Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

Official photo of Rachel Carson ca. 1940, taken by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

This weblog post has been published on the 60th anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson on 1964-04-14. She died of cancer, at the age of 56. This was the second death of a prominent, yet relatively young person in a matter of months. The first was the assassination of American president John Kennedy (1917 – 1963). The comment, relatively young, is written by someone at the age of 75. For someone 15 years old, fifty years probably seemed an eternity into the future.

As I started writing this post, I was reading the 1998 collection, Lost Woods, the Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson, edited and with an introduction by Linda Lear (1940 – ). This was the fifth book I read, written by Rachel Carson.

The first book I read of hers was the third that Carson wrote, The Edge of the Sea (1955). It revealed the shoreline, that part of the sea accessible to a young person, probably not yet a teenager. The focus was on three edges: rocky, sandy and coral. The focus was on the east coast of North America. The rocky shores were typical of the Cape Ann region of Massachusetts, the sandy shores were of the intermediate coast off the Carolinas, while the corals were part of the Florida Keys.

The second book of hers that I read was her second book, The Sea Around Us (1951). It is often described as poetic. That term was foreign to me. I regarded it as providing me with deeper insights into life into oceans depths. It too was divided into three sections: Mother Sea, The Restless Sea, and Man and the Sea About Him.

These two books prompted an interest in marine biology, and in microscopy. I still have my compound microscope from 1962. I used it to study and make photomicrographs of plankton I had harvested using a home-made plankton net, that was essential equipment on my home-made 2.4 m = 8′ long Sabot dinghy.

The third book of hers that I read was her fourth book, Silent Spring (1962). It had nothing to do with the sea, but with birds, and how the overuse of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and other synthetic pesticides, was responsible for a decline in bird populations — the silencing of birds. At one point I voiced my concerns to my uncle Harry, an etymologist, who chastised me for my concerns, saying that DDT had saved the lives of millions of people.

The fourth book I read by Carson, was her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941). It describes the behavior of three Atlantic coast organisms that live both on and in the sea on the Atlantic coast. Under the Sea Wind consists of three parts, each following a different organism that interacts with the sea, and viewing it from a personified organism’s perspective. The first section, Edge of the Sea, follows a female sanderling (Calidris alba, Pallas, 1764), a small wading bird Carson names Silverbar. The second section, The Gull’s Way,  follows an Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus, Linnaeus, 1758) named Scomber. The third section, River and Sea follows an American eel (Anguilla rostrata, Lesueur, 1817), Anguilla.

These were not the only books I read about the sea. To understand what was happening on the Pacific coast I used Edward Rickett’s (1897 – 1948) Between Pacific Tides (1939), as a guide. To gain a better understanding of what was happening in the depths of the ocean I also read William Beebe (1877 – 1962) as he descended in his bathosphere in Half Mile Down (1934).

As is the case with most of the books I read as a child, the books cited here were borrowed, often repeatedly, from New Westminster public library, located a convenient three blocks away from my childhood home. These books were not in the Children’s department, so I had to have special permission to borrow them.

I now have paper editions of Carson’s four earliest books, along with digital editions of these and some others written by her, or about her. I also have a paper edition of Between Pacific Tides.

Many people believe that there is a direct connection between Carson and Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970. For the most part Earth Day is harmless, and doesn’t require anyone to make changes to their consumer way of life. I am even more skeptical about Carson inspiring the Responsible Care program was established in 1988 by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now American Chemistry Council) to help the chemical industry improve its safe management of chemicals from manufacture to disposal. I see it as an attempt to focus public attention away from the damage done by chemical manufacturers.

When these chemicals first came on the market, they appeared almost miraculous. Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller (1899 – 1965) had shown in 1939, that DDT eradicated insect populations in the control of vector diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. For this he received the 1948 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. It was noted that DDT sprayed from airplanes eliminated the malaria- and dengue fever–carrying mosquitoes that sickened and killed American soldiers in the Pacific war theater. These wartime successes led to postwar applications, with chemical companies selling DDT to farmers to reduce crop loss to insects. Tropical nations used it to prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria.

In the 1950s the chemical industry created new pesticides and herbicides, such as chlordane and heptachlor for killing insects and 2,4-D to control sagebrush growth on western U.S. roadsides.

Carson’s most important skill was connecting existing data from many areas and synthesizing them to create a coherent narrative. In Silent Spring, this was about the effects persistent chemicals had on the landscape and its inhabitants, only some of which were human.

Carson did not condemn all chemicals, only the reckless and irresponsible poisoning of the world that man shares with all other creatures. She followed DDT from the time it was sprayed on alfalfa, through alfalfa-fed hens, into the eggs, and finally into the egg-eating humans. Then she explained, in terms readers could understand, that chemicals like dieldrin, were used to kill pests, but ended up being stored in the body. Plants, animals and people formed an interconnected web, affected by these chemical compounds.

