Rachel Carson: Saint or Sinner
Not to overplay a pun, but while March is exiting like a lamb, it seems to be the ideal time to cap off our Women’s History Month series with a profile of the author of Silent Spring. Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, antagonized some of the most powerful interests in the nation – and helped launch the modern environmental movement with the publication of her book. We asked Mark Hamilton Lytle, author of The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, to write a few words about his subject, in light of women’s history month. Below, Lytle weighs in on Carson, who is still a controversial figure today, years after her death. Be sure to check out our other posts in this series: An Interpretation of Feminism in Africa, Feminism and Art, On Female Body Experience and Feminism.
This year environmentalists
will celebrate the centenary of Rachel Carson. Over forty years ago Carson stunned the world when she published Silent Spring, her critique of DDT and other carbon-based pesticides. In it she took on both well-entrenched interests in the corporate world of agricultural chemicals, but also highly placed officials in the Department of Agriculture. Despite scientific assurances that DDT posed no health threat to humans, she mounted a powerful case against its indiscriminate use. She also condemned the irresponsibility of those scientists and agricultural experts who subjected humans and nature to potentially toxic chemical sprays she called “biocides.”
The fact that Carson was a woman speaking out in an age of male authority only added to the hostile reactions she provoked from many quarters. A scientist speaking for the chemical industry warned, “if man were to faithfully 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.” Like so many of her critics, he failed to acknowledge that Carson had not called for a ban on pesticides, but for far more caution in their application. Others accused her of bad science. George Decker, an economic entomologist charged that “Silent Spring poses leading questions, on which neither the author nor the reader is qualified to make decisions.” He dismissed it as “science fiction.” Others saw something more sinister at work. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wondered publicly why a “childless spinster” should be worried about how pesticides might affect future generations. He concluded that she was “probably a Communist.”
Throughout this battle Carson retained her dignity and composure. She did so even as she devoted most of her emotional and physical energy to a personal battle with the breast cancer that would kill her in April 1964. Before she died, President John F. Kennedy appointed a science advisory committee to investigate the issues raised in Silent Spring. Fortunately, Carson lived long enough to hear that the committee validated her claims that the “accretion of residues in the environment” made essential “the reduction of persistent pesticides.” Just seven years later millions of Americans followed in Carson’s environmental footsteps and took to the streets to celebrate Earth Day.
One might assume that as environmentalists embraced Carson as their patron saint, time would soften the criticism of her detractors. That assumption would be false. A new generation of detractors has gone beyond those of the 1960s who criticized Carson for bad science and misguided beliefs. They have accused her of murder. On a blog site in 2003 one outraged writer claimed that a child died every 15 seconds, 3 million people succumbed each year, and since 1972 100 million people were lost because of a malarial pandemic sweeping the globe. “These deaths,” the author fumed, “can be laid at the doorstep of author Rachel Carson.” Writing in the New York Times in April 2004, Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and children’s advocate, put the issue only a bit more soberly: “DDT killed bald eagles because of its persistence in the environment. Silent Spring is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.” Science fiction writer Michael Crichton called the ban on DDT “one of the most disgraceful episodes in the Twentieth Century history of America. We know better, and we did it anyway, and we let people around the world die and we don’t give a damn.”
These later-day Carson critics marshal some disturbing evidence. According to Rosenberg, health officials estimated that malaria killed two million people a year; the large majority of them children under five living in Africa. What so disturbed Rosenberg, Crichton, and others was not simply that people in wealthy western countries largely ignored this pandemic, but that a cheap and effective way to contain it existed. The answer, she assured her readers, was DDT. What then stopped poor nations of the world from spraying DDT to curb the malarial scourge? The simple answer these critics offered was “Rachel Carson.” The prejudice against DDT that Carson aroused in Silent Spring made it difficult for health officials to press for its use. One foreign aid administrator admitted that her agency would not finance DDT because “you’d have to explain to everyone why this is really O.K. and safe every time you do it, so you go with the alternative that everyone is comfortable with.”
But Carson’s critics misrepresent her today just as they did in the 1960s. To begin with, Carson never advocated barring the use of DDT or other pesticides where conditions recommended them, only greater care in applying them. Faced with a malaria epidemic in Africa, Carson would have accepted the need for limited DDT spraying, though she would have preferred a biological remedy. And with persistent myopia, Carson’s critics continue to deny that DDT does harm. “If you use DDT properly,” one official claimed, “it has a record of safety and effectiveness for humans that is really unmatched.” Yet, several scientific studies show that among women in Mexico and North Carolina those with higher concentrations of DDT lactated for shorter periods. In Africa, where malnutrition abounds, mothers breastfeed for an average of eighteen months. If lactation there dropped to eight months as in Mexico and North Carolina, infant mortality might reach a level that would counteract any benefit from spraying DDT. Those who speak with such moral passion about the virtues of DDT may well be recommending a cure that is more dangerous than the malaria itself.
In Silent Spring Carson urged that the methods of insect control “be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.” Similar concerns would have aroused her to fight against global warming. She believed that the health of the earth and of nature depended on time. Life on earth took hundreds of millions of years to reach “a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings,” Carson wrote. With the assault of chemicals (and today, she likely would have added, of carbon emissions) the disruptive forces strike so rapidly, that in “the modern world there is no time.” Without dramatic cuts in the rate of carbon emissions nature will be unable to adapt to recent changes in environmental conditions. Or as Carson put it, the “impetuous and heedless pace of man,” will have overwhelmed “the deliberate pace of nature.” Forty-five years after Silent Spring, it is a lesson we still struggle to learn.