Saturday, June 29, 2024

Silent Spring

I recently read a short piece by Rachel Carson, and she is quite a good writer. Since Silent Spring, which was first published in 1962, is a classic of the environmental movement, and my edition has an afterword by E.O. Wilson, I decided to give it a go. The book is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, who said "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." That was a rather prophetic statement, I think.

Carson provides many examples of biological research that confirm that idea, but the main ones concern the widespread dispensation of insecticides and herbicides. She thinks that Dutch elm disease may have been caused by their clustering in towns as decorative trees, and that this led to fungal infections that traveled everywhere. The fungi were spread by native beetles, which carried the fungi into the trees. That blocks circulation within the trees, and they usually die as a result. The initial response was to spray the trees with DDT, which killed the beetles. However, the unintended consequence was the killing of much of the wildlife in the vicinity of the trees. The title comes from the fact that so many songbirds were killed in some towns that very few returned the following spring. Dutch elm disease is still quite common today, but there is less effort to eradicate it. The accepted practice now is to circulate a fungicide within the trees. One of the reasons why DDT wasn't effective was that the fungus remained in the dead trees, and they weren't disposed of properly. To this day, if you drive around Vermont, there are dead slippery elms along roadsides everywhere. But if you go back into the woods, there are healthy elms everywhere. I would guess that the fungi are transported along roadways. Another example is the attempted eradication of fire ants, which were an invasive species that started spreading in the South. The insecticides used to kill them also killed wildlife in the area. Carson doesn't think that fire ants required eradication, because they were merely a nuisance.

Also mentioned are the poisons that were included in household and gardening products. Several different poisons were present in moth killers. Regarding gardening, she says:

As an example of what may happen to a gardener himself, we might look at the case of a physician – an enthusiastic spare-time gardener – who began using DDT and then malathion on his shrubs and lawn, making regular weekly applications. Sometimes he applied the chemicals with a hand spray, sometimes with an attachment to his hose. In doing so, his skin and clothes were often soaked with spray. After about a year of this sort of thing, he suddenly collapsed and was hospitalized. Examination of a biopsy specimen of fat showed an accumulation of 23 parts per million of DDT. There was extensive nerve damage, which the physicians regarded as permanent. As time went on he lost weight, suffered extreme fatigue, and experienced a peculiar muscular weakness, a characteristic effect of malathion. All of these persisting effects were severe enough to make it difficult for the physician to carry on his practice.

Of related interest is the fact that Rachel Carson herself died at the age of fifty-six, less than two years after the publication of Silent Spring, from breast cancer.

Later in the book, Carson discusses some of the underlying failures that caused the inappropriate use of chemicals for extermination. There is a lack of recognition that ecosystems are what actually control species populations, and the disruption of an ecosystem can have many unintended consequences. Reproduction of one species is affected by the populations of other species. Furthermore, species can, and often do, develop resistance to chemicals:

Darwin himself could scarcely have found a better example of the operation of natural selection than is provided by the way the mechanism of resistance operates. Out of an original population, the members of which vary greatly in qualities of structure, behavior, or physiology, it is the "tough" insects that survive chemical attack. Spraying kills off the weaklings. The only survivors are insects that have some inherent quality that allows them to escape harm. These are the parents of the new generation, which, by simple inheritance, possesses all the qualities of "toughness" inherent in its forebears.

One method of insect control of which Carson does approve is the release of sterile individuals into a population.

At various points in the book, Carson implicates the chemical industry for the aggressive use of dangerous chemicals. One way that they do this is by sponsoring research at universities that supports their business models. These days, they are probably just as likely to fund the campaigns of politicians who support their interests. The corporatization of the federal government is continuing as I write, with the Supreme Court ruling against the regulatory authority of government agencies. I am often amazed to watch decisions regarding complex biological processes being turned over to scientifically illiterate people who wear silly robes.

In the afterword, E.O. Wilson sums up some of the effects of this book. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970, and the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.