There was a vindictive reaction from Chemical manufacturers. Velsicol Chemical Corporation, which produced chlordane and heptachlor, threatened Carson’s publisher with a lawsuit. Monsanto Company published an essay, The Desolate Year to show that without pesticides and herbicides farmers would be unable to produce enough food for a growing population and that preventable diseases would continue to kill people. Others chastised Carson for failing to mention chemical successes.

Robert A. Roland (1931 – 2013), president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association from 1978 to 1993, later admitted that the chemical industry had made a mistake in not properly engaging with Carson and addressing the environmental issues she wrote about.

President Kennedy ordered the Science Advisory Committee to review pesticide and herbicide experiments. It published its findings a year later and acknowledged some links such as that between DDT and liver damage. Later, the report was regarded as being less than forthright.

Silent Spring changed how people saw the world around them. It initiated the modern environmental movement, and influenced government regulation of pesticides and other chemicals, especially environmental effects.

In 1972 the U.S.Senate banned DDT, encouraged by the emergence of new environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund. Chlordane was banned completely in 1988. Restrictions were placed on the use of heptachlor.

Silent Spring changed how governments, industry and agriculture respond to chemical ills.

Thank you, Rachel Carson, for helping to enlighten me to the dangers of chemicals in the environment. Without your efforts, I am uncertain how long it would have taken for this awareness to emerge.

Made without Repression

The Human Rights Logo combines the silhouette of a hand with that of a bird, and a white thumb grabbing the bird. It is intended as a peaceful contribution towards strengthening human rights and as such is meant to be used across cultural and language borders. The Human Rights Logo was designed in 2010 by Predrag Stakić from Serbia.

For the past twenty years, most of our computers have been made by Taiwanese companies, mostly Asus and to a lesser degree Acer. Our first smartphone was also Taiwanese, made by HTC. After that, we have had two Chinese phones made by Huawei and Xiaomi, respectively. Until now, we have not paid much attention to where these products have been physically made. That has now changed, due to the treatment of Hong Kong citizens, threats made to the government of Taiwan, and the increased militarization by China. The time has come to consider whether products made in China, or by companies owned – even partially owned – by the Chinese government, are in the world’s best interest.

If the choice is between cheap consumer electronics made in a dictatorship, or more expensive goods made in a democracy, I will opt for the latter, every time – except when my selfish nature gets in the way of my selfless ideal. Even without human frailty, most choices are a bit more nuanced. Of course, there is also an issue of sustainability, where the climate crisis is a major threat to human survival.

In this post, one of the first questions to be avoided is, what is a democracy? Instead, I will simply use the Democracy Index, first published in 2006 and compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Despite its British (read English) bias, it measures 60 indicators (proxies) in five categories, from which it scores/ ranks/ categorizes 167 countries. The four regime categories are: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. For further details see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

South Korea is the highest ranking flawed democracy, at #21 on the EIU Democracy Index, immediately below Costa Rica, but higher than Japan (#22), and the United States (#25). Taiwan is ranked at #32, between Belgium and Italy, and is also regarded as a flawed democracy. China is ranked at #130, and is classified as authoritarian, although not as bad as Saudi Arabia at #150, or North Korea at #167, the worst on the list.

A more long-term trend analysis of democracy is MaxRange. It offers a dataset spanning 1600 to 2015 that has over 90 000 country-year observations, and from 1789 over 600 000 observations in its monthly format. These rank political regimes on a 1 to 1 000 scale. A Swedish language summary concludes: 1. Democracy does not grow out of nations but spreads between them. Thus, all types of non-democracies can eventually become democracies. 2. Muslim countries are slower than others to embrace democracy, but this only applies during the post-Cold War period. 3. For the entire period 1789 to 2013, prosperity plays a much greater role than religion in democratization.

In an accompanying MaxRange video, mention is made that while established (strong) democracies are becoming less robust, because of political polarization, corruption and constitutional violations, more countries are transitioning away from dictatorship towards weak democracy. Between 2006 and 2014, this trend was strongest in countries in Africa and Asia, but weaker in Europe and the Americas.

Human rights are more complex. In part, this is because these rights can come in conflict with each other, and with the exercise of democratic rights. Again, I will avoid detail, and try to look at a bigger picture.

