This post is in response to Silent Spring is 50. The Credit, and the Blame, It Deserves by David Ropeik

Bald eagleFalse choices occur when other viable alternatives are not presented, resulting in missed opportunities. The blog post, “Silent Spring is 50. The Credit, and the Blame, It Deserves” by David Ropeik is illustrious of several false choices.

The incidence of cancer has more to do with people’s fear of cancer than environmentalism does. According to the American Cancer Society, in the United States, one in two men and one in three women will develop cancer in their lifetimes. In addition to basal and squamous cell skin cancers, more than 1.6 million people in the U.S. are likely to develop cancer in 2012, and over 500,000 (about 1,500 per day) will likely die of cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that in addition to the 30 percent of cancers associated with tobacco smoking, about 6 percent of cancers are related to exposure to chemicals in the environment—over 96,000 cases and 30,000 deaths per year. Unnecessary surgery and treatment of people with cancer is more likely due to people’s fear of death and to doctors’ and hospitals’ fears of litigation than to environmentalism. Although some surgery and treatment may be unnecessary, on the other hand, improved treatment has increased the five-year survival rate from 49 percent in 1977 to 67 percent in 2007. This is another likely reason that people with cancer demand treatment; they want to survive.

Although the environmental movement was informed by Rachel Carson, especially in regards to the impacts of chemicals in the environment, the beginnings of the environmental movement in the United States is more correctly traced to early preservationists such as David Thoreau, John Muir, George Perkins Marsh, and Aldo Leopold who valued the conservation of land and wildlife. Moreover, synthetic chemicals in the environment cause many health problems in addition to cancer: nervous system damage, lung disease, kidney disease, liver disease, reproductive system damage, and hormone disruption. There are valid reasons to be concerned about chemical pollution of the environment.

It is true that the environmental movement is opposed to nuclear power. However, the choice that Mr. Ropeik described between nuclear power and coal is a false choice. Electrical power producers could have chosen to develop clean sources of power, such as solar, wind, and small-scale hydropower, if policy makers had increased subsidies for these clean alternatives and decreased subsidies for fossil fuel sources, which as Mr. Ropeik pointed out contribute to global warming as well as to pollution that causes cancer. The environmental movement has long pointed out the need to develop clean, renewable sources of energy and to change government subsidies to support this development.

Likewise, the choice that Mr. Ropeik described between DDT and malaria is a false choice. DDT causes thinning of the eggshells of birds of prey and was responsible for a dramatic decrease in the number of bald eagles, resulting in their listing as an endangered species. Other effective ways to reduce mosquito populations include microbial larvicides, which are not toxic to humans or wild animals.

Genetically modified food has the potential to harm the environment. Monarch caterpillar on milkweedWhen feeding on milkweed, monarch butterfly larvae can be exposed to potentially harmful amounts of pollen from genetically modified corn. Through a collaborative process involving environmentalists, industry representatives, scientists, and government regulators, studies were conducted to determine the magnitude of the threat. Although it was found that there was low risk from most kinds of genetically modified corn, one higher risk variety was identified and, more importantly, the inadequacy of the regulatory decision making process was revealed. Some crops are genetically modified to resist weeds; however, some weeds are becoming resistant.

The choice between conventional pesticides and genetically modified food is another false choice. There are other ways to address food insecurity: reduce poverty, reduce the rate of population growth, regulate the use of food crops in biofuels, and equalize the distribution of food.

Environmentalists don’t eschew modern technology; rather, they advocate caution in focusing on technological fixes when sociological, political, and psychological solutions may more adequately address the root causes of many problems of modern society. Environmentalists are in favor of modern technology that supports ecological health and social justice, for example, pollution control technology, light rail trains, hybrid engines, water filtration, and so forth.

The dangers of framing false choices are a greater risk than environmentalism is to solving problems and creating a society that sustains environmental and human health and well-being.

About the Author

Sandy Olliges

Sandy Olliges, M.A., teaches academic writing at San Jose State University. She is a former Environmental Manager for the NASA Ames Research Center.

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