Feed on

I mean it.

I decided this summer to go to my library and take out every single Green Alarmist, Malthusian, anti-capitalist environmental book I could find.I’ve read several throughout my life, but all of them before I learned economics. I wanted to read the new stuff, and revisit the old stuff, not only with an economist’s eye, but also with a more sympathetic eye as well.

Crop Dusting

So far in my pile I have Deep Economy, The End of Nature, The Bill McKibben Reader, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, the Story of Stuff, the Green Collar Economy, and Better Off. I also have the original edition (well worn) of Silent Spring. Surprisingly my local library does not have very many more books like this (it certainly is sparse on the Julian Simon – the second edition of Ultimate Resource is not anywhere in the entire County system, none of his books on population are in the entire system, and old editions of some of his other works can only be found in the central city library, and certainly not in any of the suburban libraries where the most highly educated and interested readers would be (see here). More on my project in the future. For now, I wanted to quote a paragraph from Silent Spring, one which in spirit is repeated several places throughout the book:

It is not (wintercow emphasis added) my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problems. … earlier in the book she says, “All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects. (p9)

That certainly does not sound like some anti-development, anti-capitalistic nutcase like she is made out to be. Now, her personal preference, for all I know, could very well have been for all of us to live in hovels, at 1/10th the population we have today, just as my preference is for a world without government. But that ought not color our interpretation of what she actually put down in print. Two points from the above quote are worth emphasizing.

First, remember that she is writing over 50 years ago and at that time we had far less understanding of the impacts of these chemicals than we do today. It is easy, having recently read books like Matt Ridley’s excellent Rational Optimist to think that what we know now about safety and the almost nonexistence of cancer due to these chemcials that Carson should have been aware of it back then, but I don’t believe it was late enough for her to know. Of course, if we take too much of a precautionary approach to using any new materials we may never develop, but that does not seem to be what she is advocating above. Almost every paragraph of the book includes “may,” “possibly,” and “suggests.” For as many case studies as she provides to illustrate the harmful effects of spraying, there really is, by necessity, a heckuva lot of speculation about where the problem comes from and its long term effects.

Second, and I think even more important, is the not so subtle appreciation for the importance of property rights here. This is an issue that drives me absolutely bananas because knee-jerk Progressives and knee-jerk “libertarians” are really fatuous on this point. The typical knee-jerk libertarian, I can assure you, will dismiss anything Rachel Carson wrote as wrong and unimportant. The typical knee-jerk Progressive, I can assure you, will accept it without question. Neither will ask themselves what exactly is the truth. On the issue of property rights, from the above paragraph, Carson sure sounds a lot more like Murray Rothbard than Liam Murphy or Thomas Nagel. In other words, the “natural” libertarian position on the environment can’t possibly be, “do whatever you want” and “it’s all good.” Just as the “natural” Progressive view of the environment is that all of it is public property. Carson makes clear that the chemical problem (granting that there ever was one) is clearly a property rights one. Here is an illustration from later in the book regarding the spraying of DDT in Nassau County (in the name of preventing the Gypsy Moth from invading … Manhattan):

A group of Long Island citizens led by the world-famous ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy had sought a court injunction to prevent the 1957 spraying. Denied a preliminary injunction, the protesting citizens had to suffer the prescribed drenching with DDT, but thereafter persisted in efforts to obtain a permanent injunction. But because the act had already been performed the courts held that the petition for an injunction was “moot.” The case was carried all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. Justice William O. Douglas, strongly dissenting from the decision not to review the case, held that “the alarms that many experts and responsible officials have raised about the perils of DDT underline the public importance of this case.”

The suit brought by the Long Island citizens at least served to focus public attention on the growing trend to mass application of insecticides, and on the power and inclination of the control agencies to disregard supposedly inviolate property rights of private citizens.

