50 Years Later Rachel Carson Is Still Misunderstood

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There are many, especially in the past 4 years, very bad and wrong-headed rules, regulations and policies promulgated by the EPA, Interior, and Fish and Wildlife Services. Articles from Forbes and AEI scholars are exactly right most of the time. One opinion I do not share with them is that Rachel Carson is to be blamed for all the environmental agencies do because 50 years ago she wrote and published the book, Silent Spring. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to facts. Rachel Carson, who stoically weathered misinformation campaigns against her before her death from breast cancer in 1964, would find the current situation all-too predictable. As she said once in a speech after the release of Silent Spring, many people who have not read the book nonetheless “disapprove of it heartily.”

The following are a few facts to know, especially for those who have never read the book.

  • Rachel Carson provided more than 50 pages of citations to peer-reviewed research and communications with leading scientists in ornithology and chemistry about DDT and the damage it does.
  • Rachel Carson never called for the banning of pesticides.
  • Rachel Carson never denied that there were beneficial uses of pesticides, notably in combatting human diseases transmitted by insects, where she said they had not only been proven effective but were morally “necessary.”
  • Silent Spring was already controversial before it came out, but she did not expect it would be a big seller.



Below are excerpts from recent articles by Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko at Forbes and William Souder at Winniprg Free Press. The irony of the Forbes article is that it acknowledges the necessity of using DDT with great care and in small amounts. The one problem I have with the Winnipeg Free Press article is an assumption that Rachel Carson would have been in favor of carbon tax laws as a needed response to curtailing global warming or that she alone spawned the environmental movement. Remember that she died in 1964.

from the Winnipeg Free Press article:

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s landmark warning about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, turns 50 this month. By extension, that puts the environmental movement also at the half-century mark—along with the bitter, divisive argument we continue to have over both the book and the movement it spawned. The terms of that argument, which emerged in the brutal reaction to Silent Spring from those who saw it not as a warning but as a threat, haven’t changed much.

Carson’s critics pushed her to the left end of the political spectrum, to a remote corner of the freaky fringe that at the time included organic farmers, food faddists, and anti-fluoridationists. One pesticide maker, which threatened to sue if Silent Spring was published, was more explicit: Carson, the company claimed, was in league with “sinister parties” whose goal was to undermine American agriculture and free enterprise in order to further the interests of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. The word Communist—in 1962 the most potent of insults—wasn’t used, but it was understood. Silent Spring, said its more ardent detractors, was un-American.

Rachel Carson never called for the banning of pesticides. She made this clear in every public pronouncement, repeated it in an hourlong television documentary about Silent Spring, and even testified to that effect before the U.S. Senate. Carson never denied that there were beneficial uses of pesticides, notably in combatting human diseases transmitted by insects, where she said they had not only been proven effective but were morally “necessary.”

“It is not my contention,” Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge.”

Carson did not seek to end the use of pesticides—only their heedless overuse at a time when it was all but impossible to escape exposure to them. Aerial insecticide spraying campaigns over forests, cities, and suburbs; the routine application of insecticides to crops by farmers at concentrations far above what was considered “safe;” and the residential use of insecticides in everything from shelf paper to aerosol “bombs” had contaminated the landscape.

It’s true that Carson found little good to say about DDT or any of its toxic cousins—the chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon insecticides developed in the years after World War II and after the Swiss chemist Paul Muller had won a Nobel Prize for discovering DDT. But it’s a stretch to see how the mood surrounding Silent Spring was the prime cause of DDT’s exit from the fight against malaria. And, as the New York Times and other publications proved, it was understood by anyone who took time to read Silent Spring that Carson was not an absolutist seeking to stop all pesticide use.

from Forbes:

Although the use of DDT is not risk-free, there is a vast difference between applying large amounts of it in the environment — as farmers sometimes did before it was banned in the United States — and using it carefully and sparingly to fight mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects, as it is used in a handful of African and Asian countries even today. It is sprayed or dusted indoors in small amounts to prevent mosquitoes from nesting, so exposures are extremely low. The now well-known problems associated with the thinning of raptor’s eggshells – while always exaggerated – can be completely avoided by using DDT with care exclusively in residential areas, because the chemical remains largely near where it is sprayed.

Another advantage of DDT is that even when mosquitoes become resistant to its killing effects, they are still repelled by it. An occasional dusting of window- and door-frames is extremely effective at keeping mosquitoes out of homes, schools, hospitals, and other buildings. When used in this way, the exploitation of DDT’s repellency also exposes people to lower amounts of insecticide than occurs with the only comparably effective alternative, bed nets soaked in various other pesticides.

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pilgrim
I am retired after 36 years of being a state of Indiana employee. I enjoy writing and reading conservative blogs.
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I am retired after 36 years of being a state of Indiana employee. I enjoy writing and reading conservative blogs.

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vassar bushmills
September 9, 2012 7:26 am

Solid story and history. I read Silent Spring in High school, but never quite caught the import of what she was saying. I was a budding environmentalist then. She was a goddess, esp to bird lovers and the plight of bald eagle. I always liked her, and still cringe when she, or the book, are blamed for things unintended. She was grabbed up and made an icon, even used, much as Darwin was at the first, MLK also comes to mind. In death it was easy for the Left to steal her name, if not her words, the same for… Read more »

Mike DeVine
September 9, 2012 11:22 am

On a similar note, Charles Darwin wouldn’t recognize Modern Social Darwinists and John Maynard Keynes wouldn’t recognize many of today’s and yesterday’s actual purported Keynesians.

bobmontgomery
September 9, 2012 2:32 pm

Who’s using or abusing who and whose ox is gored. Scientific inquiry, social forays and academic debates of all kinds worm themselves into politics. The problem is when they worm themselves into government. Whenever the latest thing is propagandized into a necessity for MORE GOVERNMENT, it must always be immediately suspect.

LadyImpactOhio
September 9, 2012 9:55 pm

I never read this book but heard a lot about it. Sounds like she makes a good case for balancing out the necessity of pesticides but not overkill. A lot of the envorowhackos I write about always quote Carson.