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ISR Issue 57, JanuaryFebruary 2008
In defense of Rachel Carson
SARAH GREY takes a fresh look at the author of the environmentalist classic Silent Spring
Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power;he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 19621
RACHEL CARSON, a zoologist, naturalist, ecologist, and journalist who died in 1964, is often credited with founding the modern U.S. environmental movement. Her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, combined hard scientific evidence with the voices of ordinary American workers and housewives to make a case against the then-ubiquitous use of the pesticide DDT, as well as several other poisons. The book created a furor, as the public began to question the chemical industry, which responded with a well-funded smear campaign against Carson and her book. Carson testified before Congress, and her voice helped to radicalize millions of people who were beginning to ask questions about pesticides and their effect on the environment. Though Carson died of breast cancer only two years after Silent Spring’s publication, her influence is widely acknowledged as having sparked the movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But today, few outside the environmentalist movement, or even inside it, are familiar with Rachel Carson’s radical legacy (Marxist ecologist John Bellamy Foster being a notable exception). Liberal feminists often hold her up as a role model for young girls, but without examining the politics of her work. And as the hundredth anniversary of Carson’s birth falls this year, polluting industries and their right-wing apologists have revived their smear campaign, and are now making a cottage industry out of “debunking” Carson and her work. Indeed, more than forty years after her death, the right wing is still afraid of Rachel Carson. Today, pesticide production, use, and abuse is on the rise, particularly in the developing world, and corporations buy scientists and create front groups to assure us that global warming is a myth. In the current era of global environmental crisis, Carson’s work is more relevant today than it has ever been before, and her legacy should be a key part of every left-wing environmental analysis.
Carson was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, then a bucolic rural town, and her mother’s nature walks instilled in her what she would later describe as a deep sense of wonder. She attended the Pennsylvania College for Women to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, but switched to science and attained her master’s degree in zoology in 1932. She became editor-in-chief of all publications for the national Fish and Wildlife Service, but continued to write on her own. Her first two books, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, became bestsellers, allowing Carson the freedom to quit her job in 1952 to write full-time. She built a solid career as a nature writer.
Carson’s career took a sharp turn, however, when she began writing articles critical of the government’s pesticide spraying programs. These programs often involved the use of chemicals whose effects on the human body were unknown, in effect turning American towns into chemistry experiments, without the knowledge or consent of the test subjects. Carson’s initial article on DDT, which was then routinely sprayed from trucks onto crowds and children, was declined by Reader’s Digest. A lawsuit filed by residents of Long Island demanding a halt to spraying became a major news story. Meanwhile, Carson joined the Audubon Society’s efforts to force the United States Department of Agriculture to reveal the results of its research on pesticides. She agreed to write a three-part story for The New Yorker, and this led to a book deal.2
Carson then received a letter from Olga Owens Huckins, former literary editor for the Boston Post, who ran a bird sanctuary, and was alarmed by the disappearance of her songbirds after mosquito spraying, and noted that the poisons “had killed her songbirds, which had died horribly, and…the mosquitoes that reappeared were more voracious than before, but…the bees, grasshoppers, and other insects had vanished.”3 Carson agreed with Huckins’ assertion that such abuse of pesticides was “inhuman, undemocratic, and probably unconstitutional,” and embarked on a campaign to determine and publicize the extent of the problem.
The result was Carson’s most famous work, Silent Spring, written while Carson underwent a radical mastectomy and radiation treatment for breast cancer. It was a new kind of nature book. It was political, critical of the government and of corporations: Carson was called a communist for passages that called her time
an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results of pesticide applications, it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half trust. We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts.4It was also accessible. Though Carson was careful to research and fact-check every sentence meticulously, she did not hesitate to use the voices and the stories of ordinary people: the farmworkers who were being made ill by pesticide exposures and the housewives who noticed their trees dying share space on the page with the day’s most eminent biologists.
