The Lessons (and Echoes) of Silent Spring

By Keith Kloor | June 22, 2012 1:12 pm

It’s hard to overstate the legacy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was published in June of 1962.

Carson’s monumental book drew widespread attention to the overuse of pesticides and their lethal effects on wildlife and the environment. But Silent Spring accomplished much more than that. As Robert Gottlieb observed in his own seminal history on environmentalism,

Carson argued that public health and the environment, human and natural environments, were inseparable…Carson’s powerful writing style wedded a dispassionate presentation of the research with an evocative description of natural and human environments under siege from a science and a technology that had “armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons.” This technology, she declared, was being turned “not just against the insects [but] against the earth” itself. Such writing aimed not simply to present but to convince. The mission of Silent Spring became nothing less than an attempt to create a new environmental consciousness.

In that, Carson was hugely successful. Contemporary environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, with its dual focus on pollution and ecology, sprang from Carson’s manifesto. Silent Spring has since become one of the environmental movement’s most sacrosanct texts.

But in a provocative essay this week, David Ropeik has challenged the conventional view of Silent Spring. He writes:

As much as Rachel Carson’s inspiring work deserves significant credit for our cleaner air and water and progress on so many other environmental issues, it also deserves some of the blame for having helped foster a set of accepted truths and common beliefs that have caused enormous damage to human and environmental health.

Anticipating the blowback, Ropeik tweeted a link to his piece this way:

Don’t hate me! “Silent Spring is 50. The Credit, and the Blame, It Deserves” Big Think blog, Risk: Reason and Reality.

To my mind, Ropeik makes a sound case for a fuller reckoning of Carson’s legacy. But you might expect that, since I’ve recently argued, in a series of posts and essays, that environmentalism needs to shed some of its anachronistic tenets if it is to regain its former influence and relevance.

In his essay, Ropeik asserts that Carson’s book–and the environmentalism it spawned–gave rise to powerful phobias of radiation and chemicals that have led greens to embrace an absolutist (and often irrational) version of the precautionary principle. That has manifested itself in various counterproductive ways. For example, Ropeik says:

Fear of anything synthetic/human-made/unnatural is the foundation of resistance to genetically modified food, which has phenomenal potential not only to feed a growing global population but to do so in a more environmentally sustainable way than agriculture can currently accomplish.

Ropeik is not the only one to question some of environmentalism’s core assumptions on the occasion of Silent Spring’s 50-year anniversary. Frank Graham Jr., the veteran conservation writer, and author of the 1970 book, Since Silent Spring, has recently written in Audubon magazine:

I think one of Carson’s legacies to the future is the recognition that it is better to come to conservation through love, rather than fear. Over the years, I have seen men and women rush to the environmental movement as a response to the threat of cancer from chemical misuse, or various other diseases through air and water pollution. But they lose interest when some other public crusade comes to the front. I have seen the strongest bonds forged when we bring to the fight, as Rachel Carson did, a determination to preserve what we love.

On a separate (but related) note, it should be acknowledged that no retrospective of Carson and Silent Spring can ignore the concerted and ugly industry campaign that was waged against her and the book after its publication. Graham discusses this in his short Audubon essay and elaborates on it in a new piece at Yale Environment 360, drawing parallels to the current “assault on climate science.” He writes:

The personal, vitriolic attacks that were leveled at Carson are echoed today in the organized assault on the scientists who bring us uncontroverted evidence that greenhouse gases are rapidly warming the planet.

No doubt, some climate skeptics are going to growl at this comparison in Graham’s Yale 360 piece, just as environmentalists are going to growl at Ropeik’s unflattering reassessment of Carson’s legacy.