Since Silent Spring's publication the United States has come to understand that it is a major player in the deterioration of the global environment. Rachel Carson, who was a quick learner, would be ahead of us in understanding the devastating effects everywhere of still-rocketing population growth combined with consumption of natural resources, the thinning of the ozone layer, global warming, the collapse of marine fisheries, and, less directly through foreign trade, the decimation of tropical forests and mass extinction of species. She would regret, I am sure, the sorry example the United States set with its enormous per capita appropriation of productive land around the world for its consumption – ten times that of developing countries.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Diary

It has been a cool spring here but is about to get very hot. I'm going to see if I can get by without turning on an air conditioner, because I dislike the noise and the quality of the cold air. The basement here is very large, dry and relatively clean, and I could practically live there if I had to. It is quite deep and always cool. I'm completely caught up on my household chores and have even more time to spare than usual. The Carson McCullers Memorial Tomato Garden has been planted, and the plants are growing well. The soil here drains much better than I thought it would, and it is possible that the clay layer is thin. In Middlebury, the soil had a lot of clay near the surface but was sandy underneath. The soil here drains so quickly that I'm watering several times a day. The eastern phoebe has left its nest, but it is possible that it will have another clutch in the same nest. The robin may also have another clutch, but they don't generally reuse nests. I haven't actually seen any baby birds, so I don't know how successful their breeding has been. The bird calls change, and I think the "phoebe" call may be a mating call. Like many humans, phoebes and robins don't have lifelong partners. Male phoebes get kicked out when the females have eggs, whereas male robins assist the females with nest building and feeding offspring. Not many bird species have lifelong pairings. Since humans engage in serial monogamy, their behavior may be similar. Because of increased longevity, once human females outlive their fertility, some of them lose their interest in males. Apparently, large mammals aren't that different from birds.

For a change of pace, I drove up to Montpelier today. I like going there because the atmosphere is completely different from that of Middlebury or Brandon. Within a very small area, there is so much street life that you could actually be a street photographer there, like Vivian Maier. I also like to go to the Three Penny Taproom, which has an excellent selection of beers on tap. It was closed last July due to the flooding, and they put a mark on the wall inside to show how high the water rose. Unfortunately, Montpelier's downtown sits right on the Winooski River, and this will happen again. At least the state capitol is slightly elevated and sits on a hillside. So far it hasn't flooded. Montpelier reminds me of a college town in the late 1960's or early 1970's and has a slightly hippyish feel – an extreme rarity these days.

My evening entertainment hasn't been very successful recently. I watched "Barbie" in an effort to keep up with contemporary culture. As with Taylor Swift and other popular artists, I wasn't impressed. At the moment I'm watching "Taxi Driver," which features Robert De Niro in one of his best performances. Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel are also good. I don't find the director, Martin Scorsese, that great, though he certainly "gets" New York City, which is part of my identity.

Begrudgingly and dutifully, I am following the 2024 presidential election. The cogs in the wheels of progress move so slowly that they are painful to watch. The problem, I think, is that the founding fathers did not anticipate that an active criminal could be elected to the presidency or that religious fanatics might be placed on the Supreme Court. In fairness to the founding fathers, the model they used did not allow most of the public to vote. It is possible that if voting rights had been more restrictive, a populist movement may never have provided Trump with sufficient votes in 2016. Unfortunately, though voting rights are associated with the inclusion of minorities, they are also associated with the inclusion of stupid white people who can't tell that Fox News isn't news. I am still waiting for that special moment when "cooler heads prevail." The reason why I dislike democracy is that they may never prevail. It should be obvious to any intelligent person who has been following the news since 2016 – eight years – that Donald Trump is nothing more than an active criminal. If I were Juan Merchan, I would give him the most severe penalty possible and put him in jail immediately. Unfortunately, there is no judge protection program, only because no one as slimy as Donald Trump has ever got this far before. Later, many laws will have to be modified in order to take into account this new slime factor. I still think that Trump won't win, though it remains a possibility.