By her telling, there was massive opposition to the spraying by the citizens of Nassau County, and for some reason the government went right on with their plans. I have no idea how accurate this assessment is. In any case, I am pretty sure her conception of private property rights would differ from ours, but the above paragraph correctly captures the idea that if a chemical leaches into my property without my consent, then my rights have been violated and there is justification for doing something about this. It would have been nice to see her lay out just how private property would be violated. Consider the leaching of chemical herbicides into drinking water. If all wells are privately owned, and we are not even aware that the chemicals are leaching in, we certainly have a problem. If the water supply is privately owned by a single corporation, it is likely they are aware of the chemical problem, or can easily negotiate around this problem, and therefore there would be no issue here. If the water supply is government owned and operated, it would seem to be the case that the problem is easy to deal with.

I’m halfway through the book. I’ll say a few more words about it when I am done. Much of it is a bit technical regarding how various chemicals are created and how they work and their long term persistence in an ecosystem, and much less of it deals with epidemiology, economics, and policy, than I have been led to believe.

5 Responses to “Rachel Carson has Been Mistreated, Somewhat”

  1. chuck martel says:

    An important aspect of the issue is the dramatically smaller threshold of chemical detection today compared to that of Carson’s era. Atomic absorption testing can detect levels as small as single digits per billion. We find that there is a small background level of practically every element everywhere on earth. The difficulty is in determining the source of elevated levels of some elements and how elevated the level must be to create a true negative externality. People get upset if there are 15 parts per billion of arsenic in their drinking water. My response would be, “Would you cancel a trip to China if you knew that there were 15 serial killers roaming the country?”

  2. Harry says:

    I never read Silent Spring. Thanks for the preview review, Wintercow. I sure will not jerk my knee next time her name comes up. Just so we know you are not wasting your time reading Henry Waxman’s autobiography on the dock in the clear, acidic lake in the Adirondacs.

    Your observation about Carson’s implied respect for property rights, and how she qualified her argument certainly shows she should not be the bogeyman, something we cannot say about Henry Waxman.

    Chuck Martel, as usual makes an insightful point. Or several.

    Regardless of what Rachel Carson said, what we got was Earth Day (May 1970?) from Ira Einhorn, then a hippie celebrity in Philadelphia, who made himself into an ad hominem argument against his cause by killing and dismembering his girlfriend and stuffing the remains into a trunk that he kept in the living room.

    Since then our governments and our courts have overreacted wildly often, sanely sometimes.

    The EPA is about to issue regulations on mercury emissions designed to kill utilities that rely on coal for power generation. I watch this stuff because it affects investment values, as in whether bonds will default. Or whether the economy will collapse. Do those guys at the EPA who power their computers with PEPCO electricity care about the lights go out?

  3. Harry says:

    Going out.

  4. RIT_Rich says:

    My opinion is that its all rhetoric. Of course, like any respectable doomsayer, you never do outright explicit predictions. Everything is a “might” or “may”. Second, it is always polite to point out in the beginning that you are not necessarily calling for the banning of a particular something that will…ahm sorry “may”…kill all our children. That you will leave up to the “experts” to decide. Its like saying “with all due respect”, before saying something disrespectful. She goes on about the “ignorant” people to whom this “potentially” deadly chemical that will…there I go again “may”…kill all birds, is entrusted to. But she never stops to consider the possibility that she may be ignorant too. The “property rights” argument is also entirely typical of the environmental knee-jerks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the argument (other than the over embellished and often fictitious facts and fearmonegering). The problem is that environmentalists only apply this argument to things they are against. Anyone can apply such an argument to something they are against.

    Of course turning her into a boogeyman isn’t very constructive either. She’s entirely all too typical of the environmental knee-jerk doomsday reaction. Her problem is typical: there’s a limited, weak and unprovable evidence, leading to fear-mongering by “concerned” individuals who are only concerned about what “may” happen to out children/water/air/pets etc and so on and so forth, and for our own good some things just ought not to be left in the hands of the ignorant, but should be controlled better by the hands of the “experts” (of course only physicians and chemists working at a government laboratory can be entrusted to be experts). We saw this in all its glory with vaccines, and certainly we’re seeing it with AGW.

  5. […] read was closely dedicated to conservation and the classics from Muir to Leopold were common. Even Rachel Carson was writing in a very different time than […]

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