The chemical industry’s attack and the birth of the environmental movement
Silent Spring was published in 1962 amid an avalanche of publicity, both positive and negative. CBS aired an hour-long special about the book, although two corporate sponsors withdrew their publicity. Carson became a national celebrity, introducing an entire country to the idea that human beings would benefit by living with and appreciating our natural surroundings, rather than simply viewing them as resources to be looted for profit. Such radical ideas, though, did not go unchallenged. Carson was the target of a vicious slander campaign funded lavishly by the chemical industry. Time magazine, which in 1962 derided the book as being full of “oversimplifications and downright errors,” recently described the campaign against her:
Silent Spring…gored corporate oxen all over the country. Even before publication, Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a “hysterical woman” unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid—indeed, the whole chemical industry—duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.5Many of the attacks were unabashedly sexist in tone. The New Yorker published one such letter:
Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her communist sympathies…. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K. P.S. She’s probably a peace nut too.6Carson was hounded by the press and subject to personal attacks on her competence as a scientist, her marital status (she never married), and her looks. She used the royalties from her bestselling books to buy an isolated cottage on the Maine seashore, where she continued to fight her cancer and sketched out what she hoped would be her next book. She passed away two years after Silent Spring’s publication (from a type of cancer that her own research helped to link to pesticide exposure).7
Although she was not there to defend her ideas, they had already sparked the birth of the environmental movement. The public’s trust in the chemical industry had been broken, and environmental stories were big news, particularly as the ensuing years saw the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963, as well as an epidemic of birth defects caused by the popular morning sickness drug thalidomide. The Vietnam War, in particular, carried the movement forward, as society radicalized:
The disillusioning effect of the Vietnam War enhanced the popularity of Silent Spring. When people heard of the defoliation tactics used in the jungles of Indochina, they became more receptive to the “environmental” ideas advanced by Carson and her countless imitators…. By late 1969, the subterranean rumblings heralding the impending explosion could already be heard. On August 31, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska complained: “Suddenly out of the woodwork come thousands of people talking about ecology.” On October 20, Robert Bendiner—in a signed New York Times editorial—had a startling prediction to make: “Call it conservation, the environment, ecological balance, or what you will, it is a cause more permanent, more far-reaching, than any issue of the era—Vietnam and Black Power included.”8In late 1969, Congress responded to this public pressure by passing a bill called the National Environmental Policy Act, which President Nixon signed into law on New Year’s Day, 1970. The ensuing year saw the first Earth Day, on which an astounding twenty million Americans marched in demonstrations demanding environmental action from the Nixon administration. Nixon responded that summer by creating the EPA.
The chemical industry’s backlash today
In 2007, the reality of a global environmental crisis is questioned only by the industries that stand to lose profits from any serious environmental action: the oil industry, industrial agriculture (the industry with the most pollution and greatest carbon emissions in the U.S.), and, of course, the chemical industry. The scientific community has been making urgent calls to action for decades, but it was Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth that popularized the issue, convincing many ordinary Americans of the urgency of the environmental crisis and making global warming the biggest celebrity cause in decades. In this context, Silent Spring has made a comeback—it sells briskly9 and is regularly assigned as a textbook to college and high school students.
The resurgence of Carson’s ideas has made the Right nervous. In May 2007, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blocked a bill that would have named a post office in Springdale, Pennsylvania, in Carson’s honor.10 He argued against memorializing Carson in her hometown (and this writer’s hometown as well), charging that Carson had “stigmatized” perfectly good chemicals, and that by working to ban harmful pesticides Carson is in fact responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans, particularly Ugandans, from malaria. A statement issued by Coburn’s office reads:
Dr. Coburn believes the tremendous harm Carson’s junk science claims about DDT did to the developing world overshadow her other contributions.… Millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk science claims about DDT.11The right-wing fiction author Michael Crichton takes the hyperbole a step further, declaring that bans on DDT have “killed more people than Hitler.”12 The argument, fleshed out on the Web site rachelwaswrong.com, and cited by Coburn’s official Web site, is entirely specious; Carson’s critics seem determined to attack not her actual arguments but only a straw man, as each of the anti-Carson groups misrepresents her ideas, and very few are willing to quote more than an out-of-context half-sentence from her work. In fact, Carson never argued that all pesticides should be banned entirely, but that “control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.”13
Furthermore, Carson also never called for DDT to be banned for the purpose of fighting malaria, and indeed it has never been banned for that purpose by the U.S. or the World Health Organization.14 Carson’s point was that the widespread use of DDT as an agricultural pesticide was harmful for three reasons. First, its indiscriminate application has repercussions on the ecosystems where it is used that range far beyond the intended effect, resulting in fish and bird kills, and population drops in species that depend on specific insects and the fish and birds who eat them.15 In addition, the deaths of predators cause population explosions in other pests; Carson cites the example of the spider mite, which “has become practically a worldwide pest as DDT and other insecticides have killed off its enemies…with a heavy mite population, foliage turns yellow and falls.” A widespread DDT spraying in Montana and Idaho in 1956 caused “the most extensive and spectacular infestation of spider mites in history.”16
As the naturalist Edwin Way Teale put it, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”17
And because different chemicals are used in the same places, we have no way of predicting their combined effects:
Indeed one of the most alarming aspects of the chemical pollution of water is the fact that here—in river or lake or reservoir, or for that matter in the glass of water served at your dinner table—are mingled chemicals that no responsible chemist would think of combining in his laboratory.18Second, allowing DDT to soak into the soil, the drinking water and the skin has health repercussions for humans. Carson sounded the alarm in Silent Spring, but at the time little was known about cancer and its causes. As Carson’s critics are all too eager to point out, we don’t know exactly what the repercussions of our exposures are, in large part because the chemical brew to which we are exposed is nearly impossibly to track. As biologist and breast cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber explains:
Another reason for scientific uncertainty is that the widespread introduction of suspected chemical carcinogens into the human environment is itself a kind of uncontrolled experiment. There remains no unexposed control population to whom the cancer rates of exposed people can be compared. Moreover, the exposures themselves are uncontrolled and multiple. Each of us is exposed repeatedly to minute amounts of many different carcinogens and to any one carcinogen through many different routes. From a scientific point of view, such combinations are especially dangerous because they have the capacity to do great harm while yielding meaningless data. Science loves order, simplicity, the manipulation of a single variable against a background of constancy. The tools of science do not work well when everything is changing all at once.19Third, overuse of DDT in agriculture allows malaria-spreading mosquitoes to develop resistance to DDT and other pesticides. Once this happens, small-scale malaria spraying becomes useless and the problem worsens, often forcing public health officials to resort to even more dangerous pesticides with worse health effects on humans and their ecosystems.
