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I promise no more (long) posts on Silent Spring after this one! Carson’s most emphatic point in Silent Spring is to urge us to reduce or eliminate our use of chemical agents for dealing with plant and insect “pests.” The science of the last 50 years seems to have vindicated those folks who took a less alarmist approach to the use of insecticides. For a very nice review of what has happened in the last 50 years since Carson produces such dire warnings you can do no better than Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist.

But something strikes one as odd upon completing the book. Carson does not seem to be universally opposed to killing massive amounts of unwanted species. She just has a taste for doing it her way – by biological means. For example, she tells a compelling story of how chemical agents have been ineffective at eradicating the Japanese Beetle from the US, but how she prefers knowingly spreading bacterial infections among the targeted populations to eradicate them rather than by spreading chemicals. She uses the example of “milky disease” which seems to affect only a class of insects known as the “scarabaeids” of which the Japanese Beetle is  a member. She approves the use of biological agents because she claims that, unlike chemicals, the effects of biological agents (including introducing parasitic predators of known pests) manage to keep their effects only on the targeted populations and pose no risk to other plant and animal species, and of course, no risk to humans. Strangely, just after making a claim like this, she goes on to say that the bacteria she prefers to kill Japanese Beetles only kills “40 other” beetles, and just like the chemical agents she deplores, “because of the long viability of the spores in soil they can be introduced even in the complete absence of grubs, as on the fringe of the present beetle infestation, there to await the advancing population.” And of course, when birds eat those grubs, that is fine, and though these bacteria can survive for a long time in the soil and cause destruction it is no concern at all to allow it to sit there waiting to kill only the targeted population should it ever show up.

Another favored technology of Carson’s is the radioactive or chemical sterilization of the males of unwanted species. Yes, you read that correctly. And even though she spends an earlier chapter of the book talking about how chemical insecticides are likely to destroy the fundamental parts of human cells, including the genetic material, she looks with hope upon two sterilizers, one which wrecks the metabolic processes in insect cells and another which causes the chromosomes in insects to break apart. She celebrates these methods on pp. 282-285 of her book. Finally, on p. 291 she decides to take some time to defend these seemingly contradictory positions and the best she can come up with is by just saying it is nothing to worry about:

To some the term microbial insecticide may conjure up pictures of bacterial warfare that would endanger other forms of life. This is not true.

She proceeds to support this claim with some quotes from biologists with the defense that they are, “an outstanding authority on insect pathology” so if they just assert it, it must be true. I actually have no idea. But imagine if I made a comment like the following:

To some, the term “anarcho-capitalism” may conjure up pictures of merchant and consumer warfare that would endanger our entire social fabric. This is not true. A really well respected smart guy says so.

I’d be laughed off the planet. Indeed, I make far less dramatic claims in class and am accused of all kinds of ideological nuttiness by my students who sound more like I told them that Santa Claus did not exist than someone who asks them to think hard about how the world works and the myriad incentives that are at play.

3 Responses to “Chemical Warfare Bad, Biological Warfare Good?”

  1. Michael says:

    It’s interesting to go and read what a person actually said rather than to go off of what everybody says the person said. (Unfortunately I have a scarcity of time.) Thanks for putting down some of the interesting bits! Was she quite readable overall? I know that Veblen can be a terrible writer to try and figure out what he’s really saying. Adam Smith is so detailed that although he is easy to understand (and has many interesting insights), it tends to put me asleep.

  2. Michael says:

    I guess we could state it this way:

    “To some, the term “anarcho-capitalism” may conjure up pictures of merchant and consumer warfare that would endanger our entire social fabric. This is not true. Even the ancient Athenians knew this.”

  3. Michael says:

    One further point, since I’ve been dealing with the problem lately, it’s easy to kill japanese beetles by brushing them into a bowl filled with soapy water. We do this at home because they’ll decimate the rose bushes if left alone.

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