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Having nearly finished Rachel Carson’s classic work, Silent Spring, I am almost apoplectic that some of it has been so thoroughly ignored by those of us who understand that the state is often bumbling, misinformed, bought, corrupt, incompetent, etc. Perhaps the only difference between the Ecologists like Carson and folks like me is not in identifying what may be potential problems (though I do think this is important) but in how we think about dealing with them. For most folks, they can be no more creative than to recommend some new government rule, agency, regulation or plan and think shallowly that such rules will work as intended and without corruption. For others, we understand that human beings are complex beings driven by a host of varying incentives and motives, and that our social and environmental order is complex and not prone to simplistic managerial solutions – so we view government rules and initiatives skeptically. This is not to say, as the demagogues among the “progressives” proclaim that we do not imagine there are no ways to deal with problems, but rather that we are humble in our ability to formally craft solutions. I should not be surprised that this is the mindset – how could it be otherwise when over 90% of the children in America are educated for at least 12 years by the government.

One of the treasures of Carson’s book is that it can be used as a supremely effective illustration of the role that governments have played in “wrecking” the environment (I put “wrecking” in quotes because it turns out the worst fears of Carson’s have not been realized, thankfully, but that if they are fears, they are just as much the fault of government as anyone). This is not some right-wing conspiracy book. This is not some anarchist tome. Rather, the public choice illustrations are coming from a darling of the Progressive community and the woman who is arguably the single-most important inspiration for the modern environmental movement – and certainly lays some claim to the being the person most responsible for the move to strong federal regulation and protection of the environment a decade following the publication of the book. Here are several illustrations, and by no means is this exhaustive.

Farmland Development

We are told that the enormous and expanding use of pesticides is necessary to maintain farm production. Yet is our real problem not one of overproduction? Our farms, despite measures to remove acreages from production and to pay farmers not to produce, have yielded such a staggering excess of crops that the American taxpayer in 1962 is paying out more than one billion dollars a year as the total carrying cost of the surplus-food storage program. And is the situation helped when one branch of the Agriculture Department tries to reduce production when another states, as it did in 1958, “It is believed generally that the reduction of crop acreages under provisions of the Soil Bank, will stimulate interest in use of chemicals to obtain maximum production on the land retained in crops.”

World War II (I Guess This is Another One of those Great Things that Comes from Wars)

For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals … All this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War (wintercow emphasis). In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.

On Water Pollution and Contamination – Rocky Mountain Edition

If anyone doubts that our waters have become almost universally contaminated with insecticides he should study a small report issued by the USFWS in 1960 … and so, in a very real sense, pollution of the groundwater is pollution of water everywhere.

It must have been by such a dark, underground sea that poisonous chemicals traveled from a manufacturing plant in Colorado to a farming district several miles away, there to poison wells, sicken humans and livestock, and damage crops — an extraordinary episode that may easily be only the first of many like it. Its history, in brief, is this. In 1943, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal of the Army Chemical Corps, located near Denver, began to manufacture war materials. Eight years later the facilities of the arsenal were leased to a private oil company for the production of insecticides. Even before the change of operations, however, mysterious reports had begun to come in. Farmers several miles from the plant began to report unexplained sickness among livestock; they complained of extensive crop damage. Foliage turned yellow, plants failed to mature, and many crops were killed outright. There were reports of human illness, thought by some to be related.

The irrigation waters on these farms were derived from shallow wells. When the well waters were examined they were found to contain an assortment of chemicals. Chlorides, chlorates, salts of phosphonic acid, fluorides, and arsenic had been discharged from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal into holding ponds during years of its operation. Apparently the groundwater between the arsenal and the farms became contaminated and it had taken 7 to 8 years for the wastes to travel underground a distance of about 3 miles from the holding ponds to the nearest farms … after long and careful study, chemists at the plant concluded that 2,4-D had been formed spontaneously in the open basins … from other substances discharged from the arsenal (wintercow: which highlights yet another point – that the damage that combinations of chemicals (and regulations) are virtually unknowable from the outset, even if the component parts themselves are deemed harmless).

