April 19, 2024

Big Green’s Silent Spring For Rachel Carson — Take Two


On the day late last month that Rachel Carson would have turned 100 years old I posted a piece on Mode Shift that focused on the surprising failure of the nation’s major environmental organizations to defend the mother of modern environmentalism. The free market right has set out on a deliberate path to diminish Carson, and by extension the American environmental community, as credible in responding to the consequences of industrial technology. The attack on Carson is an important facet of the free market right’s campaign to diminish the reach of local, state, and federal safeguards. And it’s been remarkably effective and destructive. The federal government, for instance, has no strategy for responding to global climate change because of its sympathy to free market assertions that the science of climate change is deeply flawed.  

In any case on Tuesday this week John Tierney, an influential free market science writer and columnist at the New York Times, leveled a broadside at Carson in the pages of Science Times. Calling Silent Spring a “hodgepodge of science and junk science,” Tierney accused Carson of using “dubious statistics and anecdotes (like the improbable story of a woman who instantly developed cancer after spraying her basement with DDT) to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass. She rightly noted threats to some birds, like eagles and other raptors, but she wildly imagined a mass ‘biocide.’”

I know Tierney and worked with him at the Times in the early 1990s, when he joined the paper. He’s smart, thorough, and delights in being a contrarian on environmental issues. He wrote a famous piece questioning the value of recycling, essentially saying that recycling wastes more energy and materials than it saves. In another piece for the Times Magazine, Tierney singlehandedly changed the public’s view of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich when he reported on a bet that Ehrlich made with Julian Simon, an economist at the University of Maryland. In 1968 Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which predicted a runaway global population boom (he was right on that) and mass starvation globally and food riots in the United States in the 1980s (he was wrong about that).  Ehrlich bet that the prices of five key metals would rise as a result of population increases and scarcity of natural resources. Simon bet that innovation would drive prices down. In 1990, Ehrlich conceded defeat and sent Simon a check for $576.07, the amount that represented the decline in the metals’ prices after accounting for inflation, he reported.

Now Tierney is after Rachel Carson, using as the basis of his critique a 1962 review of Silent Spring in the journal Science written by I. L. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin. Baldwin’s review was the subject of debate as intense at the time as Carson’s ground-breaking journalism. Her assessment of the toxic trail left by pesticides in plants and animals was defended and confirmed then by independent scientists, some of them working at the behest of President John F. Kennedy. And they’ve been reconfirmed time and again in the real world since.

Pesticide use has resulted in mass killings of songbirds and wildlife, and the poisoning of farm and industrial workers. I personally reported on the consequences to production workers in Lathrop, California in the 1980s who were left sterile because of their exposure to the pesticide DBCP during its manufacture. I reported on the incidence of young children who’d been born deaf in a California community where the drinking water supply had been contamined by DBCP and other toxic farm chemicals. 

I tracked through the forests of western North Carolina in the early 1980s, identifying uncommon rates of death and illness in communities exposed to the defoliants 2,4-D and picloram, which were used to kill broad-leafed trees. The mix of 2,4-D and picloram, by the way, was sprayed in Vietnam, was known as Agent White, and was used to clear forests where Agent Orange didn’t work. A military study of the effects of Agent White, which I found in the library of Auburn University in Alabama, said that Hmong tribes exposed to the defoliant displayed levels of cancer and birth defects far in excess of neighboring communities that weren’t exposed. 

So you can’t tell me that Rachel Carson’s reporting inspired “chemophobia” as Tierney charges, or is exaggerated or untrue. What he does is focus the knife edge of an eloquent rhetorical attack on the outer membrane of Carson’s reporting, such as the predictions she made that haven’t come to pass — a big loss of robins, for instance. He doesn’t note that such a prediction might well have come to pass, and fortunately hasn’t, because several of the most toxic compounds she critiqued, especially DDT, have been banned for agricultural use. 

I appeal again to the major national organizations to get involved in setting the record straight about the value of Carson’s journalism and scholarship. Their credibility and the salience of the environmental movement’s science is at stake.

