Nov 4, 2014

Our Precarious Habitat

by Melvin A. Benarde

Sometimes I pick up old books on subjects that have advanced so much there's a risk of misinformation. I feel like there's a threshold here: if the book is old enough, I'm liable to just be amused at the different viewpoint it presents; if it's closer in time and sounds sensible, I can't always pick apart what's irrelevant information according to newer findings. Such is the case with this volume. A book that attempts to inform the public about our interrelationship with the environment- how things we do on a large scale alter the environment and how that in turn adversely affects humanity. It covers topics such as air and water pollution, pesticide use, food contamination, diseases that cross from animals to humans, waste disposal, occupational hazards, population growth and so on. I read the chapter about food poisoning and it did give me a clear picture of what causes the risks and how food should be handled safely, although the stories of food recalls were mild cases compared to what I've seen in the news in recent years!

But an earlier section in the book baffled me and raised doubts to the veracity of its content. The page begins thus: By 1975 construction is expected to begin on a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It goes on to caution that further environmental studies should be done, that the spread of species from one ocean into the other could be detrimental in ways we can't yet imagine. True, but wasn't the Panama Canal finished in 1914? Is this a serious typo or what? I felt pretty dubious about the rest of the book after this. When I got to a later chapter extolling the use of DDT for the great good it could do in reducing mosquito populations and thus malaria epidemics- I had to stop. Silent Spring was published in 1962. I'm pretty sure DDT was banned in the early 70's, why would this book be praising such a deadly pesticide. Its horrific effects were already known at the time. Both these reading incidents made me wonder if the original version of the book (I had a revised edition in hand) was actually written a decade earlier, but I could find no earlier publication date, and searches online did not turn up an earlier first edition either. So I quit it. Needless to say, this book is not staying on my shelf.

It appears to have been used as a university text in the past; I sincerely hope that's no longer the case. Or at least that whoever uses it can point out its errors. I wish they could be explained to me!

Abandoned        448 pages, 1970


  1. Anonymous11/09/2014

    The Panama Canal is not a sea-level canal. There are several sets of locks that raise and lower the water along with the ships. I suppose it's difficult for many fish, etc. to get through the entire canal because of this. They could just swim from one ocean to the other if it were sea level

    I can't speak to DDT, but I remember large clouds of insecticides sprayed all over the neighborhood in Pensecola, Florida when my family lived there 1971 to 1974 as part of the mosquito abatement program. We kids used to run through the 'fog' they "mosquito trucks" created.

  2. He was not talking about fish in particular, but smaller organisms that could (and subsequently have, according to the brief online search I did) hitch a ride on a ship's hull for example.


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