It's not enough to bash in heads, you have to bash in minds
            

In defence of Rachel Carson

The recent 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, (the author of Silent Spring, which is credited for launching the modern environmental movement) has triggered baseless attacks from politicians, and pundits. These attacks, however, are not new, they have been slung at Carson since before the book was published.

Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a “hysterical woman” unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid—indeed, the whole chemical industry—duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.

Most of the attacks claim that Carson argued for the ban on DDT which resulted in malaria spreading and becoming the threatening disease it has become today. They falsely claim the malaria was almost eradicated, but thanks to Carson and her anti-DDT crusade millions have died. They accuse her of genocide.

Having read Silent Spring, I know that the claims and criticisms against her are baseless. Carson argued for responsible pesticide use, and realized that the benefits in disease control most be balanced with the costs of environmental deterioration. She also realized that the large scale use of DDT in agriculture (which she did call for a ban of) would result in the development of DDT resistance in mosquitoes which would limit DDT’s effectiveness as a tool to fight malaria.

No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story – the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting. …

What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance. … Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes. …

Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity‘ …, Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.
-Rachel Carson in Silent Spring

In fact, had Carson’s advice been followed, DDT would have been more successful at fighting malaria, because the much lower use of DDT would have reduced the emergence of DDT resistant, malaria transmitting mosquitoes. She is hardly the mass-murderer some have made her out to be.

What makes these attacks even more absurd is that DDT has never been banned for anti-malarial use; you can get it here.

6 Responses to In defence of Rachel Carson

  1. ScruffyDan: I believe this is what your were referring to. For someone who claims to have read the book she seems to have completely forgotten the part where Carson discusses insect born diseases, and gives advice that would have drastically improved the effectiveness of DDT by reducing the emergence of DDT resistant mosquitoes.

    Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity’

    Carson’s toxic legacy
    Her book Silent Spring is a case study in the tragedy of good intentions

    Margaret Wente

    Toronto Globe and Mail
    Thursday, May 24, 2007

    I was 12 when I read Rachel Carson’s newly published book, Silent Spring, in 1962. Although I’d never heard the term “environmentalist,” she turned me into one. I didn’t understand the complicated science in it. But I was horrified by her evocation of a natural world whose creatures were being wiped out by man-made poisons – the silent spring, where no birds sang. In school, I wrote an essay praising Silent Spring, and another one explaining why a bomb shelter wouldn’t help you survive a nuclear attack. (That was an apocalyptic time, not unlike our own.)

    Born 100 years ago this week, Ms. Carson is still revered as the patron saint of the environmental movement. Schools, conferences and special days are named after her. Among her foremost admirers is Al Gore. “Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history,” he wrote.

    Indeed it did – and not necessarily for the better. In fact, it led to one of the greatest tragedies of modern times. Thanks to Ms. Carson’s all-out attack on pesticides, DDT was banned in the West. But DDT was also the most effective anti-malarial agent ever invented; before it fell into disrepute, it was credited with saving 100 million lives. When the Western nations cut off their support for DDT spraying programs in the Third World, the death toll shot back up.

    Today, malaria cripples local economies and kills 2.7 million people every year – mostly children under 5. In a devastating investigative piece, New York Times journalist Tina Rosenberg wrote, “Silent Spring is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.”

    “Poor woman. She never actually said ‘Ban DDT,’ ” says Amir Attaran, an expert on public-health and development policy at the University of Ottawa.

    “Her point was that we should use chemicals less.” But for environmental fundamentalists, Silent Spring was the ideal propaganda tool to drive home their message. And even though the World Health Organization has now reversed itself on DDT, countless environmental and cancer activists continue to cite the DDT ban as one of environmentalism’s greatest “victories.”

    DDT’s persistence in the environment did, indeed, affect certain bird species, such as eagles. But after decades of testing, there’s not a shred of evidence that it causes cancer in humans, as Ms. Carson claimed. Although she was an eloquent, impassioned writer, science wasn’t her strong suit. “She focused on the one environmental subject [chemicals] where you have to have the greatest scientific knowledge,” says Prof. Attaran.

    Silent Spring is riddled with anecdotal evidence and misleading assertions that flunk the most basic science test. “Today more American school children die of cancer than from any other cause,” she wrote, implying that pesticides were to blame. But the real reason for this alarming trend was the dramatic decline in other causes of child mortality, especially infectious diseases. At the time she wrote, the mortality rate from childhood cancer hadn’t changed for decades. Curiously, she also overlooked the greatest man-made cancer agent of them all: cigarettes.

    Today the legacy of Silent Spring is all around us. As cities and towns rush to ban lawn sprays, you can thank Ms. Carson for the dandelions in the park. The belief that man-made agents are unnatural, and thus inherently bad – even in the most minute amounts – is now widespread. Millions of people are convinced that toxic chemicals in our food, our water, and our air are responsible for the cancer epidemic, even though no such epidemic exists. Her apocalyptic prophecies about how mankind is destroying the Earth are faithfully reproduced by extremists in the global warming crowd.

    Most seriously, groups like the Sierra Club continue to lobby against DDT because of the potential for “widespread misuse” – yet another example of the distressing tendency among environmentalists to sacrifice the interests of the Third World because they think they know better.

    Ms. Carson wasn’t really the mother of environmentalism either, as her admirers like to claim. By the time she came along, the environmental movement had been going strong for decades, and the public had already embraced the importance of species conservation and the preservation of open spaces.

    The movement was already poised for its next – and far more problematic – wave, the assault on Big Chem. “She didn’t launch that movement,” says Prof. Attaran. “She was used by it.”

    And she was not used well. She may have turned the sixties generation on to environmentalism. But ultimately, Silent Spring is a case study in the tragedy of good intentions.

  2. This is a really interesting discussion about Rachel Carson’s impact. It is especially moving to hear of her fight with breast cancer and how she almost didn’t finish the book, “Silent Spring” that has been, and still is, so influential. We’ve also done a blog on her at
    http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/conservation/rachel-carson-silent-spring/
    This makes reference to a brilliant Radio 4 discussion of her life – recorded in 2002 with recordings of Carson herself and her adversaries from the chemical industry.

  3. The recent 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, (the author of Silent Spring, which is credited for launching the modern environmental movement) has triggered baseless attacks from politicians, and pundits. These attacks, however, are not new, they have been slung at Carson since before the book was published.

    Er, so which is it? Has her 100th birthday become the trigger for a series of ‘baseless attacks’ now that she’s too infirm to defend herself?

    Or is it that her 100th birthday has reminded everyone that she exists and therefore reminded everyone of the criticism of her little fantasy novel?

    It can’t be both: either her 100th birthday has triggered attacks from pundits and politicians, or else she has had a lifetime of attacks from pundits and politicians which only again becomes news due to the event of her birthday.

  4. How about:
    The recent 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, (the author of Silent Spring, which is credited for launching the modern environmental movement) has triggered a new round baseless attacks from politicians, and pundits.

    Also since Rachel Carson has died in 1964, two years after she published Silent Spring she has always been too ‘infirm’ to defend herself when her statements have been taken out of context, both by those blaming her for the fictitious total ban on DDT, and those calling for a total ban on DTT.

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