Resistance to insecticides by mosquitoes…has surged upward at an astounding rate, being created by the thoroughness of the very house-spraying programs designed to eliminate malaria. In 1956, only 5 species of these mosquitoes displayed resistance; by early 1960 the number had risen from 5 to 28! The number includes very dangerous malaria vectors in West Africa, the Middle East, Central America, Indonesia, and the Eastern European region.… Agencies concerned with vector-borne disease are at present coping with their problems by switching from one insecticide to another as resistance develops. But this cannot go on indefinitely.20Rachel Carson is no more to blame for malaria deaths in Africa than she is to blame for global warming. What Sen. Coburn and his ilk fail to mention is that Africa has, in addition to a malaria problem, structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund in more than thirty countries.21 These programs notoriously require the developing countries that borrow from them to impose “austerity measures,” forcing cuts in social welfare, education, and public health programs. If instead of being pumped back into the pockets of the global money-lending class, that money were used to build infrastructure, create sustainable industries, and provide citizens with untainted food and water, adequate housing, and medical care, child mortality rates would drop quickly. But free-market cheerleaders don’t seem to have much interest in proposing solutions that don’t also happen to be hugely profitable for corporations in the United States.
In fact, it’s easy to trace the funding that amplifies the voices of Rachel Carson’s few detractors. Rachelwaswrong.com is a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-wing “think tank” better known for disputing the evidence about global warming.22 Its board of directors is a who’s who of other corporate-funded right-wing think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, and Consumer Alert,23 and its funders include such notable polluters as Dow Elanco, Monsanto, ConAgra, and Procter & Gamble.24 A similar site, the Center for Global Food Issues, is run by the archconservative Hudson Institute think tank, and lists one of its goals as being to “promote free trade in agricultural products for both economic efficiency and environmental conservation.” Environmental conservation? In a way: the site’s tagline is “Growing more per acre leaves more land for nature.”25 And how to grow more per acre? Pesticides, of course! Another Carson-basher popular with the right wing is Stephen Milloy of JunkScience.com, whose credibility took a hit when an article in the New Republic questioned his funding by tobacco giant Philip Morris.26 The authors sponsored by these groups are routinely published (often without appropriate conflict-of-interest disclaimers) in conservative magazines such as Reason and Human Events, which named Silent Spring one of its “Ten most harmful books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries” (along with the Communist Manifesto and the Kinsey Report).27
Rachel Carson’s legacy
In 1962, Robert White-Stevens, then assistant director of the Agricultural Research Division of American Cyanamid, argued that:
The crux, the fulcrum over which the argument chiefly rests, is that Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature.28Carson, speaking to producer Jay McMullen on CBS the following year, responded to this perfectly accurate criticism, saying:
We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Now I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves. 29Carson’s outlook was a decidedly materialist one. She was not a Marxist and did not publicly discuss any political allegiances (no doubt a prudent decision at the height of McCarthyism), but she also never shied away from her critique of capitalism. She was particularly severe in her criticisms of the scientific establishment’s increasingly close ties with industry. The ecologist John Bellamy Foster quotes Carson’s speech to the Women’s National Press Club in 1962:
Is industry becoming a screen through which facts must be filtered, so that the hard, uncomfortable truths are kept back and only the harmless morsels allowed to filter through? I know that many thoughtful scientists are deeply disturbed that their organizations are becoming fronts for industry. More than one scientist has raised a disturbing question—whether a spirit of Lysenkoism may be developing in America today—the philosophy that perverted and destroyed the science of genetics in Russia and even infiltrated all of that nation’s agricultural sciences. But here the tailoring, the screening of basic truth, is done, not to suit a party line, but to accommodate to the short-term gain, to serve the gods of profit and production.30Carson’s life’s work pointed out, over and over, as loudly as possible, that the short-sightedness of capitalism, its unavoidable emphasis on “the gods of profit and production,” was (and, indeed, is) bringing the natural world into a state of crisis. She fought against the same long-standing ideas of “man’s dominion over nature” that Karl Marx had opposed a century earlier, when he wrote that, under capitalism,
Nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subject it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.31Marx and Carson were both acutely aware that nature must be met on its own terms; it dominates us at least as much as we dominate it. Carson continually pointed out that the Earth is a complex system about which we cannot possibly understand everything, and that deliberately altering its systems without such full knowledge, treating it as simply property, is more than likely to result in disaster. Furthermore, she articulated in spare and beautiful prose the heretical idea that nature’s beauty and complexity have inherent worth.
The truth is that the assault on Rachel Carson today, just like the assault launched forty years ago, is about defending one of the world’s most dangerous and profitable industries from the ideas of its most eloquent and passionate critic. If the global environmental crisis is a war for the future of the planet, Carson drew the battle lines: corporations and the politicians who serve them on one side, attacking not only the planet but also its poor and working people. If we on the left are to take up the challenge she laid out, to defend our planet from those who are willing to trade its future for short-term profit, we should look to Rachel Carson’s legacy to guide our footsteps.
Sarah Grey lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her writing on the environment and food politics can be found at http://therealpotato.wordpress.com.
1 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), 127.
2 Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1997), 313.
3 Ibid., 314.
4 Carson, 13.
5 Peter Matthiessen, “The Time 100: Rachel Carson,” Time, March 29, 1999, http://www.time.com/time/time100/scientist/profile/carson.html.
6 Lear, 409.
7 Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 27.
8 Jack Lewis, “The birth of EPA,” EPA Journal, November 1985, http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/epa/15c.htm.
9 Its Amazon.com sales rank on October 9, 2007, was 1,898.
10 David Fahrenthold, “Bill to honor Rachel Carson on hold,” Washington Post, May 23, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/22/AR2007052201574.html.
11 Carl Pope, “Who’s afraid of Rachel Carson? Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn and countless others,” Alternet, May 29, 2007, http://www.alternet.org/story/52534/.
12 Quoted in May Berenbaum, “If malaria’s the problem, DDT’s not the only answer,” Washington Post, June 5, 2005.
13 Carson, 9.
14 See Extension Toxicology Network Pesticide Information Profile, June 1996, http://extoxnet.orst.edu/pips/ddt.htm, “Report of the intergovernmental negotiating committee for an international legally binding instrument for implementing international action on certain persistent organic pollutants on the work of its fifth session,” United Nations Environment Program, December 26, 2000, http://www.pops.int/documents/meetings/inc5/En/
15 Carson, 103, 107, 112–13, 122–25.
16 Ibid., 252–53.
17 Quoted in “The story of Silent Spring,” Natural Resources Defense Council, April 16, 1997, http:/www.nrdc.org/health/pesticides/hcarson.asp.
18 Carson, 44.
19 Steingraber, 29.
20 Carson, 169–71.
21 Quoted in Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2006), 152.
22 Kirsten Weir, “Rachel Carson’s birthday bashing,” Salon, June 29, 2007, http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/06/29/rachel_carson.
23 Competitive Enterprise Institute Web site, accessed August 7, 2007, http://www.cei.org/pages/board.cfm.
24 John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001), 252. See chapter 9 for an excellent analysis of right-wing think tanks and their funding.
25 Center for Global Food Issues, “About CGFI,” http://www.cgfi.org/about/about_index.htm.
26 Paul Thacker, “Smoked out: Pundit for hire.” New Republic, January 26, 2006. See also Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, “How big tobacco helped create ‘The Junkman’,” PR Watch, 2000, http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2000Q3/junkman.html.
27 “The ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Human Events, May 31, 2005.
28 Quoted in Al Gore, “Introduction,” Silent Spring (Boston: Mariner Books, 1994), xv.
29 “The silent spring of Rachel Carson,” CBS Reports, April 3, 1963. Quoted in Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1997), 450.
30 Rachel Carson, Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 210. Quoted in John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 25.
31 Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage, 1973), 409–10. For a thorough discussion of Marx’s development of this question, see also Chapter 2 of John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).