Leading The Fight Against DDT: Charles F. Wurster '52
The professor emeritus of Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences recently published DDT Wars: Rescuing Our National Bird, Preventing Cancer, and Creating the Environmental Defense Fund.
Charles Wurster ’52 held his first DDT-poisoned robin in the spring of 1963, when he was doing post-doctoral work on the effect of that insecticide, and others, on birds. But, despite the attention brought by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, few advocates or scientists at the time were focused on the damage wrought by this toxic chemical. Those that were had few ways to make a difference: government agencies ignored them, existing environmental laws were inadequate, and the courts were closed to advocates without “standing” to sue.
By 1965 Wurster, who’d earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Stanford, had become a new biology professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island (where he would teach for 30 years). He began attending the meetings of a loosely knit group of other scientists, environmentalists, and students living on Long Island. With the help of a local lawyer, they undertook the first successful legal action against local DDT applications. Operating under the lawyer’s “sue the bastards!” mantra, they brought lawsuits against DDT to New York State, Michigan and Wisconsin, and ultimately to the second-highest U.S. court in Washington D.C. Out of their actions came a near-total national ban on DDT; the launch of one of the most powerful conservation groups in the world, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF); and a brand new field of legal action we now know as environmental law.
Wurster, now a professor emeritus of Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, has just published his own account of those years, DDT Wars: Rescuing Our National Bird, Preventing Cancer, and Creating the Environmental Defense Fund (Oxford University Press). Cat Lazaroff ’89 caught up with Wurster at his home in Seattle, to talk about that story.
Cat Lazaroff: First, thank you for your efforts, and those of your friends and colleagues. I was born in 1967—the same year as the Environmental Defense Fund—and thanks to that work, I grew up in a less poisonous world. It’s been nearly 50 years. Why was it so important for you to finally write—and for the public to read— this story now?
Charles Wurster: That’s a good question. At the end of the banning process which took essentially ten years, my feeling was “well, the job is done, there are other things to do.” The DDT thing seemed more or less a dead issue. It was over. Then I began to see that things were happening—the birds were returning. [There are now more than 25 times as many bald eagles in the continental U.S. than there were before the ban. Peregrine falcons now number about 3,000 nesting pairs, up from just 333 pairs before the ban.] But nobody had any clear picture of what was really happening. Not infrequently, I was seeing stories about the return of the bald eagle, and they all got it wrong, crediting Congress or legislation, both of which were wrong.
And there are real lessons to be learned. This was an example of a handful of people making a major government change. We had to fight the biggest agencies of government, who wanted to throw us out of court. Then, of all things, they were joined in their motions to dismiss by the Department of Justice, the biggest law firm in the country! So we were up against the biggest, most powerful opponents you can find. And we beat them! That story shouldn’t get buried.
Then along comes climate change. The [climate change deniers] started using the DDT story as an example of “junk science” to challenge the scientists who are warning us about global warming. It was exactly the opposite of that. It was sterling science. I was getting called all kinds of names on the web, which was kind of fun. One of these authors said I was viewed as a “threat to the American way of life.” [laughs]
So there was all this misinformation out there. I began to realize, there isn’t anybody else who can do it. And somebody has to tell this story.
CL: This is your first book, right?
CW: And my last! I had a very good English composition teacher at Haverford. We had to write a composition a week. He used to edit them, real copyediting. He did a lot in teaching me how to write. So in a way, Haverford had a role in this.
CL: Would it be possible now to win the victories you won then?
CW: Unfortunately, I don’t think it could happen now. Industry has learned how to protect its products, mainly from the tobacco industry, which is a massive propaganda machine. They’ve kept that product on the market for 50 years since we learned it was bad for our health. Yet twenty percent of Americans still smoke cigarettes. It’s crazy.
We caught them before they learned what was going on. Corporations were innocent babes in the woods when we took them on, and we knocked them over with science.
CL: EDF went on to win a lot of battles over the past 47 years. Which do you believe has been the most significant?
CW: The DDT story was a big deal 45 years ago. It was a world problem, and a lot of people were very concerned about it. Now it looks like peanuts. EDF was responsible for getting the cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide, the primary cause of acid rain. That came about through convincing the first President Bush that it should be part of the Clean Air Act of 1990, and it put a big damper on acid rain. EDF pulled that off.
We’ve tried to do the same thing for CO2 emissions, but the opposition to doing anything about climate change is just vast. They’re the biggest corporations in the world, and they do not want to do anything about CO2 emissions.
CL: There are many more environmental groups today than there were when EDF was founded. What makes EDF different?
CW: EDF was basically started by scientists, and one lawyer who came along and said “if you guys know what you’re talking about, you might get some action.” We didn’t know anything about law or how to do it. It was basically a science organization using the courts. We were all environmentalists and birders. This started with DDT killing birds, and that annoyed us plenty. So this was an organization of conservationists using the law.
I’ve been on EDF’s board for 47 straight years. To this day, we are probably the most scientific of the conservation groups. Our scientists are publishing peer-reviewed articles in journals. And our motto has changed from “sue the bastards” to “finding the ways that work.”
CL: What lessons do you think this story has to offer today’s young conservationists?
CW: It shows how industries fight change through propaganda. And as a case history, there are a lot of lessons in there about what to do and what not to do, and how a few citizens can make a difference. When you get thrown out of court, you don’t go away, you go back and knock again. You keep banging on the system.
Cat Lazaroff is managing program director for Resource Media, a nonprofit communications group that works with foundations and other partners to advance conservation issues.