That’s unfortunate. The world’s complex environmental issues demand open minds, fresh perspectives, and less growling.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate science, DDT, ecology
  • http://arthur.shumwaysmith.com/life/ Arthur Smith

    I read “Silent Spring” as a teenager in the late 1970s. It struck me deeply for its evocation of humanity’s hubris and lack of foresight and the fragility of (some parts of) nature. Thinking back on it now the other book that feels like an echo to it is Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” – though the fragile entity there is human society and relationships and the common bond of love we should have for one another, so easily destroyed under Soviet communism. Both books seemed to have only vague tantalizing glimpses of hope, but in both cases the world largely accepted their messages, and mended its ways – at least to a point. But have their deeper meanings been lost in the victories over the USSR and DDT? It feels like this new century needs a new voice on their order, clearly articulating the fix we are in, and showing the first glimpses of hope for ways out.

  • huxley

    The Roepik essay is quite good, but after decrying simplistic alarmism, he lapses into the usual catastrophism towards the end:

    Carson and McKibben were/are basically right. The central case environmentalists make, that humans are mucking things up in what will almost certainly turn out to be catastrophic ways, is unquestionably true.

    I suppose if humans heedlessly did anything and everything to the environment, catastrophe would ensue. But that’s not what we do. How is catastrophe guaranteed?

    People draw the lines in different places, but no one wants to destroy the environment.

  • http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com bigcitylib

    His major “chemophobia” example:”The insecticide DDT, one of Silent Spring’s main targets, was banned for years before public health officials successfully pleaded with environmentalists to back off an accept  that DDT was saving millions of people from one of the greatest killers on the planet, malaria….”…is BS, a less virulent form of the “Rachel Carson murdered millions of African babies” meme.  Rather mars the rest of the effort, unfortunately.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    on an unrelated note, if it’s in the Huffington Post it must be true right Keith ;) ?

  • Nullius in Verba

    Another Silent Spring is coming…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtgBWNKwBkE

  • http://arthur.shumwaysmith.com/life/ Arthur Smith

    Cats: 500 million birds/yearWind turbines: less than 1 million/yearhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/21/science/21birds.htmlNullius – you’re expecting wind turbines to multiply a factor of 1000 or more? You must be little more optimistic than most people on that! Or perhaps just out of date…

  • Nullius in Verba

    #5,

    Only a million a year? Oh. Well. That’s perfectly alright then…

    http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/110907.html

  • Joshua

    Keith – I assume that you have read some of the countless blog posts on climate debate websites that falsely attribute millions of deaths from malaria to Carson?

  • Keith Kloor

    Marlowe (4)

    You are aware that that is just a write-up of a current National Geographic story?

    Joshua (8)

    Am aware of that. I don’t see that mentioned anywhere in Ropeik’s post, or mine, though.

  • Jeffn

    #3, big city lib,
    Before you continue denying the unintended consequences of the movement’s actions- especially the ones we all remember, you should make sure everyone in the movement “sanitizes” their websites of embarrassing no-longer-operative messages:
    http://www.democracynow.org/2000/12/6/un_to_decide_on_toxic_chemical
    Yes, yes the ban was just supposed to affect the negative aspects of the product. Just because you can’t make it, or buy it didn’t necessarily mean you can’t use it. Nuance.

  • TanGeng

    #6Marginal human contribution to CO2 is the same argument as marginal impact on birds.Really if you want biodiversity, it should be quantify it on a per specie level for wind turbines.  It hardly affects all species equally.  The introduction of cats to Hawaii, for example, was disastrous to bird diversity.#7I suppose we should be concerned about the trillions of insects we purposefully kill each year through pesticides and insecticides?What about all those animals we butcher for meat?  That’s got to be in the billions.  You think the world on average consumes 1 chicken per year?  I certainly do.  1 million is peanuts and so is 500 million.

  • TanGeng

    Try again.

    #6

    Marginal human contribution to CO2 is the same argument as marginal impact on birds.

    Really if you want biodiversity, it should be quantify it on a per specie level for wind turbines.  It hardly affects all species equally.  The introduction of cats to Hawaii, for example, was disastrous to bird diversity.

    #7

    I suppose we should be concerned about the trillions of insects we purposefully kill each year through pesticides and insecticides?

    What about all those animals we butcher for meat?  That’s got to be in the billions.  You think the world on average consumes 1 chicken per year?  I certainly do.  1 million is peanuts and so is 500 million.

