Silent spring, Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism.

Silent spring is a famous book written in the 1960s that addresses the concerns of pesticide use and the detrimental effect that this can have on human health and the health of the environment. Written by Rachel Carson, the book details the effects of human development on nature, the dangers that pesticides pose to organisms that are not the target animal, the threat of bio-accumulation on human populations and the emerging threat of insect resistance to those pesticides sprayed to limit the spread of malaria.

Silent Spring is seen by many as the birth of the modern environmentalism movement. I discovered this thought while researching my last blog post on Castle Bravo, through and article titled: ‘The link between Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism’. This article is really less about environmentalism, and more about Silent Spring, but the evidence is still there. As it says in the article, Rachel Carson needed something “real” to compare the insidiousness of pesticides like DDT with. She found it in the experiences of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukyuru Maru, which was only about 140km from the blast site of the Castle Bravo test site when it went off. The men crewing that vessel all experienced the effects of radiation sickness, and one of them died.

Carson used their experiences to talk about what she felt was the growing threat of pesticide use. This speaks to the huge emotional impact the events of Castle Brvo had around the world, that this simile was so effective at spreading the message about the dangers of pesticides. Silent Spring is now considered one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th Century, and is given credit for the birth of modern environmentalism.

The movement it inspired is credited with the development of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is ironic given the EPA supports the use of nuclear power, even more so now since the introduction of the ‘Clean Power Rule‘, and the associated attempts to lower the amount of carbon released through energy generation.

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A lot of what I’ve been talking about on this blog, especially related to the emotional aspects of the nuclear debate, can really be boiled down to one particular issue: ‘radiophobia’.

In a strictly medical sense, radiophobia can be defined as the irrational fear of ionizing radiation (the type of radiation associated with nuclear power/bombs). This definition is most often applied to those who are irrationally afraid of X-rays, in a medical context.

What radiophobia is more often used to denote, especially in the nuclear debate, is the pervasive negative emotion associated with all kinds of nuclear technology.

Studies have shown that there is a long term emotional impact of large events, like Chernobyl, and there is growing coverage of the same radiophobia developing in Japan.

This negative opinion tends to colour people’s ability to calmly and rationally evaluate facts associated with the debate. Many cite radiophobia as the reason that people have a disproportionate response to the perceived risk of technologies that use radioactive materials. With proper safety in place, nuclear technology is not more dangerous than any other, and is often safer than many (such as coal, see the early posts on the science of the nuclear debate).

Despite the rational safety level of nuclear power, the disproportionate negative response tends to develop anti-nuclear campaigner’s arguments to the point where they become a ‘special pleading‘ fallacy. Special pleading is a fallacy where an exception to the normal rules is requested, for no valid reason. In the nuclear debate, this manifests itself in people who reject the use of nuclear technology for safety reasons, despite the evidence that nuclear is safer compared to other technologies.

In identifying this fallacy though, I am not trying to attack the completely legitimate feelings of those who have suffered though or know those who have suffered through radiation based incidents. Although the argument itself is a fallacy, the very real emotion behind it should be respected, and those who aim to debate in this arena should think about the impact of their words and how best to communicate their ideas before stepping up to the plate.

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