On Water Pollution and Contamination – Klamath Edition

It is, of course, not only the groundwaters that are becoming contaminated, but surface-moving waters as well —  streams, rivers, irrigation waters. A disturbing example of the latter seems to be building up on the national wildlife refuges at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath, both in California. These refuges are part of a chain including also the refuge on Upper Klamath Lake just over the border in Oregon. All are linked, perhaps fatefully, by a shared water supply, and all are affected by the fact that they lie like small islands in a great sea of surrounding farmlands — land reclaimed by drainage and stream diversion from an original waterfowl paradise of marshland and open water.

These farmlands around the refuges are now irrigated by water from Upper Klamath Lake. The irrigation waters, recollected from the fields they have served, are then pumped into Tule Lake and from there to Lower Klamath. All of the waters of the wildlife refuges established on these two bodies of water therefore represent the drainage of agricultural lands. It is important to remember this in connection with recent happenings.

In the summer of 1960 the refuge staff picked up hundreds of dead and dying birds at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath. Most of them were fish-eating species — herons, pelicans, grebes, gulls. Upon analysis, they were found to contain insecticide residues identified as toxaphene, DDD, and DDE. Fish from the lakes were also found to contain insecticides; so did samples of plankton. The refuge manager believes that pesticide residues are now building up in the waters of these refuges, being conveyed there by return irrigation flow from heavily sprayed agricultural lands.

Such poisoning of waters set aside for conservation purposes could have consequences felt by every western duck hunter and by everyone to whom the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky are precious. These particular refuges occupy critical positions in the conservation of western waterfowl. They lie at a point corresponding to the narrow neck of a funnel, into which all the migratory paths composing what is known as the Pacific Flyway converge. During the fall migration they receive many millions of ducks and geese from nesting grounds extending from the shores of Bering Sea east to Hudson Bay — fully three fourths of all the waterfowl that move south into the Pacific Coast states in autumn. In summer they provide nesting areas for waterfowl, especially for two endangered species, the redhead and the ruddy duck. If the lakes and pools of these refuges become seriously contaminated, the damage to the waterfowl populations of the Far West could be irreparable.

(wintercow: note that the irrigation projects are a result of US government land management policy. For a related disaster, google Kesterson Wildlife Selenium Poison and see what comes up).

On Conserving the Ecosystems of the High Desert

… the newest addition to the weapons is the use of chemical sprays. Now millions of acres of sagebrush lands are sprayed each year.

What are the results? The eventual effects of eliminating sage and seeding with grass are largely conjectural. Men of long experience with the ways of the land say that in this country there is better growth of grass between and under the sage than can possibly be had in pure stands, once the moisture-holding sage is gone.

But even if the program succeeds in its immediate objective, it is clear that the whole closely knit fabric of life has been ripped apart. The antelope and the grouse will disappear along with the sage. The deer will suffer, too, and the land will be poorer for the destruction of the wild things that belong to it. Even the livestock which are the intended beneficiaries will suffer; no amount of lush green grass in summer can help the sheep starving in the winter storms for lack of the sage and bitterbrush and other wild vegetation of the plains.

These are the first and obvious effects. The second is of a kind that is always associated with the shotgun approach to nature: the spraying also eliminates a great many plants that were not its intended target. Justice William O. Douglas, in his recent book My Wilderness: East to Katahdin, has told of an appalling example of ecological destruction wrought by the United States Forest Service in the Bridger National Forest in Wyoming. Some 10,000 acres of sagelands were sprayed by the Service, yielding to pressure of cattlemen for more grasslands. The sage was killed, as intended. But so was the green, life-giving ribbon of willows that traced its way across these plains, following the meandering streams. Moose had lived in these willow thickets, for willow is to the moose what sage is to the antelope. Beaver had lived there, too, feeding on the willows, felling them and making a strong dam across the tiny stream. Through the labor of the beavers, a lake backed up. Trout in the mountain streams seldom were more than six inches long; in the lake they thrived so prodigiously that many grew to five pounds. Waterfowl were attracted to the lake, also. Merely because of the presence of the willows and the beavers that depended on them, the region was an attractive recreational area with excellent fishing and hunting.

