Roland Clement, Environmental Advocate, Dies at 102

During his tenure as a vice president for Audubon, he played a critical role in banning DDT.

Roland Clement, a lifelong birder and an environmentalist who played a key role in the banning of DDT, died at the age of 102 on March 21. Clement worked for the National Audubon Society for nearly two decades, ultimately serving as a vice president.

The self-described artist-naturalist was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1912. At age 8 he locked eyes for a few moments with a male Black-and-white Warbler. After that, “I was hooked for life,” he wrote in a 2010 blog post.

At 14, he earned a Boy Scout badge in ornithology. Years of banding birds on Cape Cod and his time as a U.S. Air Corps weatherman during World War II further fostered his interest in exploration. “It was like a government-financed expedition,” he wrote of his war service in 2010.

After the war, he studied wildlife management formally at the Stockbridge School of the University of Massachusetts. He earned his bachelor’s degree in botany and geology at Brown University, and then a master’s degree from Cornell.

In 1958 Clement joined the National Audubon Society as a membership secretary. He advanced to staff biologist, and then ecologist. During his tenure, he helped conserve threatened species through programs aimed at Whooping Cranes, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and California Condors, and eventually became an Audubon vice president.

Clement committed much of his time with Audubon to combating the use of the pesticide DDT. (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, though Clement had been concerned about the chemical even before the book was published.) DDT had extremely negative environmental effects, including thinning eggshells, which had devastating consequences for many bird populations. He was a strong supporter of the Environmental Defense Fund’s lawsuit that ignited the effort to ban DDT, says EDF founder Charles Wurster. Clement also testified before a Senate subcommittee against the use of the pesticide, and, as an expert, was sent a proof of Silent Spring to review.

“An almost religious humility in man’s relation to his environment is needed today,” he wrote in Audubon in 1962. He called insecticides “technological manipulation” and their implementation without the full knowledge of their ecological effects the result of impatience and “arrogance.” DDT was banned in 1972, in part thanks to his efforts.

In 1981 Clement moved to a retirement center near Yale with his wife, where he led bus trips and discussion groups for other residents. There, he and other residents read E. O. Wilson, and he gave weekly lectures, he wrote in a post for the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine. Following the death of his wife, he left the home and “returned to the fray,” as he put it, traveling and taking up watercolor painting.

At 102, he was “in good health and still had his sharp wit,” says Wurster. Clement continued to write about environmental issues on his blog.

“For the first time, because of our numbers and the impact of our powerful technologies, we are disrupting the supportive processes that have made this planet habitable,” Clement wrote on his blog in 2010. “We are all amateurs at this survival game.” That may be, though the devotion to the environment Clement modeled during his long life at least offers inspiration for the rest of us.