Happy 56th Anniversary, Silent Spring

Rachel Carson
CC BY 2.0 Rachel Carson via Wikipedia

Rachel Carson's book that many say launched the environmental movement was released on this day.

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and not the first person to sound the alarm about the dangers of the pesticide DDT. But her book Silent Spring, released on 27 September 1962, was a monster hit. According to a biography, her combination of "scientific knowledge and poetic writing" reached a broad audience and helped to focus opposition to DDT use." She didn't actually call for a ban, but worried about insects developing resistance if too much of the stuff was used, writing:

The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story — the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.

The chemical industry went ballistic; according to Wikipedia, DuPont threatened lawsuits against the publisher and the New Yorker.

According to [chemist] 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." Others went further, attacking Carson's scientific credentials (because her training was in marine biology rather than biochemistry) and her personal character. White-Stevens labeled her "...a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature," while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was "probably a Communist."

She is still under attack by people who claim that the DDT ban meant that millions were condemned to death from malaria because mosquito eradication programs were less effective. On the occasion of Google noting the 50th anniversary of her death, Steve Bannon, while editor of Breitbart, labeled her "the 20th Century's Greatest Female Mass Murderer":

"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."

Michael Hiltzik explains in the LA Times that none of this is true, that DDT was already losing its effectiveness, that mosquito control is more complicated, and that in fact DDT wasn't ever actually banned, and reminds us that she didn't call for it. He quotes her:

"It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used," she wrote in Silent Spring. "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."

Her real concern was that we had entered "an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged." When the public objects, she wrote, "it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth." She was right then, and her words are a warning to us today.

On the anniversary of its publishing, all of us starry-eyed greenies thank her. It is time to have another look at Silent Spring.

Happy 56th Anniversary, Silent Spring
Rachel Carson's book that many say launched the environmental movement was released on this day.

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