See below for a miscellany of less-easy-to-categorise articles. I've chosen pieces that I particularly like or that focus on issues that continue to fascinate me.
The early Soil Association's Campaign Against Pesticides
Ask a member of the general public about the history of pesticides and if s/he has anything to say it will probably consist of two words: Silent Spring. Popular history about efforts to protect humans and the environment from risks posed by pesticides begins and, for most people, ends with Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring. Carson's beautiful prose and careful presentation of unimpeachable scientific evidence forced governments the world over to ask questions about the safety of unregulated and rapidly-expanding use of newly-commercialised chemicals, setting in train a painfully slow process (that continues to this day) of seeking to control the sale and use of substances, some of which have the power to persist in the environment, contaminate food chains, and to undermine the functioning of animals' (including humans') basic physiological systems.
What few people are aware of is that Carson's concern about the post-Second World War marketing of new 'wonder' chemicals was not unique. Silent Spring was brilliant - and brilliantly successful – and all the more so because it articulated the fears of a broader, largely underground network of concern as well as tapping into public unease about the potential, unintended consequences of what was an almost fundamentalist obsession with the eradication of insects. The early Soil Association was part of the network that sought to draw attention to the possibility that new, heavily-promoted agri-chemicals might be more dangerous than manufacturers, leaders within the scientific community, and government officials were willing to consider.
From the very beginning of its history, the Soil Association circulated information and debated the potential threats posed by new pesticides, focusing primarily on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. In the second introductory issue – published in 1947 – of what was to become the the Soil Association's quarterly journal, Mother Earth, DDT is discussed twice. Well-known farming journalist and founding member, Lawrence Easterbrook, contributed an article entitled “Insecticide or Homicide?” in which he argued that: “It is not good for the name of science that such unknown potentialities for harm should be given to the man in the street... with so little warning after so little research”. In the same issue, an extract from American magazine Organic Gardening was reproduced, speculating on the impact of DDT on tomato cultivation.
From then on, the Soil Association regularly reproduced extracts from publications questioning the safety of DDT and other new pesticides, continuing to do so throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. From as early as the winter 1947/48 edition of Mother Earth, the Soil Association was highlighting worries about the potential for DDT to accumulate in food chains, particularly dairy and meat products. Later, it aired fears that DDT might persist in the environment and contaminate human bodies.
In addition to reproducing extracts from press reports questioning the safety of organochlorinated pesticides – of which DDT was the best known – Mother Earth also included first-hand accounts from Eve Balfour of her two visits in the early 1950s to the Texas Research Foundation, a private agricultural research station that was the source of early evidence about DDT's tendency to “bioaccumulate” and to contaminate food chains.
Articles in Mother Earth also drew attention to reports of growing immunity by some insects to these new chemicals as well as their negative impact on beneficial insects, especially pollinators such as bees. The early Soil Association consistently argued that alternative, less harmful solutions to agricultural pests could and should be found.
None of the warnings that the early Soil Association circulated about DDT and other new agri-chemicals were wholly original. Instead, the organisation was disseminating information about disquiet felt by many scientists, naturalists and others in the face of what amounted to an entirely-unregulated use of a large number of substances that had not been proven to be safe. The Soil Association's call for the application of what today is termed the “precautionary principle” looks, in retrospect, both prescient and admirable. The impacts of decades of mass use of organochlorinated pesticides were enormous, although there is little public knowledge about the damage done and its continuing legacy. For this reason, it is worth stating a few facts clearly. Use of organochlorinated pesticides during the post-Second World War has resulted in:
- the contamination of the global environment, all food chains, all animals and all humans. The bodies (particularly the fat) of all readers of this publication are contaminated with organichlorinated pesticides – or their 'breakdown' products. Because of the persistence and bioaccumulative properties of substances such as DDT, every human being is now contaminated regardless of the location of his/her birth and/or the 'purity' of his/her environment and food. Biologist Sandra Steingraber argues that chemical contamination of our bodies should be viewed as an issue of social justice.