Kenneth Roth, in his essay, The Dangerous Rise of Populism: Global Attacks on Human Rights Values, appearing in Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, states: “Human rights exist to protect people from government abuse and neglect. Rights limit what a state can do and impose obligations for how a state must act. Yet today a new generation of populists is turning this protection on its head. Claiming to speak for “the people,” they treat rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will, a needless obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils. Instead of accepting rights as protecting everyone, they privilege the declared interests of the majority, encouraging people to adopt the dangerous belief that they will never themselves need to assert rights against an overreaching government claiming to act in their name.” (p. 1)

Todd Landman, in Democracy and Human Rights: Concepts, Measures, and Relationships (2018) argues that despite many achievements, there remain tensions between conceptualisations of democracy and human rights over the degree to which one includes the other, the temporal and spatial empirical relationships between them, and the measures that have been developed to operationalize them. These tensions, in turn, affect the kinds of analyses that are carried out, including model specification, methods of estimation, and findings. He concludes that greater care is needed to specify, conceptualize and operationalize measures and inferences used in addressing democracy and human rights.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2019, writes the following about South Korea: The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is a democracy that generally respects civil and political liberties. However, it maintains unreasonable restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and foreigners—especially refugees and migrants—continued to be a major problem in 2018.

The 2019 report does not have a chapter about Taiwan, and it doesn’t seem to be specifically mentioned in the chapter on China. Wikipedia reports the following: “The human rights record in Taiwan is generally held to have experienced significant transformation since the 1990s… [It] has a multi-party democracy. The 2000 presidential victory of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) … followed more than 50 years of rule by the Kuomintang (KMT) and marked the first transition from one political party to another in the Taiwanese history. This followed gradual democratic reforms since the 1980s and 1990s…. Freedom House rates Taiwan as among the most “Free” nations in Asia, with a 1 in both Political Rights and Civil Liberties (scale of 1-7, with 1 being the highest). This represents a significant improvement, as the 1973 rating was 6.5, rising to 2.1 by 2000.

The Human Rights Watch Report 2019 states the following about China: China’s growing global power makes it an exporter of human rights violations, including at the United Nations, where in 2018 it sought to block participation of its critics. China again ranked among countries singled out for reprisals against human rights defenders, and in March successfully advanced a Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on a retrograde approach that it calls “win-win” or “mutually beneficial” cooperation. In this view, states do not pursue accountability for serious human rights violations but engage merely in “dialogue”; moreover, there is no role for independent civil society, only governments, and a narrow role for the UN itself.

In terms of the climate crisis and sustainability, Greenpeace USA has written The Guide to Greener Electronics, an analysis of 17 of the world’s leading consumer electronics companies in terms of their environmental impacts, and where work still needs to be done. On a scale ranging from A (best) to F (worst), Fairphone is ranked best in the class with a B. This is followed by: Apple (B-); Dell, HP (C+); Lenovo, Microsoft (C-); Acer, LG, Sony, Google (D+); Asus, Huawei (D); Samsung (D-); and, Amazon, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi (F).

In terms of democracy, products produced in South Korea are preferable to those produced in Taiwan. Yet, the reverse is true if human rights are the focal point. In terms of environmental considerations, there appear to be no real winners, with the possible exception of Fairphone. Despite this, I will be looking much closer at where products are made, the human rights situation in those countries, and their democratic index ranking.

YouTube U

As a Canadian immigrating to Norway, I have a basic understanding of how other immigrants have to adapt to their new environment. Yet, as an English-speaking North-American I lack insights into many of the problems that people from developing countries, speaking non-European languages, and writing with non-Latin alphabets, have to cope with.

While I can’t do much to help local immigrants learn to speak or write Norwegian, despite these being important tools that allow for a better integration into the community, I can encourage immigrants to acquire skills in areas that will enhance their ability to obtain work, or start their own businesses. These are:

  1. Health, Environment and Safety, with an emphasis on workplace safety, human factors and ergonomics.
  2. Mechatronics, with an emphasis on basic electronics and programming.
  3. Entrepreneurship, with an emphasis on disruptive innovation.

Laura Knight 1943 Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring
Laura Knight 1943 Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring Ruby is not using eye or hearing protection, and her hair net does not keep all her hair in place.

YouTube is a great place for learning new skills. Unfortunately, there is no certification available with their videos to state that health, environmental and safety practices conform with best practices. For example, a large number of woodworking videos involve people working with inadequate hearing and eye protection.

So, the first piece of advice is to gain a basic understanding of workplace safety, human factors and ergonomics before one learns about other skill sets. A good place to begin is with Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_factors_and_ergonomics

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, also has valuable insights: https://osha.europa.eu/

Despite the following video being made in 2015, and despite my mixed feeling about Volkswagen, this short video shows the direction ergonomics is heading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05ChaWGJ0-A

The second piece of advice is that mechatronics is an area with considerable growth potential. Because it is so complex, it is difficult to know where to start. Here my advice is to learn elementary electronics and programming with an Arduino. As a teacher, I actively used Jeremy Blum’s Arduino videos: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA567CE235D39FA84Mechatronics

The third piece of advice requires people to relate to disruptive innovation. This is explained in Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. It is also explained in numerous YouTube videos, including this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUAtIQDllo8