Last night, I was honored to facilitate the 22nd Annual Rachel Carson Forum held at The Evergreen State College and hosted by the Masters of Environmental Science Association, MESA. The panel discussion was on the “Social, Political, and Ecological Implications of Pesticide Use in our Society Today.” Below are my opening remarks.
As a student back in the 1970s, I studied the biochemistry of pesticides. At that time, there was a clear demarcation between systemic and other types of pesticides. Systemics were used strictly for ornamental plants—those plants not eaten by humans or livestock. Yes, an animal could be stricken after consuming the plant, but for the most part, ornamental crops were small and covered little acreage.
But in the intervening years our government—through the actions of the EPA and USDA— has sanctioned the consumption of pesticides by humans. The old theory that you could wash it off is but a memory. By using systemic preparations or genetic manipulation, poisons are now incorporated into the very fabric of the foods we eat. When I see a bee pupa stricken with deformities or a worker bee shivering with convulsions, I always wonder when and where we will draw the line. Living things are, after all, more similar than different. I truly believe that where the honey bee goes mankind will follow.
These developments are not surprising in a system where safety testing is done by the companies who will gain from their approval . . . or in an economy where a company can buy out those who say inconvenient things. None of that has changed.
I also find it disturbing that our government has established no protocols for measuring metabolite toxicity, sub-lethal effects, and synergistic amplification of poisons. The popular press often refers to these chemical processes as if they were newly discovered evils—something we’ve never seen before—but in fact, Rachel Carson addressed all three of these issues by page 31 of Silent Spring.
Yes, the chemicals are different, the terminology is different, but the concepts are just the same. Rachel Carson laid out the facts for all of us to see. So why are we not paying attention? Haven’t we heard that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it?
In re-reading Silent Spring, I can’t help but single out her prophetic words about pollinators. “Man is more dependent on these wild pollinators than he usually realizes. Even the farmer himself seldom understands the value of wild bees and often participates in the very measures that rob him of their services.”
Now, fifty years later, after colony collapse disorder has devastated countless numbers of managed bees, we are suddenly asking what will happen if the honey bee dies out. Ironically, therein lies the beauty of colony collapse disorder: this devastating affliction has focused attention on pesticides like nothing else since Silent Spring. But we should have known . . . Rachel Carson told us this day was coming.
If we intend to turn the tide on the forever-expanding pesticide industry we must remember that education is job one. Armed with what you learn here tonight and a lawn chair, I invite you to spend some time in the gardening section of your local home improvement store. Sit a spell. Watch the pesticides fly out the door. You will be amazed at the trouble we’re in.
I commend MESA for selecting a topic so ironically on point fifty years after the publication of Silent Spring. Tonight, I want you to glean as much as possible from our distinguished panel, then pass it on to your friends and family. All of us—we humans as well as the birds, the bees, the fishes, and frogs—need all the help we can get.