  • TanGeng

    @12 Myself

    Those are US only and World Numbers.  500 million in US is a bigger deal then, but not unreasonable. In bulk numbers, 1 million still doesn’t matter.

  • andrewt

    Ropeik  tells us food irradiation “doesn’t change the food itself” not only isn’t this true, but if you think about why food irradiation is useful, its obvious it can’t be true.  This doesn’t mean food irriadation is not safe but it does mean Ropeik is just as naive&simplistic as he thinks environmentalists. There was a bizarre incident several years ago here where almost 100 cats developed severe neurological symptoms from consumption of an irradiated cat food and it was apparently due to changes in the food induced by the irradiation.  If environmentalist broadly were strongly, actively & irrationally  opposing food irradiation as Ropeik suggests, this incident would have had massive publicity. Instead it seem to be fooder only for a few smaller activist groups.  Google Scholar suggests only a little has been done to clarify the mechanism that paralyzed the cats, this is far from my area and maybe there is convincing evidence that this isn’t relevant to humans, but as someone who considers food irradiation in general a likely very useful technology it looks like to me if there is too little concern in this case, not too much.

  • Matt B

    @ 14 Andrew,

    The cat contagion down under is certainly an interesting incident, but the question remains, what was the mechanism for irradiated food to cause the catatonic cats? It’s not easy to come up with such a mechanism & some believe none exist. From Physics Today:

    http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v65/i2/p66_s1?bypassSSO=1

    Nonetheless, a 2008 incident in Australia involving irradiated cat food
    caught the public eye. As part of the Australian quarantine
    requirements, the food was irradiated with a dose of at least 50 kGy.
    Several cats who ate the irradiated food suffered paralysis, and more
    than a dozen ultimately died. The cause of the illnesses was never fully
    identified, but the manufacturer of the tainted pet food put the blame
    for the cats’ illnesses on the irradiation process. However, all pet
    food imported into Australia is either heated or irradiated, and the
    malady was linked to one specific lot of cat food from one specific
    brand. No illness was associated with other brands of irradiated cat
    food or even with previously irradiated batches of the same brand of cat
    food. The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that
    the problem was specific to the lot, not the irradiation process.

  • Mary

    I don’t doubt that climate scientists are suffering vitriolic attacks. But let’s not forget that other scientists are as well:

    Plant science lab burned down:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Mason

    “undertaken as a protest against research into genetically modified crops.”

    And eco-anarchists are bombing nanotech and nuclear scientists (some of whom have been hurt):

    http://www.nature.com/news/anarchists-attack-science-1.10729

    Jes’ sayin’.

  • andrewt

    The Physics Today article is wrong. Similar neurological disease has been linked with cat food irradiation in 3 other countries and seen in a controlled experiment: http://vet.sagepub.com/content/46/6/1258.full  The same authors  also report measurements of nutritive changes caused by cat food irradiation:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2687132/Which is suggestive but not overwelming evidence, and may be irrelevant to humans but my point was  Ropeik is simplistic&naive.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #17,

    Perhaps Ropeik doesn’t know about the cats?

    Having just glanced through one of the papers, I can’t really say, but the effect is apparently very strong and very specific to cats. This may be similar to the way aspirin is also toxic to cats. Apparently, being hypercarnivores (and possibly because of an evolutionary bottleneck about 11 million years ago), they have lost a lot of the detoxifying enzymes found in omnivore/herbivore species to cope with the natural pesticides in plants, and so are more sensitive to toxins. If we were to judge food safety by its effect on cats, we would have to ban vegetables on safety grounds.

    Ropeik’s point is that when it comes to humans and a variety of other species, the safety testing had been done, and it was found to be safe before they started using it. If any such effect applied to humans, it would have been very obvious. There are a whole load of natural foods and forms of contamination that are as yet untested, or are known to be more harmful. And yet people still protest about the artificial and ignore the natural risks.

    No food scientists claim these new foods are absolutely safe – they claim they are as safe as or safer than ‘natural’ foods, of the sort we have been eating for centuries. There are always going to be exceptional cases, and things they miss.