14 thoughts on “Big Green’s Silent Spring For Rachel Carson — Take Two

  1. Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday remembrance certainly brought out a diversity of viewpoints. Was she a visionary who eliminated toxic chemicals from America’s environment, or was she a crack pot whose radical actions are responsible for millions of malarial deaths?

    I hope that the next centennial anniversary of her birthday will put her accomplishments into proper perspective. In a day in which any chemical that could be safely manufactured and used was approved, she pointed out environmental and human health problems of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) … chemicals designed to kill … occurring beyond their manufacture and use points. The process of democracy at its finest allowed the analysis, debate and banning of these chemicals over two decades. There is no other arena in history where man has reversed a technological course for environmental reasons. Yea human race!

    The use of PCB, DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, Lindane, Aldrin,
    Dieldrin, hexachlorocyclohexane and hexachlorobenzene were banned in the developed countries because they were suspected of causing cancer or were acutely toxic in the environment. Yea Rachel!

    As these bans were pursued in developing countries, argument focused upon malarial vector (mosquito) control. Why? The real battle should have been the use of DDT in general agriculture. When developing countries banned agricultural DDT, what did they use to control pests? Toxaphene! Banning DDT on grains only, and overseeing its ‘discriminate’ use for mosquito control would have avoided the spread of DDT in dangerous quantities and controlled mosquitoes. The DDT ban fight became a smokescreen for the use of all the other POPs!!

    Now toxaphene, probably the most used pesticide on the planet, circulates
    through the air from its uses in developing countries and pollutes cold, clear waters from the northern Great Lakes to the Arctic. Lake Superior, a lake the size of the state of Maine with depths going to below sea level. Its waters, if spilled over the continental United States would cover the area to a depth of six feet and is frightfully polluted with foreign toxaphene. Its trout harbor 5 parts per million of toxaphene, ten times the level that would classify them as hazardous waste!

    Arctic polar bear and killer whales are on the edge of survival or decimated by banned pesticides and PCBs. PCBs and pesticides circulate through our air in hundreds of millions of molecules per breathful quantities, amounts that are now being connected to asthma, diabetes and cancer. Inuit ingest 15X a tolerable quantity of poisons.

    Rachel Carson was on the right track. Unfortunately, her work is not complete and the planet is still at risk. See the web site coldclearanddeadly.com for more details.

    Melvin J. Visser
    Kalamazoo, MI

  2. Mel,
    That is a useful view and one that I adhere too. These broadsides at Carson are part of a strategy, deliberately misleading if not outright prevarications. Thanks for writing. Keith

  3. Keith: You make some very good points. It is important when criticizing Rachel Carson (or the broader environmental movement) to recognize the vital contributions they have made. I would not want to imagine a world where environmentalists never arose to counter the damage caused by the industrial revolution. But do you think there is ever a downside to environmentalism when it emphasizes emotion over reason? My point is that balance between emotion and reason is necessary when advocating or setting environmental policy – for the sake of the environment!

    The current race to destroy our planet’s last tropical rainforests in the name of anti-petroleum biofuel plantations is an environmental catastrophe. One that should be challenged for reasons both emotional and rational. Tierney was saying in his recent piece that Carson’s appeal was largely emotional and wasn’t balanced by a realistic assessment of the pros and cons of DDT use. Do you really think we shouldn’t make measured use of DDT to help eliminate malaria? Do you really think the alternatives to DDT are necessarily less toxic, or that the death toll from malaria shouldn’t be weighed when deciding what to do?

  4. Ed:
    The answer to your question is yes, there is a downside to environmentalism when it emphasizes emotion over reason. I’d express it this way: when it emphasizes emotion over actual risk. I spent a good part of my Times career exploring that one, focusing on the actual risks of dioxin, and exploring the scientific basis of the Superfund Law, designed to sput the cleanup of toxic wastes. Without laboring the point, which was terribly contentious in the early 1990s, I found that when stripped of all its particulars the Superfund Law was based essentially on how much dioxin-contaminated soil a b baby might actually eat during the course of its lifetime. I calleld it the dirt eating rule and its disclosure helped communities make the case for a more flexible standard that led to the nation’s brownfield cleanup law.