But with the “improvement” instituted by the Forest Service, the willows went the way of the sagebrush, killed by the same impartial spray. When Justice Douglas visited the area in 1959, the year of the spraying, he was shocked to see the shriveled and dying willows — the “vast, incredible damage.” What would become of the moose? Of the beavers and the little world they had constructed? A year later he returned to read the answers in the devastated landscape. The moose were gone and so were the beaver. Their principal dam had gone out for want of attention by its skilled architects, and the lake had drained away. None of the large trout were left. None could live in the tiny creek that remained, threading its way through a bare, hot land where no shade remained. The living world was shattered.

Oh, it Must be Because All of Our Roads are Privately Built, Maintained and Operated …

… Once it had been a joy to follow those roads through the evergreen forests, roads lined with bayberry and sweet fern, alder and huckleberry. Now all was brown desolation. One of the conservationists wrote of that August pilgrimage to a Maine island: “I returned … angry at the desecration of the Maine roadsides. Where, in previous years, the highways were bordered with wildflowers and attractive shrubs, there were only the scars of dead vegetation for mile after mile…. As an economic proposition, can Maine afford the loss of tourist goodwill that such sights induce?”

Maine roadsides are merely one example, though a particularly sad one for those of us who have a deep love for the beauty of that state, of the senseless destruction that is going on in the name of roadside brush control throughout the nation.

Botanists at the Connecticut Arboretum declare that the elimination of beautiful native shrubs and wildflowers has reached the proportions of a “roadside crisis.” Azaleas, mountain laurel, blueberries, huckleberries, viburnums, dogwood, bayberry, sweet fern, low shadbush, winterberry, chokecherry, and wild plum are dying before the chemical barrage. So are the daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrods, and fall asters which lend grace and beauty to the landscape.

The spraying is not only improperly planned but studded with abuses such as these. In a southern New England town one contractor finished his work with some chemical remaining in his tank. He discharged this along woodland roadsides where no spraying had been authorized. As a result the community lost the blue and golden beauty of its autumn roads, where asters and goldenrod would have made a display worth traveling far to see. In another New England community a contractor changed the state specifications for town spraying without the knowledge of the highway department and sprayed roadside vegetation to a height of eight feet instead of the specified maximum of four feet, leaving a broad, disfiguring, brown swath. In a Massachusetts community the town officials purchased a weed killer from a zealous chemical salesman, unaware that it contained arsenic. One result of the subsequent roadside spraying was the death of a dozen cows from arsenic poisoning.

Trees within the Connecticut Arboretum Natural Area were seriously injured when the town of Waterford sprayed the roadsides with chemical weed killers in 1957. Even large trees not directly sprayed were affected. The leaves of the oaks began to curl and turn brown, although it was the season for spring growth. Then new shoots began to be put forth and grew with abnormal rapidity, giving a weeping appearance to the trees. Two seasons later, large branches on these trees had died, others were without leaves, and the deformed, weeping effect of whole trees persisted.

The US Forest Services Goes  Fishing in Yellowstone

Wherever there are great forests, modern methods of insect control threaten the fishes inhabiting the streams in the shelter of the trees. One of the best-known examples of fish destruction in the United States took place in 1955, as a result of spraying in and near Yellowstone National Park. By the fall of that year, so many dead fish had been found in the Yellowstone River that sportsmen and Montana fish-and-game administrators became alarmed. About 90 miles of the river were affected. In one 300-yard length of shoreline, 600 dead fish were counted, including brown trout, whitefish, and suckers. Stream insects, the natural food of trout, had disappeared.

Despite these precautions, and despite the fact that a sincere effort was apparently made, in at least four major streams almost 100 per cent of the salmon were killed.

In one of the rivers, the young of a run of 40,000 adult Coho salmon were almost completely annihilated. So were the young stages of several thousand steelhead trout and other species of trout. The Coho salmon has a three-year life cycle and the runs are composed almost entirely of fish of a single age group. Like other species of salmon, the Coho has a strong homing instinct, returning to its natal stream. There will be no repopulation from other streams. This means, then, that every third year the run of salmon into this river will be almost nonexistent, until such time as careful management, by artificial propagation or other means, has been able to rebuild this commercially important run.

