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The Guy Who Defeated DDT

Friday, March 20, 2009 | Sitting on the sand at Windansea Beach on a cloudy morning recently, Art Cooley, a 74-year-old La Jolla resident, pointed at six brown pelicans swooping low across the glassy, gray water.

Their numbers are bouncing back, too, he said. The pelican, like many large, charismatic birds — the bald eagle, osprey and peregrine falcon — experienced severe population declines in the mid-20th century as a result of the widespread spraying of DDT for mosquito control. The chemical thinned the birds’ eggs, cutting reproductive success.

Cooley, now retired, helped lead the effort to get DDT banned nationwide. His fight started not because of pelicans, but declining osprey populations on Long Island. The early successes in that effort convinced him and several others to form Environmental Defense Fund, one of the country’s largest environmental groups. Its first meeting, he says, was in his living room.

We sat down to talk with Cooley, a high school biology teacher from 1956 to 1989, about the environmental movement’s evolution since the 1960s, how environmentalism is defined and whether the Endangered Species Act really works.

I’m curious to know how a high school biology teacher got involved in this work looking at the effects that DDT was having on ospreys.

When Sputnik went up, the National Science Foundation was charged with improving high school science teaching. They set up these wonderful courses around the country on different scientific topics. I went to Bowdoin College one summer for a marine biology course. I came back to my school district and started teaching biology in the summer to students … and then started an adult marine biology class. On the last day of that class, I complained vigorously about the destruction of salt-marsh wetlands on Long Island. I was young and naîve. The next day a couple of people called and said: What are you going to do about this?

The upshot of that was that we formed an organization called the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Committee. That organization spent its time in early 1966 basically interested in protecting salt marshes (from development). In the middle of 1966, a man came from Dartmouth by the name of Charlie Wurster. He was interested in DDT — he didn’t care about wetlands, he focused on DDT. He explained the problem. Rachel Carson’s book (Silent Spring) had come out in 1962, so we all had a vague feel. We decided we’d try to do something about DDT as well.

Dennis Puleston, a friend of mine, and I had been taking students on birding trips around Long Island. We were interested in the ospreys and knew they were declining. We tried to do something about DDT. Charlie Wurster wrote a letter to the local paper, a lawyer saw it and had already sued the Suffolk County Mosquito Commission but hadn’t activated the suit yet. He came to one of our meetings, got all of us to testify in this court case. A few weeks after we announced the lawsuit, the Suffolk County legislature banned DDT. We said: Man! We’re really good! We were a bunch of naîve people.

In 1967, we formed the Environmental Defense Fund, with the express purpose of going after DDT. The first meeting was in my living room. I was chairing the meeting. I said, well, I think we should have a motion to proceed with all due caution. An hour later, we passed a motion to sue the state of Michigan. So we went to Michigan and got a Coho salmon judge …

Why Michigan?

Because there was a proposal to spray the east coast of Lake Michigan with dieldrin, a [chemical] like DDT, for a few Japanese beetles. The judge didn’t want DDT in his Coho salmon food chain. So he stopped the spraying. We thought: Ah! We won again! But these wins were chimeric. They weren’t real wins.

But in the process, people in the state of Wisconsin heard about us and said come present your case, we’ll give you an adjudicatory hearing in a proper lawsuit. We did, and we won, and Wisconsin banned DDT. Then we said: Now, what do we do? We might as well sue the federal government. It banned DDT in 1972. Those were the early days of the DDT story.

And the early days of the environmental movement.

To a large degree that’s right. There were a lot of things happening at the time. The Nature Conservancy had started in 1951. NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) formed a few years after we did. Land trusts were beginning to start up. The last 50 years of the 20th century were incredible for the development of NGOs.

What’s the lesson from that experience that’s applicable to environmentalism today?

I think that it’s possible for a small group of people who are committed and have their facts right to really make a change in the way society does business. The development of NGOs has been a huge democratic effort, allowing people to present their ideas in the garden of ideas that society considers. The ones that have their act together and have a good argument and good facts and make some sense are nurtured and grow and they change society.

How has the environmental movement changed from the time of that meeting in your living room?

One of the things that’s underreported about the change from the 60s to now is that we’re really now dealing with very substantive issues. It’s one thing to go out and ban DDT, which is a chemical made by a couple of companies, which are used in a few applications. Today, we’re dealing with global climate change, the extinction of species.

We’ve gotten to the point where we’re now as environmentalists engaged in the largest issues that’ll affect the survival of mankind on the planet. The nature of the game has gotten a lot more serious. The environmental movement has gotten a lot smarter. One of our taglines when we started was: Sue the bastards. We thought all we had to do was go to court. But while lawsuits are important, you don’t always get what you want. The lawsuit is a last-ditch thing. You need to be involved in developing the legislation, in developing the tenor of the public’s reaction to what you’re trying to do. You have to be a more complex organization to succeed today.

Do you think that often happens? There’s often the accusation that the environmental community will sue almost for the sake of doing it.

Well, today, the environmental community is as complicated as the Muslim community or the religious community. You’ve got environmental organizations focusing just on whether we should have a power line coming across Southern California. They’re focused on a narrow set of issues. They’re quote environmentalists. But then you’ll have an organization focused on a whole energy package. They’re environmentalists. But they’re not the same folks, they don’t have the same objectives. We talk about environmentalists in a way that tries to lump them all together as if they’re the same. But they’re not. They really have different agendas, different viewpoints. The environmental community is complicated. I say I’m an environmentalist, but I try not to say it very often. Immediately, everyone has about 40 different ideas about who you are. They want to put you in a box before they know what you’re supporting.

I watched a video you gave when the bald eagle (whose population had been decimated by DDT) came off the endangered species list. It seems easy to measure the success of the Endangered Species Act by the de-listing of those charismatic megafauna — the bald eagles, the peregrine falcons of the world. But does it work? Does it work for the fairy shrimp and milkweed of the world?

One of the things you do is try to identify species which if you get them protected you protect their habitat and other things that go along with it. Sometimes choosing the polar bear as the iconic animal of the Arctic, you get people interested in talking about what we can do about global warming.

The original idea of the Endangered Species Act was to put money in and you get de-listings. But we just may be on the hook to keep working on these species forever. Because there are so many of us, with so much development and habitat destruction. So maybe if we get something to not go extinct tomorrow, we maybe haven’t saved it fully. The jury is still out on the Endangered Species Act. I think it’s the right thing, but it is hard.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS
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