I recently started a good (old) book but haven't made much progress in it yet.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

I have been reading this book by Bryan Caplan, mainly because I agree with its title, but I was barely able to convince myself to finish it, because I found the contents boring. Caplan is an economist and a professor at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C., and he seems to be a budding policy wonk. As I often say, American academics tend to write poorly, and economists are among the worst. This book is stuffed with charts and data that I don't think are necessary to make his main point, which is very simple: higher education, as it is presently structured, is a waste of money. That is something I've been thinking about for many years, and I've already mentioned it on this blog a few times. 

I sort of fit the data that Caplan brings up. I went to college after high school, because that was what you were supposed to do. No one actually encouraged me to go, and I had a good time and studied whatever I liked for four years. After a brief stint in graduate school, I decided that I would never be a philosophy professor, and I delivered pizzas for a few months. My mother-in-law then sent me the catalog of a local vocational college, and I looked through it. Becoming an electrician, welder or printer seemed attractive, and I gravitated toward printing, since it is associated with books and knowledge. I also have some mechanical abilities and thought that running a printing press might be fun. I started the program in the autumn of 1976 and finished in December, 1977, graduating at the top of my class. I immediately got a job in January, 1978 as the supervisor in a small print shop at Indiana State University. I continued working in the printing industry in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois until I retired in September, 2007.

Caplan's main point is that what is studied in four-year college programs isn't practical, because it only produces a few vocational skills that provide about twenty percent of its value. However, a four-year degree has a "signaling" value that he thinks accounts for about eighty percent of its value. The signaling says that you are probably a more competent and reliable person than someone with a lesser education, and employers accept this.  I agree that this is an inefficient process, and that it would be more effective to use college funding differently. In other respects, Caplan seems primarily to be a simple-minded libertarian who opposes governmental waste. He does not make specific recommendations regarding how current educational spending should be reallocated. Implicitly, he sounds a lot like a Reaganite who wants to put an end to "big government."

Returning to my own story, I did feel that my educational process was unnecessarily haphazard. There was no orderly procedure at any point regarding what I ought to consider doing. I was not unusual, because, as Caplan points out, very few undergraduate majors are directly linked to careers. Of the four undergraduate philosophy majors I knew, two became lawyers, one became an architect and one worked mainly in fast food. A specific problem that I had was that I was always better-educated than my peers and often better-educated than my boss. This occasionally led to work tensions. It didn't help that I got a part-time M.B.A. from a highly-rated program. However, on a personal level, the M.B.A. was beneficial to me because it was the first time that I had ever thought about the capitalist structure of American society, and I began to plan the remainder of my career and retirement when I was thirty-six.

In other respects, as an intellectual work, based on my extended readings, I think that Caplan's book is a complete failure. He is aware that some people have genetic advantages with respect to their academic success, but he never explores this fact. Also, though he seems to be aware of behavioral economics, his thinking in this book more closely resembles the obsolete "rational agent" model of economics. More significantly, he is myopic about the future of work. A lot of social turmoil is emerging now, I think, due to automation. This is a problem that isn't going to go away, and I think that the solution will eventually have to be basic income – probably another waste of money as far as many libertarians are concerned. Although Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, seems to have been forgotten after the initial fanfare, the only realistic solution is probably going to be a reversal of the wealth distribution that he critiqued. Currently, several billionaires are rallying around Donald Trump because they like things the way they are. 

On a more subjective level, I reject Caplan's approach because I don't really identify with capitalism. Having been steeped for years in the works of E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky, I'm coming out as a hunter-gatherer. Typically, hunter-gatherers had no formal educations and were never paid wages. Furthermore, I think that all of the useless books that I've read over the years have enriched me personally, and my aesthetic sense is more important to me than my bank account. So far, I've only worked for about forty-three percent of my life, and I'm hoping to get that down to thirty-three. Twenty-two years to go!