- the human health impacts of contamination by organochlorinated compounds are many and significant. While DDT is often referred to as a human carcinogen, which it is - thus representing one factor in twentieth century increases in global cancer rates (particularly, cancers affecting male and female reproductive organs and the thyroid) - that is only the start. Other impacts include developmental and reproductive toxicity, meaning that DDT and related substances are thought to be one factor in falling fertility rates and a myriad of problems affecting human development, including cognitive (ie. intellectual) impairment. The list of impacts is a long one and much still remains to be understood about the effects of organochlorinated compounds on human health.
- the dangers posed by what are now known as “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs) are so serious that a global treaty banning their use (except for some instances of anti-malarial control in tropical environments) was finally hammered out in 2001 via the United Nations. Following Carson's 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, individual nations began to control and, eventually, ban the marketing and use of POPs. However, because these substances contaminate the global environment and human populations, even if they are used in only a small number of locations, governments eventually recognised the need to join forces to protect their citizens. Now, the most dangerous substances are outlawed thanks to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. It is worth reproducing two sentences from the convention's website: “Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease and even diminished intelligence. Given their long range transport, no one government acting alone can protect is citizens or its environment from POPs”.
The early Soil Association was part of an international network that tried to act as an early warning system about the dangers of new, untested pesticides. While it did not succeed in stemming their use in Britain or convincing the government to introduce effective regulation, the early Soil Association educated its own membership. Looking back, discussions in 1959 editions of Mother Earth are particularly noteworthy. These included information about a lawsuit brought against the US Department of Agriculture by a group of Long Island state residents who argued that aerial spraying of DDT in 1957 to combat an alleged infestation of gypsy moth infringed on their property rights. Aerial spraying of large areas of the USA and Canada with DDT and other, similar substances mixed with kerosene or other hydrocarbons became routine in the 1950s. The Soil Association both reported on this lawsuit and sent a donation to assist with the plaintiffs' legal costs.
The October 1959 edition of Mother Earth was a “special pest control number” and in addition to carrying articles about potential alternatives to pesticides, it included an essay by Soil Association founding member Lord Douglas of Barloch. A war-time MP and post-war governor of Malta, Douglas was deeply concerned about unregulated pesticide use. His ten-page essay, “Mass-Spraying of Pesticides: A Growing Menace to Human Health”, teased out the contradictions inherent in official explanations about the alleged safety of mass spraying programmes. On the one hand, American regulations forbade “the sale of milk and its products containing any residues whatever of DDT and other insecticides”, stated Douglas, while promoting simultaneously the view that if used “in accordance with manufacturers' directions”, the substance was “innocuous”. Douglas' essay ends with a question: “Is not the time overdue when government should take more active steps at the least to warn the public of the risks they are running, and preferably to prohibit the sale of food containing residues of pesticides and to prohibit the mass-spraying of insecticides upon non-consenting individuals, their plants and livestock?”
In recent years, the Soil Association has sought to communicate similar warnings about the risks posed by over-use of antibiotics by livestock rearers. In September 2010, the Soil Association's long-standing campaigner against excessive use of antibiotics by livestock farmers, Richard Young, drew attention to the issue yet again, publicising a conference in London at which scientific evidence would be discussed. Young stated: “There has been little public scrutiny of farm antibiotic use for over a decade, yet during that time we have seen farmers dramatically increase their use of antibiotics classified by the World Health Organization as ‘critically important in human medicine’ and we have also seen the development of several serious antibiotic-resistant bugs in farm animals which are passing to humans on food and in other ways. It is high time that the government took this problem seriously”.
It is impossible to know what will attract much-needed attention to farmers' over-use of antibiotics – and when. As the history of campaigning against use of persistent organic pollutants such as DDT teaches us, a campaign can appear unsuccessful for years, yet sound research and repeated dissemination of rational arguments can build an informed network of individuals and groups capable of turning a brief campaign breakthrough into a lasting transformation in policy. When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962, Carson was already a well-known and respected popular science writer. Her existing public profile was instrumental in the success of the book. Yet it was not Silent Spring on its own - or Carson herself - that led to global regulation of persistent organic pollutants. Carson died of cancer soon after her book was published and the scientific evidence in her book was soon overtaken by new research. Carson's genius was to articulate the well-grounded fears of many, not least the fears of early Soil Association members, and to do so in ways that the chemical industry found extremely difficult to undermine.
