By Donella Meadows
–January 7, 1988–
For middle-aged environmentalists like me this month marks the transition between 1987, the year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and 1988, the year of the 20th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb.
I guess most people’s calendars are not dominated by these milestones. But anyone over the age of forty will remember the furor caused by those two seminal books of the environmental movement. Some people (and chemical companies) were so enraged by them that still, decades later, they pour scorn on the books and their authors. Thousands of others, including me, were so moved by their warnings about pollution and overpopulation that we changed our lives. Silent Spring and The Population Bomb influenced the careers we chose, the families we planned, the politicians we supported, the organizations we joined, the products we bought.
For us who fall in that latter category this time of anniversaries is a bit uncomfortable. Silent Spring and The Population Bomb are being re-examined, and the obvious question is being asked. Did they make any difference? That’s a question not only about the books but about our lives. Were we chumps to think that powerful publications, dedicated lives, and political action could affect massive problems like pollution and population growth? Should we just have become Yuppies?
The evidence does not lend itself to easy conclusions.
Silent Spring sounded a powerful alarm about the indiscriminant use of pesticides, especially DDT. It documented the poisoning of farmers, consumers, soils, groundwaters, and songbirds. The book certainly generated noise and politicking, which led to the establishment of regulatory systems in all industrialized countries to oversee pesticide use. Ours is based in the Environmental Protection Agency.
One of its first actions was to ban DDT for most uses in the United States, but not for export to other countries. In much of the rest of the world DDT is still used. It has been found in dangerous levels in the breast milk of women in India and Nicaragua and at above-tolerance levels in 40% of the coffee beans imported into the United States.
In the 25 years since Silent Spring was published, the use of pesticides in the United States, measured by weight, has tripled. That figure doesn’t tell us much. Many of the chemicals and their mixtures are different now from the ones used in 1963. To know if the load of poison in the environment and in ourselves has decreased, we would have to compare toxicities, cancers, and mutations. We would have to know the effects of these chemicals on soil organisms and their persistence in waters and the ways they travel in nature’s food chains.
We know more about these things than we did in 1963, but we still don’t know much. Given the cancer rate in Kansas and the groundwater contamination in California, Iowa, Florida, and virtually every other agricultural state, we can’t conclude that the pesticide load is less dangerous than it was in 1963.
But a lot has been learned about how to grow crops in high yields without pesticides. Tens of thousands of farmers are doing that successfully in the U.S. and in Europe. Integrated pest management, a combination of biological and chemical pest controls, is one of the hottest topics in agricultural research. It has already reduced pesticide use on fruit and vegetable crops. There is no question that technical progress has been made in finding alternatives to chemical pesticides.
In 1968 The Population Bomb started a global discussion that was followed by a burst of activity in family planning worldwide. When the book was published only about 10% of the world’s people lived in countries where there was any access to family planning services. Now 90% do. The global rate of population growth has slowed over that period from 2.0% per year to 1.7%.
But in 1968 there were only 3500 million people in the world, and now there are 5000 million. The population of Africa then was 350 million, now it is 600 million. The population of Brazil was 95 million, now it is 140 million. The year The Population Bomb was published roughly 68 million people were added to the global population. In 1987 85 million people were added. However, if the population were still growing at the rate of 2.0% rate instead of 1.7%, the year’s increase would have been not 85 but 100 million.
Silent Spring and The Population Bomb changed many people’s lives. They caused a lot of money and effort to be spent on pesticide regulation and family planning. Out of that effort some good has come and many lessons have been learned. Governments have had less effect by regulating than they have had by putting control directly into the hands of the people, through technologies of nonchemical pest control and effective birth control. And neither the problem of pesticide pollution nor the problem of population growth has been solved — yet.
I would love to end here with a clear declaration that books and lives and money and effort can, for sure, change the world within 20 or 25 years. But of course I can’t, nor can I say that they make no difference. The world is more complicated, the decisions are more difficult, life is more interesting than that.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988