"A Gospel Tract for the Twice-Born"
Russell A. Hunt
[Review: Maticil Spray Report, by William Thurlow, as published in The Last Post 7:6 (November 1979), 46-47. ]
Without people like William Thurlow, of the Gander Environment Group (and Elizabeth Ray of the Cape Breton Landowners Against the Spray, and the leaders of the Concerned Parents in New Brunswick) the Atlantic Provinces would be a much more tranquil place. These people, and many others like them, have kept vital the long, variously successful struggle to stop or modify the aerial spraying, of insecticides to combat the ravages of the spruce budworm. Without them, the Avengers and DC6's would lumber into the sky every spring with their loads of DDT or Fenitrothion or Matacil in an echoing public silence. Because of them, however, the public wrangle over the wisdom of this technological assault on the environment has become a perennial, agonizing tag-team wrestling match, pitting these activists against the pulp mills and lumber interests, with the various provincial governments pitching in on one side or the other at intervals.

Dr. Thurlow is one of the more recent entries in this public exhibition. A few months ago he made a speaking tour of the Maritimes, preaching the gospel of resistance to the annual airborne deluge of untested chemicals. Now he has published a small book entitled Matacil Spray Report which is intended to document and substantiate the lectures he delivered last winter. The book, like so many other public documents arising out of this controversy, is going to be praised by those who are already convinced that Matacil is only the latest in a long series of catastrophic ecological mistakes. And it is going to be ignored or contemptuously dismissed:-by those who regard those planeloads of chemical as so many million gallons of salvation for the Atlantic forest industry (if not for the Atlantic forest).

It is unfortunate that this is going to be so. What we need are books and articles that make sense of this complex issue, so that the public can understand what it is that's going on when Nova Scotia Forest Industries starts predicting a timber shortage in twenty years, or when Dr. Crocker from Halifax talks about viral potentiation and the etiology of Reye's Syndrome. It is an odd combination of factors which renders the book a gospel tract for the twice-born of the antispray movement, but, sadly enough, that's what it is.

One of these factors is the book's own obvious commitment to a certain position. I don't mean to suggest that Dr. Thurlow should (or could) have concealed his attitudes -- after all, if he had not embraced them there could hardly have been a book at all. And I'm not calling for some fraudulent pseudo-objectivity. We all know, or should by this point, that there is no such thing as a "fact" out of a context, out of a structure of argument and values. But the book's set of assumptions leads Dr. Thurlow to a willingness to accept information which is not very well substantiated, or even worse, which is immediately doubtful. For instance, the later sections of the book are full of things like the second- and third-hand reports from moose hunters that moose in Newfoundland spray areas acted funny during hunting season. Now that may be true, and it may even have been due to nerve damage caused by carbamate insecticides . . . but it's precisely the kind of pseudo-fact that will be believed or disbelieved according to the team you've signed up on.

Another factor is the book's frequent descent into polemics. Thurlow can't seem to resist the pull of sarcasm: "Wasn't it interesting," he asks, "that the mammal control area for Test Block was located near Gander Bay, bordering on spray block 216 . . . ..". Or "no wonder such low concentrations of aminocarb were found. . .". Such a tone amuses and enrages the committed, but is no help to people who want to come to some understanding of the difficulties involved in measuring the impact of something as difficult to control and to quantify as an aerial spray.

But probably the book's most important handicap is its use of scientific language. Not the fact that it uses it -- no understanding of this matter can be attained without some specialized language -- but the way Dr. Thurlow uses it. The first chapter of the book is entitled "Chemistry" and it involves a chemical analysis of certain aspects of Matacil. The problem isn't the existence of the chapter but the function Dr. Thurlow seems to want it to play: it seems to be an attempt to impress the reader with the scientific sophistication of the book.

To be useful, such language must either be addressed to chemists or be presented in such a way that a reasonably bright and concerned reader can figure out what is being said. Neither is the case here, and in fact the rhetoric lurches and unpleasantly back and forth between two attitudes toward the reader. At one point, for instance, we are jollied along in the tones doctors use in dealing with recalcitrant children (two medical derivatives of carbamic acid are defined as "drugs which are good for what the doctor intends but harmful otherwise"), and a sentence later we are expected to swallow, without any sugar coating of explanation or bedside jollity, this definition of insecticides derived from carbamic acid: "usually mononaethyl carbamic acid esterified to an aryl alcohol." And the only explanation I can imagine for a passage like this one is that we are not expected to read it, but rather to hear an authoritative-sounding mumble:

"In living systems, the principal routes of detoxification of carbamate insecticides are the hydrolosis of the ester -5- group, oxidation of side groups and conjugation. Thus the usual organism response is to use either hydrolysis or oxidation to attempt to convert lipid soluble compounds into polar, water-soluble products."
It's too bad, but Dr. Thurlow's book has fallen between two high stools. It's particularly unfortunate because we could have used someone occupying either stool. One of the stools might have been filled by a book which really did gather the kind of technical information we need about Matacil into one easily available source, no matter how technically abstruse its language. This is. not that book, however: there is still just too much we don't know about what is known. Someone, for instance, knows about the secret manufacturer's tests on Matacil which allowed it to be licensed for use in Canada; but this book, of course, does not. That's understandable, and so is the fact that the book does not consider the history of Matacil or the spray programmes of the various provinces or the physics of aerial spray or the economics of spray programmes as opposed to forest management. Those things are not what Dr. Thurlow had addressed himself to, but their absence means the book is not the reference book we need.

The other stool would have been occupied by a really persuasive polemic, the kind that leads a reader carefully to an understanding of why the author's position is as it is. This isn't that book either, though its tone (once one is past the early, technical chapters) suggests that that's more what Dr. Thurlow had in mind. Here is a representative passage from that more polemic portion of the book:

A number of residents of Carmanville, 40 miles north of Gander and close down wind from a spray block, report strange behaviour in crows this fall. While most drivers accidentally hit a bird flying along a highway at some time in their experience, crows usually escape this fate. While lots of crows have been there for a long time, no one could ever remember having hit one before. However, this fall, many crows have been hit on that highway. The crows have been flying exceptionally low, slow and without evasive tactics to avoid danger -- quite unlike their usual behaviour. Is this from Matacil-induced delayed neurotoxicity? Is this because of one eye being blind and thus not seeing the cars, similar to the "one eyed Woodcock" problem in New Brunswick?
In spite of all this, the book still offers the committed reader the most thorough available bibliography on Matacil and related issues, in its footnotes; and its text is a goldmine of information (though, as in a goldmine, you have to do some digging).

The problem Dr. Thurlow has faced and failed to solve is not an easy one, and it is no disgrace to have failed to solve it. In some ways, it's our most important social problem. It is, put roughly, this: how can we assemble and present the "facts" of a matter as complex as this so as to produce real understanding? Most of us, presented with as densely complicated an issue as this one, make our decisions on the basis of the way we perceive the person who's presenting the facts, not whether they make sense. We do this regularly, in dealing with Three Mile Island and the Point Lepreau nuclear station, with industrial development and inflation, with oil pollution in Chedabucto Bay and air pollution in Saint John. In all those cases -- and in the case of the spruce budworm -- we need writers who give us more than just "the facts," and more than impassioned rhetoric. We need understanding.