Since Carsons's death, a great many have worked painstakingly to translate the warnings in her book into regulations that appear dull but, in fact, are designed to reduce gradually the harm caused by the post-Second World War love affair with untested agri-chemicals. The hope is that these regulations will lead to some decrease in rates of cancer, infertility, compromised immunity and developmental malfunctioning on a global scale. The Soil Association can be proud of the small part it played in ensuring such policies exist.
This article first appeared in the autumn 2010 edition of Mother Earth, a journal published by the Soil Association
Sandra Steingraber's books Living Downstream and Having Faith: http://steingraber.com/
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants: http://chm.pops.int
DDT entry in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DDT#References
DDT, Silent Spring and the Rise of Environmentalism, edited by Thomas Dunlap: http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/DUNDDT.html
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2010 edition of Mother Earth, a journal published twice a year by the Soil Association.
Voices from Chernobyl: the oral history of a nuclear disaster
Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen
Dalkey Archive Press, £13.99
It is a well know fact that more than 300 Welsh sheep farms monitor their stock for excessive levels of radioactive contamination. Presumably this monitoring prompts them to remove some animals from the food chain. I assume monitoring will continue for decades to come, possibly longer. And all because of an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Belarus almost 20 years ago.
The word Chernobyl still terrifies, and rightly so. The fire at the station in 1986 was the world's worst nuclear accident. Yet despite the notoriety of the word Chernobyl, little has been written about the accident that isn't largely scientific in nature. That has changed with the English translation of Voices from Chernobyl. It is difficult to describe the power of this book. By giving us the voices of people who lived through the accident, it has perhaps given us a new opportunity to mourn and understand the scale of environmental destruction. It is a tremendously sad book and a courageous one to have produced. Here are the people who can remember the confused response of authorities, the thousands who died putting out the reactor fire and the thousands more who have died since from radiation poisoning. Everywhere are laments for the now poisoned forests, streams and peasant farmland of Belarus. “The women in the villages...crossed themselves. We showed up in their yards like demons. they didn't understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage. The old women would say: 'Boys, what is this – is it the end of the world?' reads one account. Occasionally, there are worrying comments about continued failures to ensure that radioactive equipment and food from the area doesn't enter the global food chain.
There are no definitive explanations of why the accident happened or why the authorities failed to provide protective iodine to the population once the scale of the poisoning became clear. Nevertheless, an intelligible picture emerges: of leaders caught unawares, of a lack of accountability, of a failure to protect the people. It may be a picture of the USSR near the end of its days, but it's not too difficult to imagine something similar taking place in another place, another time, under a different political ideology.
This book review was originally published in Natur Cymru: A review of wildlife in Wales, autumn 2005 edition
After Jacquie -
Erin Gill was just a year old when her mother died. Her grandparents offered to bring her up, but her father insisted on keeping her - and now she's glad he did.
The Guardian, Wednesday 3 January 2001, guardian.co.uk
Once in a blue moon my father and I admit that we saved each other's lives. One morning in 1973, my mother set off for work and never got there. Killed in a car accident. My father was 28 and I was a year and a half.
My maternal grandparents offered to raise me, but my father decided that he wouldn't have much reason to get up in the morning if I wasn't there. I dread to think what would have become of me if I had been immediately separated from my father after losing my mother. Such a set of circumstances tends to be written up in psychology textbooks as a worst-case scenario.
So there we were: a young, grieving man who had only recently left behind a conventional career as an architect to risk his hand at sculpture, and a toddler so traumatised by her mother's disappearance that she temporarily stopped speaking. What developed from that sorry state was a relationship between father and daughter that is so deep that one friend describes the bond between my dad and I as "palpable".
