In the midst of the deluge of news coming out of the White House this past week, many environmentalists have paid tribute to Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring has been hailed by many as the impetus that started America’s environmental movement. Carson’s book called attention to the impact of the insecticide DDT on the deaths of birds, fish, and other animals up the food chain. The book called for an end to the indiscriminate spraying of DDT on crops, in houses, and on children and other people who spent time outdoors.
After the book was published, it was predictably attacked by the chemical industry, especially Dupont Chemical Company which produced DDT. One Dupont scientist, Robert White-Stevens, was particularly vehement: According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Rachel Carson was called to testify before Congress on the validity of her findings, which she defended strongly despite being critically ill at the time. She died of cancer in 1964, less than two years after the publication of her most famous book.
Silent Spring was widely publicized, appearing as a series of articles in the New Yorker as well as being the subject of a CBS documentary. The public soon embraced the idea of the danger of pesticides and other technological advances in science. The use of DDT on crops was banned in the United States and in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was set up to monitor the effect of various scientific advances on the lives of Americans.
Controversy continues, however. When Google paid tribute to Rachel Carson on the 50th anniversary of her death, Breitbart News asked the question: “Will Google be paying tribute to any of the other mass killers of the 20th century? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Probably not. But then, none of the others have had the benefit of having their images burnished by a thousand and one starry-eyed greenies.”
The idea of Rachel Carson as a mass murderer comes from the fact that deaths from malaria, which had been decreasing with the use of DDT to kill malarial mosquitoes, began to climb. But the increase seems to have been due more to the fact that mosquitoes evolved so that DDT no longer killed them. And critics of Carson fail to recognize that she never suggested that all pesticides be abolished. Environmental issues are complex and simple solutions seldom solve them.
The truth is that science is difficult. Discovering the truth about the natural world takes time and requires the cooperation of many scientists. And trying to use the facts of science to make the world better usually has mixed results. Rachel Carson was right—pesticides do disrupt the natural order and kill birds as well as insects. And other scientists are also right in saying that malaria is a terrible disease and that killing the mosquitoes that carry the disease saves human lives. We need to find a balance between the two. Gradually scientists are finding new pesticides which are again bringing down the rates of malaria around the world.
The struggle over science continues. Climate change is one of the most hotly contested scientific issues today, especially because President Trump has said that he does not believe in the concept of climate change caused by human activities . His nominee for the head of the EPA is a man who has scoffed at the need for the U.S. and the world to make any effort to address climate change. On January 24, 2017, according to the New York Times, “President Donald Trump’s administration has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change page from its website, two agency employees told Reuters, the latest move by the newly minted leadership to erase ex-President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives.”
As citizens we need to recognize the complexities of science and accept that changes are necessary even though they may be uncomfortable. Old jobs and old ways of life may disappear, but new ones will be found. We must protest when government officials forbid scientists to study how the world works and to make projections about what will happen in the future.
This blog is called Teacups and Tyrants. Most of my posts have focused on the quieter teacup parts of life, but recently the country has seen the growth of tyrants. From now on I expect to focus more on the harsher side of life and the threats that tyrants pose for our future.
3 thoughts on “Rachel Carson’s Tangled Web”
Wish you’d been appointed as a presidential Adviser. You make more rational sense
Thanks, Barbara! There are so many people I wish had been appointed presidential advisers instead of the ones we now have.
Wonderful post! I wish more commentators acknowledged the COMPLEXITY of complex issues rather than trying to reduce them to a catchy slogan or brief sound bite. THANK YOU for being willing to tackle difficult issues in a thoughtful, nuanced manner.