    The Carson attack is just that. A critique based on bogus science. Carson was exceptionally asture in her scientific assessment of the risks and in her scholarship. The book is a monumental piece of investigative journalism. Her ability to wrap hard science in a compelling narrative is the reason the book made such a lasting impression. There is nothing of the emotion/reason in the critical attack or in her reporting. It’s for that reason that I feel compelled to speak up here. Best, Keith
    uled clusr

  5. I’m totally sympathetic with honoring Rachel Carson and her contributions, but I’m not sure the focus on her achievements or even the continuing documentation of all the environmental changes and loss of wildlife holds much promise in turning things around from where we find ourselves in our environmental dilemmas. The battle needs broader allies beyond the activist life sciences and pundit classes.

    Call me a cynic, but I don’t think ‘we’ as a human race will respond to anything short of understanding this as a crisis to our own well being of personal health. And who’s to diagnose such disorder? I think responsibility needs to be placed on the doorstep of our medical community to administer a clear prescriptive for change for the sake of human health. Hand in hand with biologists and environmental engineers of all stripes, those in medicine need to step up and take some leadership in supporting changes where compromise is still more risk than sound medical science should be supporting.

    Waiting for all the canaries to drop may take too long while the subtle (and not so subtle) declines in human health conditions may hold more direct impact to turn political will on these issues.

  6. Whether the campaign against Carson’s ideas in the 1960s was designed by the
    chemical industry to protect its markets, or whether the worldviews
    of the agricultural communities were simply too narrow to question
    their own practices and consider alternatives, I’ve actually never
    been able to quite understand. Probably some of both.

    Another thing: In the recent global warming debate have we clearly seen the hand of industry censors reaching through government to stifle legitimate science. Have they
    actually become less adept at the technique over the years; are they
    so clumsy now as to be repeatedly caught at it?

    Carson’s tenure at Fish and Wildlife was cut short by cancer, but God
    knows what would have happened to her career today.

  7. When Rachel Carson’s book came out in 1962, naturalist and entomologist J. Gordon Edwards was eager to read it. But when he began to look at the scientific studies she cited, he was very troubled at her misreporting. His article about Caron is available on our website. Edwards, now deceased, was a mountaineer and a birder.


    Marje Hecht
    Managing Editor
    21st Century Science & Technology

  8. Thanks for this! I’m trying to do my part to set some of the biological errors straight at my blog. By “national organizations” what ones do you have one in mind?

    I’d love to help, but after a week of personal attacks on my blog and via email, I’m not so sure.

  9. Big Girl,
    Give me your blog and I’ll take a look. The national organizations that should be involved, as identified in the first post on this subject on May 30, are the NRDC, Environmental Defense, Audobon, and Sierra Club. Thanks, Keith

  10. > I’d love to help, but after a week of personal attacks
    > on my blog and via email, I’m not so sure

    This is the scary part — fifty years of attacks on the science and anyone trying to talk about it in a way that actually educates the public, and they are continuing.

    What worries me is that the corporations may have learned far more about fooling the public from the history of the tobacco industry than the journalists did. And they don’t intend to lose the current war on science.

  11. My most recent posts on the topic:


    I was thinking of the Entomological Society of America, and the Ecological Society of America–both professional scientific organizations.

    BTW, May Berenbaum has done an awesome job of discussing this, and you can’t get more credibility than May. In addition to being just about universally beloved, she’s a member of the National Academy, and Chair of her Entomology Department. Here article is here:


    I’m going to contact her this week to ask if she’ll sponsor a resolution that the society can endorse. The National Geographic article just annoyed me so much, I am past trying to protect my career. 🙁

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  14. Please let me know if you’re looking for a author for your blog. You have some really great articles and I believe I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d absolutely love to write some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an email if interested. Cheers!

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