle be broken?  Not as long as we continue to demand fossil fuels or drive through these regions to look, to shake our heads in disbelief that this happens in our country, to shed a few tears, but then move on safely to our lives of comfort.

There are some good resources in the Huffington Post commentary and in one of the comments to the latter post there are links to two other documentaries and an interview about Appalachia today.[3]  Clearly, there are differing points of view, and the myriad of social problems are complex.  But the bottom line is that coal mining, poverty, and devastating effects on children remain as constants in the region.  So is it too much to ask that a mere 180 acres be spared this sad legacy, and that we keep one peaceful place for future generations?  I signed an online petition this morning to try to save the camp[4], but am left pondering what can I do that would make a real difference.