Mark Lytle is Professor of History and Enviromental Studies at Bard College. His most recent book, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and the Rise of the Enviromental Movement; offers a compact life of Carson. After reading John Tierney’s article in yesterday’s New York Times I asked Lytle if he would like to write a response. His thoughts are below.
In his effort to deflate the celebratory mood accompanying Rachel Carson’s centennial year, John Tierney [“Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Our Science,” New York Times, Science, June 5, 2007] is a voice of reason compared to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn and those of his ilk waging war against the patron saint of the environmental movement. Many critics before Tierney have played the malaria card, to discredit Carson, Silent Spring, and the EPA’s decision to restrict DDT. Tierney claims to have a somewhat higher purpose as he sets out to right what he sees as a wrong against science. Silent Spring, he charges, is a “hodgepodge of science and junk science.” Yet, the science he uses to debunk Carson rests heavily on a review written in 1962 by I.L. Baldwin, an agricultural bacteriologist at the University of Wisconsin. As one of those who incurred Carson’s wrath, Baldwin was hardly an impartial witness for science.
Still, he did have a point. In writing Silent Spring, Carson adopted more the role of prosecuting attorney than impartial observer. She often decried mankind’s assault on the balance of nature, which as Baldwin noted, humans have been busily upsetting “since the dawn of civilization.” But Carson, did not, as Tierney claims, imagine “life in harmony before DDT….” Indeed, his failure to present Silent Spring in the context in which Carson wrote it, allows him to caricature her argument and use of science. The dawn of the nuclear age undermined what for Carson had long been an article of faith—nature’s capacity to endure against human onslaught. “It was pleasant for me to believe…,” she wrote a friend, “that much of nature was forever beyond the tampering hand of man—he might level the forests and dam the streams, but the clouds and the rain and the wind were God’s….” The mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Strontium-90 radiating mothers’ milk, thalidomide, and a host of post-war ecological crises forced her to “acknowledge what I couldn’t help seeing.” Human activities had begun to overwhelm nature’s vitality. Highly misguided, destructive, and ultimately ineffectual Department of Agriculture campaigns to wipe out fire ants and Dutch Elm disease with indiscriminately sprayed aerial pesticide finally drove Carson to take pen in hand.
From Tierney, we hear none of that story, only his lament that Carson willfully promoted chemophobia with untold human costs, not least of which has been the recent malarial plague in poor countries. While he denounces Carson for making claims that pesticides are carcinogenic, neither he, nor the unnamed environmental experts he invokes, can claim that chlorinated hydrocarbons have been proven safe. And that after all was Carson’s primary point. The public had a right to know that these chemicals posed potential risks. She had no need to extol their virtues because the Department of Agriculture and agricultural chemical industry had spent tens of millions touting them as safe and beneficial. Tierney makes no mention of the hundreds of scientists who contributed to Silent Spring and vetted Carson’s chapters. He never mentions that a scientific panel appointed by President John F. Kennedy to investigate her charges, confirmed in 1963 most of her claims. Nor does he, nor the strident conservatives accusing Carson of murder, cite evidence that DDT may interrupt the lactation cycle for nursing mothers. DDT advocates may be promoting a cure more deadly than the disease.
In the end Carson’s real target in Silent Spring was not DDT, but man’s arrogance towards nature. Biologist Barry Commoner described this flaw as mankind’s capacity to find solutions before understanding what the problem is. Or as Carson explained, “I think we are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.” And that, John Tierney, is why in age of nuclear terror, global warming, and rapid species extinction no one with Carson’s talent and vision is likely to write, “Happy Spring.”