Rachel Carson Revisited

By Allen, Brooke | The Hudson Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Rachel Carson Revisited


Allen, Brooke, The Hudson Review


Rachel Carson Revisited

Back in the 1960s and '70s, Rachel Carson was considered about as unimpeachable a character as you could think of, a sort of secular saint not only for the environmental movement but for all of liberal America. A 1963 Peanuts cartoon brings back the Zeitgeist. "Rachel Carson! Rachel Carson! Rachel Carson!" Schroeder yells at Lucy, roused for once from his travails at the keyboard. "You're always talking about Rachel Carson!" - to which Lucy replies, "We girls need our heroines." Carson was certainly that: the impact made by Silent Spring went far beyond its immediate purpose, which was to draw attention to the potentially harmful effects of DDT, and posited a new way for humans to look at the earth and their place upon it: "environmentalism," as we now understand it, was born. In 1970, six years after Carson's death, President Nixon and Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency, one of the first acts of which was to ban the use of DDT in the United States.

One would have thought Carson's posthumous reputation to be as secure as that of any American of the last century. But nothing and no one is safe from today's political warriors, and Carson's work has recently come under virulent attack from libertarians and right-wing Republicans. The free-market think tank Compétitive Enterprise Institute hosts a website called "Rachel Was Wrong" that squarely places the responsibility for the million deaths a year from malaria on "the antiDDT and anti-chemical hysteria engendered by the ideas in Silent Spring." Libertarian novelist Michael Crichton had one of his fictional mouthpieces claim that "Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler."

Note that these claims are being made not by die scientific community but by free-market fundamentalists who are extremely resentful of the EPA and the tighter controls it succeeds in enforcing on business (chemical manufacturers, big agro, etc.). The Competitive Enterprise Institute's principal concern, after all, is competitive enterprise and not public health, and the unsolved malaria epidemic gives the libertarian movement an extremely effective bludgeon with which to go after not only Carson but the entire environmentalist movement and the challenges it presents, bodi legal and philosophical, to market fundamentalism. Crichton's camp has (inevitably) labeled Carson's work "junk science," but the scientific community does not concur. According to an exploration of the issue in Salon, "Public health workers generally agree that balance is the best approach: spraying houses, hanging bed nets, tracking outbreaks and treating those infected with malaria. DDT has a place in that strategy, but it is not the silver bullet it's often made out to be." In 2008 the World Health Organization reversed its policy of thirty years and reintroduced DDT into the fight against malaria. As Carson herself predicted, it has steadily been losing its effectiveness as the mosquitoes become resistant to the insecticide.

The name of Rachel Carson still retains much of its luster for those who don't follow right-leaning blogs, and now an intelligent and sympathetic new biography of the environmentalist has appeared, hard on the heels of other recent biographies by Arlene R. Quaratiello (2004) and Linda Lear (2009). This is William Souder's On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.1 Odd that there have been so many biographies of Carson, who, except for the remarkable success of two of her books and the storm of controversy that surrounded her between the publication of Silent Spring and her death from cancer two years later, did not lead a very eventful or exciting life. She does not even seem to have been a terribly interesting person outside of her professional activities; as Souder demonstrates, "tunnel vision" was one of her defining traits, and she had little time or inclination to diverge in anyway from her chosen patii.

Carson was born in 1907 in the town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, only a few miles from Pittsburgh, to a financially precarious family: her father, Robert, worked in turn as electrician, insurance agent, and night watchman, while her mother, Maria, gave piano lessons to supplement the family income. …

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