Philip and Alice Shabecoff's Poisoned Profits.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 12 2008 7:05 AM

What's Wrong With Environmental Alarmism

How to mobilize, but not paralyze, the public with fear.

(Continued from Page 1)

In a bow to what Poisoned Profits clearly wishes to be, its last few lines quote from Rachel Carson's 1962 classic, Silent Spring. Carson's book, of course, is the ultimate example of storytelling as agent of change: Her eloquent parable of despoiled nature has been credited with launching the modern environmental movement, and it helped lead to the 1972 government ban on the pesticide DDT. The Shabecoffs' invocation of Carson prompts a question very pertinent to their own endeavor: How did she pull off that feat, and is it possible—or even desirable—to replicate her achievement, almost half a century later?

Carson's considerable ability as a stylist and her status as a secular saint (she died of cancer just two years after Silent Spring's publication) tend to obscure what made her book such a devastatingly effective vehicle for her then-unfamiliar views. Carson had a fine eye for observation and a fierce passion for the natural world, but she also had a talent for managing information for maximum impact. Silent Spring offers not just lovely language and appalling anecdotes (though it has plenty of both); it also provides us with a conceptual framework and a set of priorities, a way to think about the issues it raises.

Advertisement

Carson carefully filtered out inessential detail, writing in a compressed style that has the spare authority of Scripture or a great play. "Chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death," she wrote. "Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells."

She embedded sharp details in a sweeping structure that had the inevitable, irresistible force of allegory. The book opens with a vision of an American town seized by a toxic blight: "There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices."

And she gently but insistently implicated all of us in the damage that was being wrought. Describing a ground squirrel grotesquely contorted in death from the spraying of a poisonous insecticide, she asked: "By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among is us is not diminished as a human being?" At the book's end, the reader feels not resigned but invigorated, filled with a bracing desire to put things right.

It's true that Carson had the advantages as well as the burdens of a pioneer: Her book was borne along by the adolescent energy and the moral clarity of a new movement. Following in the tracks of Silent Spring, the Shabecoffs traverse less virgin intellectual territory. Compared with poisons like DDT and aldrin, another banned pesticide, current environmental threats are subtler in their effects and less susceptible to confident conclusions about cause and effect. An entire industry of influence and spin has arisen, far more sophisticated than in Carson's day. (Her critics in the chemical industry reached for the stereotype closest to hand, calling her shrill and hysterical—charges that withered on contact with her stern prose.) Scientists, with their cautious statements and careful parsings, are often little help to the activist, as the Shabecoffs note with dismayed surprise. And the public, though more aware of environmental issues, has grown jaded in the face of constant alarms.

Still, the Shabecoffs' task is essentially the same as Carson's was: to make sense of the world and what we've done to it, to give us the lay of the land and a clear path forward. To do so in a way that compels both thought and action, without oversimplifying or sensationalizing, was Carson's great gift—a gift that looks rarer and more necessary with each passing season.

Annie Murphy Paul is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.