A couple of months ago, I wrote a review of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. In her book, she challenges the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. I compared her passion for communicating these issues with Josh Fox’s documentary, Gaslands, 2010. 50 years on and nothing has changed, energy companies still have a grip on the policy makers and the policy makers prioritise power and wealth over the safety of the people who elected them.
After writing this review, I have come across many criticisms of Carson, her
A recent blog post in TIME, highlighted once more how much backlash Carson received just before her untimely death due to breast cancer in 1964.
Carson was attacked for being a female scientist and like a scene from 1984, was accused of being an accomplice of the communist regime.
”Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. 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.
—Letter to the editor of the New Yorker [cited in Smith 2001, 741]”
Silent Spring highlights the toxic effects of DDT use on animals, particularly birds. After attention was drawn to these concerns, in 1972, the resulting movement succeeded in getting DDT banned in the U.S. Carson’s main critics linked her call of the dangers of DDT to the death of millions in Africa.
DDT had been effective in eradicating malaria- carrying mosquitoes and was sprayed heavily on houses in developing countries. However, due to the over-use of DDT, mosquitoes have developed a enzyme that makes them resistant to the pesticide, proving it useless.
There is no global DDT ban. DDT is indeed banned in the U.S., but malaria isn’t exactly a pressing issue there. Africa didn’t cut back on pesticides, in fact, the opposite occurred. As the pesticide companies got to participate in the United Nations agency through a system called the “Industry Cooperative Program,” they provided advice on pest control, unsurprisingly recommending significant pesticide usage.
These pesticide industries preferred to blame Carson instead of the fact that mosquitoes were becoming resistant to their own product, DDT.
A web page on JunkScience.com features a live Malaria Death Clock next to a photo of Rachel Carson, holding her responsible for more deaths than malaria has caused in total. The website RachelWasWrong.org, features photos of deceased African children along the side of every page.
“At one level, these articles send a comforting message to the developed world: Saving African children is easy. We don’t need to build large aid programs or fund major health initiatives, let alone develop Third World infrastructure or think about larger issues of fairness. No, to save African lives from malaria, we just need to put our wallets away and work to stop the evil environmentalists” (www.fair.org)
Carson simply wanted to bring some balance to the use of powerful chemicals at a time when ecology was barely considered a science and industry had license to do whatever it wanted in the name of progress. She was the first to recognise that these energy and pesticide industries had a terrifying grip on policy.
“If Silent Spring gave birth to the modern green movement, the critical reaction to it created the blueprint for how industry would defend itself against environmentalism.” Whether it’s pesticides, shale gas or tar sands, the battle plan has been the same: question the science, attack the scientists’ credibility and warn of unbearable costs.
However, these costs may not be as unbearable as one might think. And so I’ll finish with a quote from Carolina Lucas, Green Party MP from the Friends of the Earth conference (London, Sept 15th 2012) “what happens if climate change isn’t real and we’ve built a better future for no reason?”