Why Some People Think Rachel Carson Killed More People Than Hitler

The state of the universe.
Sept. 4 2012 5:02 AM

Rachel Carson Didn’t Kill Millions of Africans

How the 50-year-old campaign against Silent Spring still distorts environmental debates.

Rachel Carson, right, with wildlife artist Bob Hines in the Florida Keys around 1955.
Rachel Carson, right, with wildlife artist Bob Hines in the Florida Keys around 1955.

Photo courtesy Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office.

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 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. Armed with a substantial war chest—Carson’s publisher heard it was $250,000—pesticide makers launched an 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. Some did. Time magazine called the book “hysterical” and “patently unsound.”

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Carson’s critics pushed her to the left end of the political spectrum, to a remote corner of the freaky 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, was more explicit: Carson, the company claimed, 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 Union and its Eastern European satellites. The word Communist—in 1962 the most potent of insults—wasn’t used, but it was understood. Silent Spring, said its more ardent detractors, was un-American.

And 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, and its author wondered if the magazine’s legendary standards for accuracy and fairness had fallen. Apparently unaware of the distinction between science authors and nudists, the letter writer referred to Carson as a “naturist.”

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 claim 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 now made against it. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a limited-government, free-enterprise think tank, maintains the website rachelwaswrong.org, which details Carson’s complicity in the continuing plague of malaria. In 2004, the late writer Michael Crichton offered a bite-sized and easy-to-remember indictment of Carson’s crime: “Banning DDT,” Crichton wrote, “killed more people than Hitler.” This was dialogue in a novel, but in interviews Crichton made it clear this was what he believed.

Rachel Carson, who stoically weathered misinformation campaigns against her before her death from breast cancer in 1964, would find the current situation all-too predictable. As she said once in a speech after the release of Silent Spring, many people who have not read the book nonetheless “disapprove of it heartily.”

Rachel Carson never called for the banning of pesticides. She made this clear in every public pronouncement, repeated it in an hourlong television documentary about Silent Spring, and even testified to that effect before the U.S. Senate. Carson never denied that there were beneficial uses of pesticides, notably in combatting human diseases transmitted by insects, where she said they had not only been proven effective but were morally “necessary.”

“It is not my contention,” Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge.”

Many agreed. Editorializing shortly after The New Yorker articles appeared, the New York Times wrote that Carson had struck the right balance: “Miss Carson does not argue that chemical pesticides must never be used,” the Times said, “but she warns of the dangers of misuse and overuse by a public that has become mesmerized by the notion that chemists are the possessors of divine wisdom and that nothing but benefits can emerge from their test tubes.”

Carson did not seek to end the use of pesticides—only their heedless overuse at a time when it was all but impossible to escape exposure to them. Aerial insecticide spraying campaigns over forests, cities, and suburbs; the routine application of insecticides to crops by farmers at concentrations far above what was considered “safe;” and the residential use of insecticides in everything from shelf paper to aerosol “bombs” had contaminated the landscape in exactly the same manner as the fallout from the then-pervasive testing of nuclear weapons—a connection Carson made explicit in Silent Spring.

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