World's Fair

Lots of Rachel Carson links of late, and understandably so, as it would’ve been her 100th birthday this Sunday. Elizabeth Kolbert makes her the Talk of the Town this week.

i-16790ecee7c088d777075e522746533b-Carson Sketch.jpg

(We had E.B. White on Carson from 1964 before, now more commentary from the magazine that originally published most of Silent Spring in serial form.)

The point of Kolbert’s comments on Carson is to suggest that the more things change the more they stay the same. Not a new lesson at Scienceblogs, certainly not a new lesson at The World’s Fair, where several recent posts have ever so gently been about the historical backdrop to/of/about contemporary issues (like this one, and this one, and this one).

In the 1950s, the USDA responded to a fire ant incursion in Alabama with an all out chemical assault. (By the way, check out Joshua Blu Buhs excellent The Fire Ant Wars for a whole lot more on this.) As Kolbert summarizes it:

In 1957, the department [the USDA] decided to eradicate the insects [the fire ants]. Its weapons of choice were the pesticides heptachlor and dieldrin, both of which concentrate as they move up the food chain. In 1958, a million acres were sprayed. Quails, woodcocks, wild turkeys, blackbirds, meadowlarks, opossums, and armadillos all began dying off. The U.S.D.A. responded by denying any problems and continuing to spray.

Carson did not deny it. She knew the chemicals were dangerous. (“Heptachlor causes liver damage, and dieldrin is a neurotoxin,” notes Kolbert.)

Sound new? It was a government agency following the terms of industry-sponsored denial.

In most cases at Sb in general, the sentiment of “the more things change…” is mostly aimed at discussions of science policy and the Bush Administration. And so Kolbert’s comments, set up by reference to the Carson anniversary, are too. Such as (again, not a new observation, but worth keeping in the spotlight):

A memo prepared by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in mid-March, for example, revealed that officials of the White House Council on Environmental Quality had made more than a hundred and eighty changes to a status report on global warming, virtually all of which had the effect of exaggerating scientific uncertainties and minimizing certainties. (The official responsible for most of the changes, Philip Cooney, had come to the White House from the American Petroleum Institute and now works for Exxon Mobil.)


[T]he Administration has done its best to gut the safeguards put in place after “Silent Spring.” When, for instance, the E.P.A. proposed new rules on mercury emissions from power plants, the proposal turned out to contain several paragraphs lifted, virtually verbatim, from an industry lobbyist’s memos. (With minor changes, those regulations are now in effect.) Just last month, the Administration proposed new rules on the retrofitting of old power plants. The more or less explicit purpose of the rules is to accommodate a power company, Duke Energy, that the E.P.A. had itself sued for violating the Clean Air Act. Also last month, the E.P.A. announced that it would once again delay taking action on two drinking-water contaminants, perchlorate, an ingredient of rocket fuel, and M.T.B.E., a fuel additive.

Take a look at the mini-esasy by Kolbert for references to fire ants, heptachlor, dieldrin, and more. Then go back to Tim’s posts at Deltoid about those who are still going on about Carson and chemicals.


  1. #1 HgMan
    May 25, 2007

    Nice. The mercury stuff is positively scandalous.

    For what it’s worth, Monday will be Barry Commoner’s 90th birthday. Bygone era, perhaps, but I can’t for the life of me think of contemporary equivalents who did so much so effectively…

  2. #2 BRC
    May 25, 2007

    That’s actually quite remarkable, the birthday near-overlap. And too bad one of them has been gone for 44 years.

    Now, if only there was a book on Commoner, something new-ish, something giving us the best in modern scholarship….