Monday, June 25, 2007

Tug-of-War

If you pay much attention to my writing, then you know how much I love this earth. I'm not so much a birds and the bees sort of person - nor can I claim the title of "tree-hugger", but I believe my writing points out my affinity for the geology and landscape beauty our planet displays. I feel very strongly I am called to be a good steward of this glorious sphere I call home.

The first time I was exposed to this philosophy was as a child, camping. I can very clearly recall being told to go over our campsite after we'd backed to go home - to make sure there was no trash, no burning embers in the fireplace - and the site was a clean (or cleaner) than when we arrived.

Good stewardship was wider than just the circumference our campsite. It extend to the nearby lakes and streams we fished, the paths we hiked, the mountains we climbed. As I got older I noticed my Dad never drove our 4x4 off the designated roads or paths. His scorn was endless for the guys who drove on muddy roads and rutted them. Hell have no furry than Original Box Mitter seeing some "jerk" trying to climb a levee bank - or mountainside where they didn't belong.

He is a careful, thoughtful steward of this land. Never nailing into trees, tramping in sensitive eco-systems or pouring soapy water into a stream. So this is the picture. A man who loves the outdoors, who taught his children to also be thoughtful and respectful stewards.

I never thought there was a conflict between his personal life and his professional life. Indeed, to me it seemed to fit. He loved the outdoors, he like to know 'why', and he liked to fix things and teach people things.

For many reasons the '60's and early 70's were a turbulent time. Especially in California. One night I recall a dinner table conversation revolving around a trial in San Francisco. At the table my Dad stormed about "those stupid tree-huggers who just didn't have a clue". Now consider that statement with what I've written above. Seem kind of incongruous, doesn't it? I mean, wouldn't you EXPECT a "steward", someone who loved the earth so much, and spent so much time in the outdoors, to also be a tree hugger? Immediately I asked what was going on. With a deep sign O.B. Mitter explained the people in court wanted to ban the use of pesticides because they were dangerous.

"But, but how will the plants grow if the bugs eat them all?", I asked.

"That's just it Mit", he said. The plants won't ALL grow - and the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store won't look so perfect, nor be so cheep."

"But won't the bugs kill ALL the plants?", I asked.

"No, the bugs won't kill ALL the plants, but they'll be fewer of them, and fewer things to eat. They're trying to say we should hire humans to get rid of the bugs, Mit,", he informed me.

"But, but" .. .I sputtered. "The bugs are too small to see! You have to show them to me with your hand-lens. How can they kill them, if they can't see them?"

"Good point, Sasafaran", he smiled at me.

"Why do they say the pesticides are dangerous, Dad?", I quizzed.

"Well, they say if you eat or drink a lot of the poison, you could die or get cancer. They also claim other animals will get sick too."

"Is that true?"

"Well honey, there are very strict rules about how you're to use these chemicals. If you use the chemicals correctly, then everyone should be okay."

"Don't they all follow the rules?", asked the child who knew there were always sever repercussions for NOT following the rules.

"Nope, some of them don't. That's part of my job, to make sure they understand and follow those rules."

Quite honestly? That was enough for me. I trusted that my Dad, the smartest man in the whole world, would make everyone follow the rules. And I also knew he'd never, ever, allow anyone or anything to hurt me, or the outdoors he loved so much.

But remember, this was the 70's. And what I was hearing? What was the swirling story? The madness had all been unleashed by a woman named Rachel Carlson and her book, "Silent Spring". Now I don't remember my Dad ever mentioning this book, specifically, but because of his occupation and the company he worked for, there was no way he couldn't have known about it or been effected by what was being said about it.

Flashing past DDT and the dying Condors, and the Alar apple scare, we arrive at the late 80's and Mit in college. What degree is she pursing? One which would allow her to defend farmers from unreasonable government regulations regarding FDA labeling of pesticides/insecticides/herbicides/fungicides, etc.

The course work was Pre-Law (Political Science) and Ag-Business. As part of my studies I took ethics courses, FDA regulation courses, and Constitutional-law classes. However, life has a way of getting away from us - and one day I woke up and realized I needed to get the hell out of college and start earning a living and pay off my student loans. So law school was shelved and I graduated (barely - and longer than the typical 4 year course plan).

What field did I enter? Agriculture. Still the issues of chemical safety followed me. One company I worked for supplied all of us with copies of, "Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastics", by Dennis Avery. I read it - and was fascinated. I think some of the arguments put forth by Avery, are worth examining. Namely that housing should be on less than optimal farm land, and scales of production economy (which involves the use of plastics and pesticides) is necessary to feed this world efficiently. Knowing this publication has a definite agenda, it does not lessen the point it's trying to make. It also does not allow me to reconcile the idea my Dad would ever KNOWINGLY allow his love of nature to be compromised by his profession.

So that's why I was so interested to attend the book signing yesterday of Pricilla Coit Murphy's, "What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring". It was a great event.

What did I appreciate MOST about her talk? I think it was these things:

Her purpose in writing this book was to look at the effect "Silent Spring" had on our population and the media. How did the media AND the corporate world treat her, and her message? How has it changed the way issues are brought to the public? Was the framing of the issue by Rachel unbiased? Did they accurately recount her position and book?

In a nutshell here's what Ms. Murphy said. Consistently Ms. Carson's detractors tried to undermine her credentials and research, which was ironic given she has a Masters in Zoology from John Hopkins. It is also clear from Ms. Murphy's research, that Carlson went out of her way to distance herself from any personal links between her research and her call to examine the use of pesticides in agriculture. Most notably, Carlson was fighting breast cancer when this book came to publication and she never once wanted her health tied to her writing.

The publication of Silent Spring was the first time an individual was able to create public interest and discussion on an issue. It was not the typical advocacy group or big-business interest framing the question and the call to action.

Another interesting point is the difference in format between the book release and the 3 part serialization in the New Yorker. The New Yorker article, which was published shortly before the book release, DID NOT contain Carlson's disclaimer in the second chapter, where she states she is NOT ADVOCATING for a complete ban of pesticide use. Instead she wanted the industry to thoughtfully examine the effects of pesticides and figure out the BEST ways to employ them without upsetting the delicate balance of nature.

The New Yorker placed that disclaimer near the end of the third article - after the controversy was stirred, and the chemical industry never noticed it, or used her disclaimer to their advantage. Further, I found it interesting, as did the author, how many people discussed at length the book, Silent Spring, but also claimed THEY HAD NEVER READ IT. It appears our media and big business hasn't changed much in the last 40 years, has it?

After the talk, one of the audience asked the author "Why would people in the pesticide industry and in our government regulation agencies knowingly poison us? Were they only interested in making a dollar?"

And that's the question I always come back to. It's the question that hits closest to my home and heart. Would my Dad, the man who loves nature so much, who works to preserve habitat and species knowingly work in an industry that was ruining his world? I cannot help but think the answer is NO. Of course not. But sometimes our focus is narrowed - to what we're intimately pursuing day to day to put food on the table - and we forget to look up and consider the bigger questions. I think this is the cautionary cry of this story. A cry for all of us to be balanced in our professions. To listen closely to the dissenters, to remain level headed as our occupations and methodologies are attacked - and to meet those questions and accusations head on.

1 comment:

tp said...

We DID talk about Silent Spring many times and Rachel Carlson's name. And Mit's pater DID read the book, albeit with a jaundiced mind.