Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking and paradigm-shattering book, “Silent Spring.” In it, she charted the depth of our dependence on chemicals as a means of subduing our environment. By chronicling the effects of these chemicals on our ecosystems and ourselves, she pulled back the curtain on the depth of our arrogance and naiveté.
As a good friend, who is also a historian of science, is fond of saying, Silent Spring, more than any other work of the 20th century, is responsible for shifting our understanding of ourselves from masters of the environment to stewards of it. In short, her book has become a kind of watershed moment. We look back and chart our own progress by asking, “Where did we go from there?”
The answer to that question is complex. We demanded regulations. We have banned DDT. We have begun a worldwide environmental movement. And yet, we still use pesticides almost ubiquitously. We still learn almost monthly, it seems, of new contaminants in the water and potential threats to our health and safety.
We are changed, for sure. But we are still mired in many of the same dilemmas that Carson outlined for us 50 years ago. Two recent articles – one about the recent and potentially catastrophic infestation of Asian Citrus Psyllids in East County — and another about the federal halting of new highways in Imperial County as incentive for complying with pollution reduction standards — paint a perfect picture of our current practical and ethical bind when it comes to the use of pesticides both locally and across the globe.
On the one hand, we depend upon the productivity of our agricultural crops year in and year out. In part, we need to be productive to meet the demands of our population. Also though, as consumers we demand the lower prices allowed for by increased supply. And before we self-righteously volunteer to pay more for organic produce, let’s remember that this is a luxury that not all of us can afford. Michelle Obama’s campaign for affordable, fresh, local produce markets in low-income neighborhoods has certainly brought much needed attention to the “organic class divide.” The simple truth is that price matters. The use of pesticides has, historically, helped to keep the cost of produce reliably low.
As cases like the Asian Citrus Psyllids highlight, the threat of even one pest can mean that as much as 40 percent of a crop can be decimated. The effects of this on consumers and on farmers whose families depend on the sale of those crops is, we have decided, too high to ignore. As noted in the Psyllids story, the government has stepped in and is offering to spray any crops in areas where the insect has been found. When we need pesticides, we will use them. The unspoken logic is that there is simply too much at stake not to.
Ironically, within days of the notice to local San Diego farmers about Asian Citrus Psyllids, another article announced that the new highway construction in the Imperial County was being halted because the region had failed to meet the federally mandated benchmarks for air pollution reduction and, apparently, “[d]ust, pesticide use, the burning of agricultural fields and off-road vehicles make the air there among the most polluted in the nation.”
So, in the very same region of the country, with one hand the government (likely with much public support) is offering to spray pesticide to deal with an imminent threat, and on the other (also likely with broad support) is taking a firm stance against pesticide use in favor of sound environmental policy.
So where do we go from here?
Some argue that the answer to dangerous chemical pesticides is better pesticides. The irrational fear of chemicals is, according to this logic, no more valid than the irrational notion that they will solve any and every problem. We must continue to be vigilant in our study of effects and our commitment to developing safer (sometimes called “softer”) and more effective agents.
Others argue that until we can eliminate pesticide use, we will constantly find ourselves behind the curve, learning about our mistakes only after they have done their environmental and ecological damage.
In the middle of this debate though, is a relatively new and growing scientific exploration into alternative means of agricultural pest control. And San Diego State University is home to one of the leaders in this arena, Stephen Welter.
One approach has included the use of pheromones to interrupt mating patterns among the target pests. The experiments have dramatically reduced the need for pesticide use or spraying of chemicals. This method achieves a happy balance between the desire for crop productivity and affordable produce on one hand, and environmental safety on the other.
Still, we know that ecosystems are delicate, and even if we don’t spray chemicals, dramatic changes in animal populations can have harmful, unintended consequences. What might be the long-term effects of this intervention? Only time will tell.
For now, it is a new, innovative and promising approach. Whether it is the answer to our dilemma or not, it is another powerful chapter in the rich legacy of Rachel Carson and Silent Spring.
On Oct. 17, Stephen Welter will be speaking at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center as part of a free, “Exploring Ethics” series hosted by the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. To learn more about this topic and to participate in a dialogue about the issues raised by this work, RSVP here.
Tate Hurvitz is a Project Director for the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and an Assistant Professor at Grossmont College, where he teaches English and co-coordinates the Freshman Academy, designed to promote interdisciplinary learning. He lives in Chula Vista.