    The problem is with the perception of risk. People go about their lives, and feel safe. The risks they face every day are not news. Nobody bothers to check if cabbage, for example, is safe, because people have been eating it for centuries. But when something new comes along, it gets tested, and when it is found there are risks, this is news. So people only ever hear news of problems with new technological stuff, and never with any of the traditional stuff, and eventually conclude that technology is the problem.

    This was also the problem with Carson’s treatment of pesticides, and artificial chemicals generally. Artificial chemicals get tested for safety, and about half prove carcinogenic, so people conclude artificial chemicals are dangerous, and insist on labelling listing them all. Natural chemicals don’t get tested, no warnings and alerts appear, and nobody requires food labels listing all the different chemicals in lettuce. So people naturally come to assume they’re safe. I’ve even come across people who don’t believe that natural foods even contain chemicals. (That seems to me a far more significant bit of scientific ignorance than belief in evolution, but oddly enough is of no interest to the social scientists.) That’s not to say Carson didn’t have a point. People were probably a bit too cavalier about pesticides in the early days. But it was taken too far, and even after the eco-warriors had won the war, they kept on fighting.

  • andrewt

    No Ropeik said “food irradiation, a treatment that kills any germs living in the food but doesn’t change the food itself”- this is not true and it seems the changes are sufficient in cat food to cause major problems,  it may have no implications for humans but Ropeik is clearly exhibiting the sort of naivete that he accuses others of.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid Tim Lambert

    Ropeik claims. The insecticide DDT, one of Silent Spring’s main targets, was banned for years before public health officials successfully pleaded with environmentalists to back off an accept  that DDT was saving millions of people from one of the greatest killers on the planet, malaria. This is untrue.  The public health use of DDT has never been banned.  Banning the agricultural use of DDT has saved lives from malaria by slowing the evolution of resistance.  Not that you’ll have see the Carson bashers admit that.

  • harrywr2

    A fundamental problem in all warfare is recognizing when you have won . Failing to recognize when you’ve ‘won the war’ makes it substantially more difficult to ‘win the peace’.

  • Bob Koss
  • Joshua

    NiV -

    So people only ever hear news of problems with new technological
    stuff, and never with any of the traditional stuff, and eventually
    conclude that technology is the problem.
    This was also the problem with Carson’s treatment of pesticides, and artificial chemicals generally.

    Have you read what Carson actually said about DDT?

    “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I
    contend…that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or
    no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and
    man himself.”

    Her concerns about mosquito resistance stemming from irresponsible use of DDT for agricultural purposes (as opposed to careful usage for vector control – which, BTW, requires a well-developed governmental infrastructure)  have been validated.

  • Joshua

    Keith (9) -

    Am aware of that. I don’t see that mentioned anywhere in Ropeik’s post, or mine, though.

    I think that the way Carson’s work and the whole issue of DDT have been used, irresponsibly, in the debate over environmentalism needs to necessarily be a part of the discussion about Carson’s work and the debate over environmentalism. 

    As a few other comments to your post have addressed – I don’t think we can get to a fruitful discussion of potential unintended consequences from environmental activism if we can’t: address demogoging and distortions on both sides of the debate. I can think of few issues that are as good a test case than how misinformation re: DDT is handled. Ropeik’s description of the DDT situation is pathetically incomplete.

    Here’s an interesting and reasonably even-handed post that discusses the philosophy of science and DDT: http://blog.gutenberg.edu/2012/rachel-carson-ddt-and-malaria/

  • MarkB

    For decades, the Carson worshipers boasted of her success in banning DDT. When it was pointed out that deaths due to malaria had gone up dramatically when DDT was banned, they suddenly decided that she had nothing to do with it. Funny how that works. The ‘DDT wasn’t banned’ claim is fundamentally dishonest. The banning of DDT in the United States had a huge influence on the rest of the world – that was the common point of pride for decades. Rachael Carson and her ilk DID kill millions. Those who claim otherwise? Her ilk – what a surprise.