In the years after Jacquie's death, my father and I got to know each other in a way that is usually impossible in a two-parent family. The "daddy's girl" model did not apply, because it relies on daddy being the bearer only of good news and treats - usually to make up for being home so seldom. And daddy's girls generally respond by playing up to the atten tion and being extra-specially nice or gloriously naughty.
If he wasn't the classic doting daddy, what was he? Did my father metamorphose into a mother? That is often the perception of what single dads do, but I disagree. I think single dads who rise to the occasion become more of a dad. In my father's case, he had to confront parenting issues that he had been able to avoid while my mother was alive. How should you react when a child won't do what you want her to? Do you hit her? This question proved a watershed in my father's approach to parenting. He says that one night he happened upon a television programme about child abuse and realised that I was a delicate creature and vowed not to hit me. If my mother had lived, my father might have avoided for years being in a position where he was angry with me, and would not have been prepared. But it was just the two of us, so his decision to turn his back on his own history - his father had certainly beaten him - was a victory for us both.
There were more light-hearted conundrums. Food is the one I remember best. My father was determined that his lack of feminine skills in the kitchen should not lead to malnutrition in his daughter. As a result, I put up with some horrendous experiments. There was the teaspoon of dry, vile-tasting wheatgerm to be eaten every morning. That gave way eventually to a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses. But worst of all was the fish. Richard read that fish was very nutritious and set about boiling some type of low-grade, frozen white fish every other night for years. He boiled it thoroughly and never once thought that sauce might make it more appealing. I responded by pretending to eat it, but deposited most of it along a ledge that ran under our dining room table. The fish didn't smell because it had been boiled for too long; it sat there until my father decided to move the table for a party. I still remember the shock of watching a wave of desiccated fish tumble to the floor.
Although much of the love Richard and I feel for each is obviously the result of the single parent-single child unit created during those crucial years when my personality was forming, there is an element to our bond that has nothing to do with day-to-day closeness and everything to do with the death of Jacquie. It is a painful, slightly desperate love, and it can erupt with a ferocity that alarms people around us. It makes us leap to defend each other more powerfully - and sometimes more irrationally - than we would anyone else. But we sometimes turn that love inwards and become each other's fiercest critic. Knowing that we can't hide from each other can be uncomfortable and we tend to avoid each other when we're struggling with something we aren't sure the other will understand.
When people hear about the circumstances of my childhood, they are often curious about my mother's death, but shy about asking questions. I don't blame them for being shy, although I'm perfectly happy to relay details of how my mother died. I am less inclined to discuss what impact her death had on me. I know I should not be surprised that Jacquie's death remains a gaping, painful wound that I stumble over from time to time, but I am surprised all the same. Until my late teens, I rationalised that because I have no visual memory of my mother, her dying didn't have any negative effects on me. When I finally admitted the weakness of this argument I began to piece together what may have happened to me.
These days, I believe that a piece of my heart froze when Jacquie died. Or maybe it was like losing a lung. Whatever metaphor I choose, the result is the same - the remaining parts of me had to work that much harder to compensate. For a child to "bounce back" from such a loss, she has to become tough, like a weed. I did that, and I'm glad, even proud, that I did. But bouncing back was a short-term solution; for the rest of my life there will be moments when my "tough" persona will give way to a much more troubled person. It is a scary prospect, but having a sculptor for a father has helped: I was brought up to accept that messy emotions can fuel creativity.
A part of my grief that I express more easily is respect for death's role in life. Most people are sheltered from mortality well into adulthood, but I know death is all around us. Accidents happen, people fall ill. I don't avoid physical risks and don't ask my loved ones to live risk-free lives either, but I can't help myself from saying things such as "Careful when you're cycling home" or "Go and get that checked out". People who know me realise that these aren't empty words, but that they convey my fervent hope that they will live long, healthy, happy lives. That is what my mother's death, when she was just 25, has taught me - that there is nothing romantic about an early death. It's a loss, pure and simple. And as my father moves through his 50s and I stare 30 in the face, thinking of Jacquie evokes in me the most powerful desire to see my father live to a ripe old age, and for me to do the same. Not quite in Jacquie's honour, but almost.