Taking a Gun to a Knife Fight: The Case of the Japanese Beetle

… During the fall of 1959 some 27,000 acres in southeastern Michigan, including numerous suburbs of Detroit, were heavily dusted from the air with pellets of aldrin, one of the most dangerous of all the chlorinated hydrocarbons. The program was conducted by the Michigan Department of Agriculture with the cooperation of the United States Department of Agriculture; its announced purpose was control of the Japanese beetle.

Little need was shown for this drastic and dangerous action. On the contrary, Walter P. Nickell, one of the best-known and best-informed naturalists in the state, who spends much of his time in the field with long periods in southern Michigan every summer, declared: “For more than thirty years, to my direct knowledge, the Japanese beetle has been present in the city of Detroit in small numbers. The numbers have not shown any appreciable increase in all this lapse of years. I have yet to see a single Japanese beetle [in 1959] other than the few caught in Government catch traps in Detroit … Everything is being kept so secret that I have not yet been able to obtain any information whatsoever to the effect that they have increased in numbers.”

An official of the Federal Aviation Agency was later quoted in the local press to the effect that “this is a safe operation” and a representative of the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation added his assurance that “the dust is harmless to humans and will not hurt plants or pets.

Within a few days after the dusting operation, the Detroit Audubon Society began receiving calls about the birds … People who had maintained bird feeders said there were no birds at all at their feeders.” Birds picked up in a dying condition showed the typical symptoms of insecticide poisoning — tremoring, loss of ability to fly, paralysis, convulsions. … Nor were birds the only forms of life immediately affected. A local veterinarian reported that his office was full of clients with dogs and cats that had suddenly sickened. Cats, who so meticulously groom their coats and lick their paws, seemed to be most affected. Their illness took the form of severe diarrhea, vomiting, and convulsions

The Detroit experience has been repeated in many other communities as pressure has mounted to combat the Japanese beetle with chemicals. At Blue Island, Illinois, hundreds of dead and dying birds were picked up. Data collected by birdbanders here suggest that 80 per cent of the songbirds were sacrificed.

In 1954 the United States Department of Agriculture and the Illinois Agriculture Department began a program to eradicate the Japanese beetle along the line of its advance into Illinois, holding out the hope, and indeed the assurance, that intensive spraying would destroy the populations of the invading insect.

As the chemical penetrated the soil the poisoned beetle grubs crawled out on the surface of the ground, where they remained for some time before they died, attractive to insect-eating birds. Dead and dying insects of various species were conspicuous for about two weeks after the treatment. The effect on the bird populations could easily have been foretold. Brown thrashers, starlings, meadowlarks, grackles, and pheasants were virtually wiped out. Robins were “almost annihilated,” according to the biologists’ report. Dead earthworms had been seen in numbers after a gentle rain; probably the robins had fed on the poisoned worms. For other birds, too, the once beneficial rain had been changed, through the evil power of the poison introduced into their world, into an agent of destruction. Birds seen drinking and bathing in puddles left by rain a few days after the spraying were inevitably doomed.

The birds that survived may have been rendered sterile. Although a few nests were found in the treated area, a few with eggs, none contained young birds.

Among the mammals ground squirrels were virtually annihilated; their bodies were found in attitudes characteristic of violent death by poisoning. Dead muskrats were found in the treated areas, dead rabbits in the fields. The fox squirrel had been a relatively common animal in the town; after the spraying it was gone.

(wintercow: It turns out that there was a safer method of doing all of this … as we shall see soon).

There’s lots more where these came from. Sadly, I think even for folks who are familiar with these incidents, the “blame” will be put on our greedy consumers and corporations, who put governments in a position to make these awful decisions.

2 Responses to “Rachel Carson: Public Choice Economist?”

  1. I posted the following to Rebirth of Reason, an Objectivist site, where we were discussing Food in the context of Health. (Food also has an Epicurean component, of course.) First, three citations to suggest that pesticides are as safe as most other things in our lives – people who handle them professionally show few effects. Last, a citation on the fungi in black pepper. E coli, staph, and strep were also found.

