This past weekend I took a trip from my home in the mountains of North Carolina down into central Tennessee, to play in a chess tournament. (Yes, thank you, it went pretty well.) I put more than 450 mostly enjoyable miles on my little Mazda MX-5, and when I got back home I didn't even have to clean the windshield. And that's a tragedy.
It's late May, and the air in the Tennessee Valley should be abuzz with insects. Even in a small car I should have wiped out hundreds of them. But there weren't any. The glass, when I got home, was still clean. Where were the insects? As a biologist I find this more than worrisome, and I fear we are experiencing a major ecological catastrophe directly attributable to our human activities.
I was a newly married 22-year old student/city-bus-driver in Chicago in 1962, when I got a new book in the mail from the Book-of-the-Month-Club. It was Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. I had been a fan of Carson since my teens, and had read her fascinating books about the sea, which were certainly part of the inspiration for my later choice of profession. But Silent Spring was not just a celebration of nature, but a serious warning to the country and the planet. Carson explained how our indiscriminate use of pesticides could in time build up residues to the extent that the planet as a whole would be hopelessly poisoned. It might start with a die-off of insects, including those "friendly" to humans – like bees. But soon the loss of insects would kill off the insect-eating birds, bats, and spiders, as well as reptiles and frogs, and even the small mammals that depend on an insect diet. As the small mammals die, their predators like weasels and foxes disappear, and in the air the hawks follow the song birds into oblivion.
Carson was not only looking forward; she documented these sequences already occurring in many places in the US, and she wrote primarily to avert immediate disaster, by changing the pesticide culture of her time. The indiscriminate use of highly toxic chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, particularly DDT, had left much of America with reduced populations of bird life (and, of course, of insects, the target of the insecticides but also the basis of many birds' diet). These long-lived poisons were taken up by earthworms and insects, and bio-magnified through small birds and fish to the point that the top predator birds, especially the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, and at the coast the pelicans, were receiving doses of poisons that brought their populations to near extinction.
Carson was not immediately taken seriously by policymakers. Understandably, legislators and regulators needed convincing evidence before taking action to limit use of the pest control chemicals that had given us our agricultural revolution. The economic impact of such limitations could be huge. The chemical companies pulled out all the stops to both discredit Carson and emphasize the benefits of pest control chemicals. Little was done in response to "Silent Spring" through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In the meantime, Carson's fears were coming true, as several major bird species lingered on the brink of extinction.
The hazard to birds, buffaloes, wolves, and other endangered species might not have been enough to motivate the federal and state governments to invest the great sums needed to clean up our environment, but in the late 1960's the environment struck back. Our cities were enveloped in ever-denser poisonous blankets of sulfurous smog, rivers were literally catching fire from oil and trash, acid rain was killing the forests, major ocean oil spills polluted public beaches and killed tens of thousands of sea birds. Barges with urban waste were dumped illegally at sea or towed aimlessly up and down the coasts looking for permission in a landfill, and drinking water quality was suspect throughout the country. Unregulated industry as well as public utilities had used the nation's air and waterways as no-cost dumping grounds for their wastes, and the burgeoning automobile traffic converted gasoline to nitrogen dioxide and other smog-forming chemicals by the millions of tons. Together with the dystopian social conditions of the late 1960's – the Viet Nam war and its protests, race riots and burning cities, bank bombings and assassinations – the country was in a deep funk.
Richard Nixon won the presidency in a landslide in the election of 1968. Although he had not earlier been known as having a special concern for the environment, the condition of the country got his attention. His first year in office started a period of unprecedented environmental legislation and action: The National Environmental Policy Act and the Council on Environmental Quality (where Nixon appointed the vigorous Russell Train) in 1969, the Clean Water Act in 1970, the Clean Air Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. In his first State-of-the-Union message to Congress in January, 1970 – one of the most forward-looking, and consequential political speeches in our history – the president stated:
||"The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?
Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.
Clean air, clean water, open spaces – these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.
We still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.
The program I shall propose to Congress will be the most comprehensive and costly program in this field in America's history.
It is not a program for just one year. A year's plan in this field is no plan at all. This is a time to look ahead not a year, but 5 years or 10 years – whatever time is required to do the job.
I shall propose to this Congress a $10 billion nationwide clean waters program to put modern municipal waste treatment plants in every place in America where they are needed to make our waters clean again, and do it now. We have the industrial capacity, if we begin now, to build them all within 5 years. This program will get them built within 5 years.
- - -
The automobile is our worst polluter of the air. Adequate control requires further advances in engine design and fuel composition. We shall intensify our research, set increasingly strict standards, and strengthen enforcement procedures – and we shall do it now.
We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor's yard.
This requires comprehensive new regulations. It also requires that, to the extent possible, the price of goods should be made to include the costs of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment."
President Nixon then announced the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and appointed William Ruckelshaus as its head. Ruckelshaus left no doubt that EPA would use the new environmental laws to the fullest in recovering the quality of the environment. In 1972, after studies on the effect of pesticides indicated that breakdown products of DDT were responsible for the thinning of eggshells that prevented successful hatchings of bird chicks, EPA banned the use of DDT in the US. Over the next decades the bald eagle, the sandhill crane, the peregrine falcon, the white pelican and other nearly-extinct wildlife recovered their populations. Unfortunately, Rachel Carson did not live to see her vindication, as she died in 1964.
But back to the present:
We are undergoing an ecological catastrophe. Recently, studies in Germany have found a massive decrease in the population of flying insects over the past decades, and in the US, bumblebee populations have plummeted by about 90 percent in two decades, as have Monarch butterflies. In Britain, several songbird species have declined by as much as 90 percent in just the past decade, and small mammals like the hedgehog have suffered similar declines. In the US and elsewhere the honeybee populations are crashing, as are frogs all around the world. While there will be several reasons for these losses, such as land use and general pollution, much of the damage is evidently caused by the poisons specifically designed to kill: the pesticides, especially the newer "neonicotinoid" formulations.
A brief personal aside: In the 1980s-'90s I headed the California State Water Board's "Priority Toxic Chemicals" program, where a group of biologists, chemists, geologists, and toxicologists analyzed the effects of commonly used chemicals, many of them pesticides, on water quality in the state. I also represented the Board on the interagency "Pesticide Review Panel", empowered to determine the safety of pesticide practices in the state. Permitted pesticides had evolved from the highly persistent and highly bio-accumulative chlorinated hydrocarbons to organophosphate formulations, but these caused problems with overnourished (eutrophic) water bodies and fouling of water treatment plants. Currently, neonicotinoid insecticides are the most used pesticides around the world. Their adverse impact on the general insect world – not just pests – is now becoming evident.
In just two years, the EPA will celebrate fifty years of both great achievements and, recently, great disappointment. For reasons difficult to comprehend, we elected in 2016 a president who campaigned on the promise to undo EPA's "unnecessary" regulations that have so much improved our environment. He appointed a man to head the EPA who had suggested the agency should be abolished. (This was in line with his appointments to other departments, such as Energy and Interior, of secretaries who would work toward getting their agencies out of the way of business interests.) At the same time, it has become clear that current limitations on pesticide use need strengthening, and that the ubiquity of neonicotinoid insecticides must be curbed for the survival of our natural ecosystems. Mr. Trump, unfortunately, doesn't read, distrusts science, and doesn't tolerate advice that he disagrees with.
Although the president may need a conversion from above to see the disastrous effect of the deregulatory course he is on (pray for that if you're inclined), it is our duty as informed citizens to spread with words, deeds, and votes the message that we must get back to protecting nature. For God's sake. And for our children's.