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Since Silent Spring

By Anthony F. Hall

Friday, April 13, 2012

In the 50 years that have passed since Rachel Carson wrote  “Silent Spring,” we have learned to think of the natural world around us as a complex, interdependent system – “the economy of nature,” as she called it, or the environment, as we do. Changing how we think about nature was, of course, Carson’s greatest achievement. Ostensibly, “Silent Spring” is about a rather dull topic, a pesticide, DDT. But in showing how plankton, poisoned by DDT sprayed above a lake, will poison fish, which in turn will poison birds and humans, Carson illustrated nature’s interdependence. She also showed us how our inventiveness, our mandate to conquer nature, can endanger nature and life itself. (Without Carson’s “Silent Spring,” it is unlikely that Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature” could have been written.)

One year after “Silent Spring” was published, New York’s Conservation Department discontinued the use of DDT in the Adirondacks, largely as a result of its effects on Lake George’s  Lake Trout. In 1955, the state’s fish pathologists reported that all fry hatched from the 347,900 eggs taken from Lake George that year had died within a month. By 1959, preliminary studies  showed that fry hatched from Lake George eggs contained DDT, but it was not until 1962 that DDT was proven, conclusively, to be the cause of the Lake Trout’s massive mortality. “Silent Spring” helped us put this local story into a larger, national context. It should have compelled us to place Lake George in the larger context of an interdependent environment as well.  Many people, however, continued to think of threats to Lake George’s health as discrete in nature: an unsealed head, a failed septic system. But in 1983, Dr. Jim Sutherland published his important study that showed that the major threat to Lake George’s water quality was non-point source pollution, or storm water. That’s the runoff that’s generated by unregulated and poor development, and since then, we’ve learned that we can’t protect the lake without good Planning and Zoning boards.

Today, we face another threat from beyond, or, rather, above, our shores. Thanks in part to research conducted on Dome Island from 2006 through 2011,  scientists and policy makers now know that mercury pollution from as far away as China is an imminent threat to local songbirds, bats, and other forms of wild life. The study, “Hidden Risk: Mercury in Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Northeast,” by the Nature Conservancy and the Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute,  reports that “Mercury concentrations in songbirds from Dome Island, Lake George rank among the highest in the state.” Since the sources of the pollution may not be local, we must begin to think globally if we are to truly protect Lake George. Everything is connected, “Silent Spring” taught us. Rachel Carson’s legacy is still with us.

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