    A total of 558 malignant tumours was found compared with 649 expected, which resulted in a statistically significantly decreased standardised incidence ratio (SIR) of 0-86 (95% confidence interval … No statistically significantly increased risks or any time trends were observed. SIR for testicular cancer was increased …
    “Risk of Cancer in Pesticide Applicators in Swedish Agriculture,” Wiklund, Kerstin and J. Dich, L.-E. Holm, G. Eklund, British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 46, No. 11 (Nov., 1989), pp. 809-814.
    The pesticide applicators were consistently and significantly healthier than the general population of Florida. As with many occupational cohorts, the risks of cardiovascular disease and of diseases associated with alcohol and tobacco use were significantly lower, even in the subpopulations?for example, men, women, and licence subcategories. Among male applicators, prostate cancer mortality (SMR 2.38 (95% confidence interval (95% CI) 1.83 to 3.04)) was significantly increased. No cases of soft tissue sarcoma were confirmed in this cohort, and non Hodgkin’s lymphoma was not increased. The number of female applicators was small, as were the numbers of deaths. Mortality from cervical cancer and breast cancer was not increased. Additional sub cohort and exposure analyses were performed.
    “Mortality in a Cohort of Licenced Pesticide Applicators in Florida,” Fleming, Lora E., and Judy A. Bean, Mark Rudolph, Kara Hamilton, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1999), pp. 14-21
    The researchers found limited evidence of DNA damage(such as elevated numbers of lymphocyte micronuclei) and immune system trouble (such as reduced lymphocyte function or a lower percentage of natural killer cells) in the subjects …
    “Home Sick: Does Living near a Pesticide Factory Threaten the Immune System?” Weinhold, Bob. Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 108, No. 12 (Dec., 2000), pp. A574-A575

    “Dilution cultures of 30 samples of ground black pepper yielded an average of 39,000 colonies of fungi per g, with a range of 1,700 to 310,000 per g. Total numbers of colonies of bacteria from 11 samples averaged 194,000,000 per g, with a range from 8,300,000 to 704,000,000 per g. A variety of fungi grew from nearly all surface-disinfected whole peppercorns that were cultured. Thirteen samples of ground red pepper from the United States yielded an average of 1,600 colonies of storage fungi per g and an equal number of other fungi; five samples from India yielded an average of 78,900 colonies of storage fungi per g and 169,400 colonies of other fungi per g. Among the fungi from both black and red pepper were Aspergillus flavus and A. ochraceus, some isolates of which, when grown for 8 to 10 days on moist autoclaved corn and fed to white rats or to 2-day-old Pekin ducklings, were rapidly lethal to them. Aflatoxin B1 was isolated from one of the samples of corn on which A. flavus from black pepper was grown. Among the bacteria isolated from ground black pepper were Escherichia coli, E. freudii, Serratia sp., Klebsiella sp., Bacillus sp., Staphylococcus sp., and Streptococcus sp. No cultures of Shigella or Salmonella were found.”

    “Microflora of Black and Red Pepper” C. M. Christensen, H. A. Fanse, G. H. Nelson, Fern Bates, and C. J. Mirocha. Department of Plant Pathology, and College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101. Applied Microbiology 1967 May; 15(3): 622–626. PMCID: PMC546988

  2. Harry says:

    First thing, abolish the Department of Agriculture.

    That does not mean we get rid of food stamps and starve babies. Starving babies is a policy that is separate from killing the USDA, or limiting its role to grading cuts of meat, assuming that the United States Golf Association could not do the job better. Or the Mafia, which controls all the good beef and veal.

    The soil bank and all the other farm programs never made any sense to me. One went down to the extension office, signed up for your wheat allotment, and it never added up to more than a few thousand dollars, if that. They were nice people, those five or so people in the Extension office. This occured before my subsequent training, when I grew eyes behind my head to see excess employees.

    I might pick up Silent Spring and read it, but wintercow has spared us some of the work. Thanks.

    Rachael Carson may have been treated unfairly, and may not have read closely enough.

    My personal observation, however, is that the Wyoming trout population hardly noticed whatever the Yellowstone rangers observed back then.

    If I owned a crop duster airplane, I sure would not waste fuel (and chemicals) dusting my field. If I could afford it, though, I might buzz the U of R while Wintercow is teaching environmental economics.

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