Rachel Carson, Killer of Africans? No. the 50-Year Campaign against 'Silent Spring' Still Distorts Carson's Legacy and Our Debates about the Environment

Article excerpt

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. And they leave us with a vexing question: Why do we fight? How is it that the environment we all share is the subject of partisan debate? After all, the right and the left inhabit the same planet, even if it doesn't always seem that way.

Carson's book was controversial before it even was a book. In June 1962, three long excerpts were published by The New Yorker magazine. They alarmed the public, which deluged the Department of Agriculture and other agencies with demands for action, and outraged the chemical industry and its allies in government. In late August 1962, after he was asked about pesticides at a press conference, President John F. Kennedy ordered his science adviser to form a commission to investigate the problems brought to light, the president said, by "Miss Carson's book."

A month later, when "Silent Spring" was published, the outlines of the fight over pesticides had hardened. Pesticide makers launched a well-funded attack aimed at discrediting "Silent Spring" and destroying its author. The offensive included a widely distributed parody of Carson's famous opening chapter about a town where no birds sang, and countless fact sheets extolling the benefits of pesticides to human health and food production. "Silent Spring" was described as one-sided and unbalanced to any media that would listen. Time magazine called the book "hysterical" and "patently unsound."

Carson's critics pushed her to a remote corner of the freaky left 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, claimed Carson 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 empire. "Silent Spring," said its more ardent detractors, was un- American.

There the two sides sit 50 years later. On one side of the environmental debate are the perceived soft-hearted scientists and those who would preserve the natural order; on the other are the hard pragmatists of industry and their friends in high places, the massed might of the establishment. Substitute climate change for pesticides, and the argument plays out the same now as it did a half- century ago. President Kennedy's scientific commission would ultimately affirm Carson's claims about pesticides, but then as now, nobody ever really gives an inch.

Carson was also accused of having written a book that, though it claimed to be concerned with human health, would instead contribute directly to death and disease on a massive scale by stopping the use of the insecticide DDT in the fight against malaria. One irate letter to The New Yorker complained that Carson's "mischief" would make it impossible to raise the funds needed to continue the effort to eradicate malaria.

The claim that Rachel Carson is responsible for the devastations of malaria, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, has gained renewed traction in recent years. The American Enterprise Institute and other free-market conservatives have defended the safety and efficacy of DDT -- and the charge of Carson's "guilt" in the deaths of millions of Africans is routinely parroted by people who are clueless about the content of "Silent Spring" or the sources of the attacks against it.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-enterprise think tank, maintains the website rachelwaswrong.org, which details Carson's complicity in the continuing plague of malaria. …

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