Happy Birthday to Rachel Carson

Today would be her 100th, and it presents us an opportunity to do two things. First, we salute a major influence in the birth of environmentalism in the United States and the world. Second, we want to use the opportunity to defend Carson from the specious attacks on her by the purveyors of the DDT ban myth.

Here’s the story. Carson wrote a seminal book on the environment called “Silent Spring” about the damage agricultural use of DDT was having on wildlife – especially birds. As a result DDT was widely banned for agricultural use. But beyond the harm to wildlife, the other reason to ban DDT for agricultural use is that the indiscriminant use of the pesticide would lead to resistance of malaria to the chemical.

Sadly this came true, and as resistance became widespread more expensive pesticides, like malation, had to be used.

DDT has never been banned worldwide, and it is still used for public health reasons to prevent malaria.

This has not stopped anti-environmental cranks like CEI and others from suggesting that Carson is responsible for the deaths of millions from her lobbying against DDT.

This is what I refer to as the “environmentalists will eat your baby” attack. The suggestion that environmentalists care more about wildlife and pretty scenery than humans. You see, it’s been critical for them to attack an icon of environmentalism like Carson, because to hold an influential environmentalist like Carson up as a hero might let people think that environmentalism is a good thing. Environmentalists must therefore all be painted as extremists who want to exterminate mankind so that the earth can survive.

It’s a travesty that somebody who has done as much good for the world as Rachel Carlson has had her reputation twisted and maligned for this purpose. But that is the nature of the denialist. Honest, decency, and integrity must come second to the advancement of an ideological agenda.

10 thoughts on “Happy Birthday to Rachel Carson”

  1. Right on. I remember when I first read Silent Spring. It… really must stand as one of the books everyone should read. The amalgamation of examples of DDT’s effect might count as a exaggeration, except she is entirely open and honest about what she’s doing, and then picks out and documents each effect in it in turn. I can’t really think of any other environmentalist account to equal it in power and clarity.

    Only one quibble with your description: malaria doesn’t become resistant, the mosquitos that are the vector of malaria do.

  2. Thank you. Carson was also an early educator of the public about the oceans. Her books were so popular that she was able to become a full time author.

  3. Reason magazine published an article (and I use the word loosely) on Silent Spring a while back. The gist of the thing was that, looking back 40 years later, nothing happened, so the ban wasn’t justified.

    One wonders how the magazine got its name.

  4. One wonders how the magazine got its name.

    No, something much worse. Maybe narcissism or sociopathy. Perhaps a childhood exposure to Ayn Rand not accompanied with appropriate and informed discussion with peers.

  5. Silent Spring was right about some things, and badly wrong about others. She had an entire chapter (Titled, IIRC, ‘one in every eight’) that claimed DDT caused human cancer, something that’s since been disproven. She used a broad brush, and also attacked some reasonably safe pesticides, including malathion. She was right about the problems with mass-spraying of organochlorines; but DDT in limited applications (inside houses, and for impregnating mosquito nets) is still incredibly useful in malaria prophyaxis. And while one can’t blame it on Carson, resistance to DDT use in the 1990 and into this decade did inhibit programs to use DDT in houses (because of a fear if it were produced in the third world it would be diverted to agricultural use).

    A more general criticism: she set a pattern for other environmental crusaders to follow, of throwing a lot of mud, in the hope some sticks. That, in my opinion, is one reason global warming science still can’t get the traction it should – people are wary of environmentalists crying wolf.

    As usual, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes (That isn’t a denialism card, is it ? 🙂

  6. Don’t worry Gerard, that’s a pretty safe statement about 90% of the time (it doesn’t work on creationism vs evolution – they’re entirely full of it).

    I agree that environmentalism has tended towards hysteria in many instances. I can’t tell you how much I hate it when I see it, like this electrosmog nonsense or cell phones causing bee deaths etc. It is thoroughly unhelpful to people who understand the scientific basis of environmental science and hope to influence policy in a positive way.

    However, being wrong about some things doesn’t mean that she was dishonest or a bad person, as is alleged by the DDT ban myth purveyors. In fact, when writing about anything scientific, chances are about 25% of what you wrote will be wrong in a couple of decades (don’t give me crap mathematicians, you know what I mean). I can forgive some errors that seem obvious in hindsight for the impact she had in making people realize the importance of human impact on the environment.

  7. don’t give me crap mathematicians

    Now there’s a Dembski joke practically begging to be made.

  8. I’m afraid a rather prominant columnist wrote an article attacking Rachel Carson in The Globe and Mail last week (our national newspaper up here in Canada). You can read it here, although most of it is subscriber-only.

  9. Rachel’s Birthday

    Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday remembrance certainly brought out a diversity of viewpoints. Was she a visionary who eliminated toxic chemicals from America’s environment, or was she a crack pot whose radical actions are responsible for millions of malarial deaths?

    I hope that the 200th anniversary of her birthday will put her accomplishments into proper perspective. In a day in which any chemical that could be safely manufactured and used was approved, she pointed out environmental and human health problems of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chemicals designed to kill, occurring beyond their manufacture and use points. The process of democracy at its finest allowed the analysis, debate and banning of these chemicals over two decades. There is no other arena in history where man has reversed a technological course for environmental reasons. Yea human race!

    The use of PCB, DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, Lindane, Aldrin, Dieldrin, hexachlorocyclohexane and hexachlorobenzene were banned in the developed countries because they were suspected of causing cancer or were acutely toxic in the environment. Yea Rachel!

    As these bans were pursued in developing countries, argument focused upon malarial vector (mosquito) control. Why? The real battle should have been the use of DDT in general agriculture. When developing countries banned agricultural DDT, what did they use to control pests? Toxaphene? Banning DDT on grains its discriminate use for mosquito control would avoid the spread of DDT in dangerous quantities and controlled mosquitoes. The DDT ban fight became a smokescreen for the use of all the other POPs.

    Now toxaphene, probably the most used pesticide on the planet, circulates through the air from its uses in developing countries and pollutes cold, clear waters from the northern Great Lakes to the Arctic. Lake Superior, a lake the size of the state of Maine with depths going to below sea level … its waters if spilled over the continental United States would cover the area to a depth of six feet … is frightfully polluted with foreign toxaphene. Its trout harbor 5 parts per million of toxaphene, ten times the level that would classify them as hazardous waste!

    Arctic polar bear and killer whales are on the edge of survival or decimated by “banned” pesticides and PCBs. PCBs and pesticides circulate through our air in hundreds of millions of molecules per breathful quantities … amounts that are now being connected to asthma, diabetes and cancer. Inuit ingest 15X a tolerable quantity of poisons.

    Rachel Carson was on the right track. Unfortunately, her work is not complete and the planet is still at risk. See the web site coldclearanddeadly.com for more details.

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