Peter Leschak’s April 21 commentary “Hey, look up (rather than askance),” reminding us to regard problems as solvable, struck me at first as reasonable but also irritating. I had to read it again to fully understand my reaction.

Basically, it is his facile portrayal of historic events and apparent belief that solving symptoms solves problems. In fact, the foundational causes of many problems have not been solved.

The bald eagle population came back because an underlying political problem was solved. Thus, the obvious solution of banning DDT. The public had gained more power than the chemical companies and the farm lobby.

Solutions that Leschak cites emerged from political movements founded in intense and righteous anger. Small numbers of concerned citizens and scientists instigated the movements. There was initially very intense opposition from industry and the political establishment. These political movements eventually solved political problems, and thus allowed sound science to prevail.

Leschak’s depiction of the environmental movement is wrong. It wasn’t the Cuyahoga River fire or others like it that triggered passage of the environmental laws. Instead, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 was the seminal event that led to political movements that resulted in the political will to pass those laws. As well, the personal attacks on Carson by chemical companies profoundly mobilized individuals like me.

Leschak continues the false trope of the equivalency between the scientific techniques used to create GMO organisms and the methods of selecting for desired strains of dogs, grains and other organisms useful to humans. For some reason, he confuses this issue with the opposition from some to eating GMO-influenced foods. In fact, nowhere in nature are there biological mechanisms to insert genes from mammals into plants, and vice versa. And now, with the development of the new CRISPR gene editing techniques, there are significant new dangers because it is so easy and cheap to use.

In other words, the jury is still out.

The laws Leschak cites have not solved underlying problems. I have friends who were the public and scientific participants in the Love Canal disaster that came fully into public consciousness in 1976. The New York state government as well as local officials attempted to cover up and downplay the problems. This was years after passage of the laws Leschak cites. It was a political movement that eventually led to forcing incompetent government officials to finally act.

And of course, the lead contamination in Flint, Mich., came into the public awareness only five years ago, long after laws and agencies that Leschak lauds were supposed to protect the public health. Again, new politics overcame the old, but it required public anger and sacrifice and the dedication of a few individuals to again force government officials to act.

I completely agree with Leschak’s closing advice that one should not be distracted by negativity. But if you want to solve the problems of the world, be ready to take on a hard task, and be fully aware that you should focus on fundamental political problems. And now in this age of antiscience, Leschak should pay attention to the phrase “the past is another country.”

 

Paul Stolen, of Fosston, Minn., is a retired environmental biologist.