  • Joshua

    Mark – the “ban” for the United States was for irresponsible overuse for agricultural purposes. Yes, that had a huge influence in the “banning” of similar misuse on other locations around the globe. Yes, it also had a carryover effect on use for vector control in ways that it could be argued were negative. But keep in mind:

    Resistance is a very real and significant problem with DDT, especially when it is sprayed indiscriminately in agricultural use as opposed to careful vector control. The meme of “The DDT ban killed millions” is founded in a facile analysis that ignores the potential impact of widespread resistance resulting from indiscriminate usage. There have been epidemiological studies that examine the issue. Those studies are not uniform in their conclusions – but some studies show that the negative outcomes from continued misuse would have been greater.

    In order for DDT to be used effectively, it needs to be used carefully – sprayed at the appropriate times and intervals and in the appropriate locations. Those countries where Malaria prevalence continues to be high lacked the necessary resources to use DDT effectively.

    There are countries which did not discontinue widespread overuse of DDT for agricultural purposes. In some of those countries, Malaria continues to have high prevalence rates.

    There are real issues worthy of being addressed w/r/t the DDT “banning” and government regulation. Not all of Carson’s assertions have been proven accurate over time, but some have. It is important to think about whether premature action had a negative impact, how much negative impact there might have been, and how that development might help inform future situations. But facile politicization of the issue – cynically exploiting the “deaths of millions” to score cheap political points – will serve no real benefit. But don’t let that stop you if you’re so inclined.

  • Dean

    DDT was banned in the US and some other countries, but not all. It is manufactured and used – sparingly – in India, at least when I last visited a bit over a decade ago. I read a newspaper story about DDT being used for a local malaria outbreak. The US ban probably did make it unavailable in some countries that depended on US NGOs, but it was not banned globally. I think I read somewhere that maybe Brazil does so to, but am not sure of that. It is cheap and effective and probably not too harmful when used very sparingly and carefully and I support that; I do not support a global ban under current conditions. In fact, DDT use globally declined in the 1960′s prior to the US ban and was for other reasons. The primary reason for the increase in malaria was resistance to DDT, and that is generally blamed on agricultural use of it. DDT should never be used as an agricultural pesticide. If you want to blame people for the increase in malaria, it is the agricultural use that is the most likely culprit. In fact, decrease in use from the partial ban may have helped to reduce resistance.

  • Nullius in Verba

    #19,

    It depends what you define as a “change”. Everything is continually changing, all the time. So we usually say there are ‘no changes’ when we really mean the changes are small enough not to matter for the purposes in hand. I think that was Ropeik’s intent.

    #20,

    I agree it is a more complicated history than Ropeik’s one-paragraph summary would suggest. Whether or not it was formally banned, and for what specific purposes, it is so far as I know true that a lot of nations stopped spraying, or found it difficult to fund and run such schemes, because of partial bans, unofficial de facto bans, and the environmental concerns that stemmed from the book.

    It had that effect, which was the point.

    #23,I wasn’t actually thinking about DDT, but about the more generalised chemophobia that has developed in society as a result.

    The paragraph of Carson’s you quote illustrates my point. Yes, people were probably a bit too cavalier about pesticides in the early days. But it isn’t just the artificial pesticides we might have to worry about. We’ve ploughed fields and planted new breeds of crops with no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, or man himself. We’ve irrigated and fertilised and grazed. We’ve been doing it for six thousand years. We ignored the risks then, and we still do today.

    The problem with Silent Spring is not that she highlighted previously ignored risks, but that she only highlighted the new ones brought about by modern technology. And that’s resulted in a fear and distrust of science and technology that has itself had damaging consequences. People going on about vaccination and radiation and pesticide residues and mobile phone masts – they’re all symptoms of the fear of technology, of human progress.

    Whether Carson herself intended it or not, whether all the details were right or not, her emotional appeal scared a lot of people about technology. That has a cost.

  • BBD

    Joshua @ 26

    Thank you for elucidating that point. What you say bears frequent repetition. Ideally the same frequency as the ‘killed millions’ meme.

    Fans of the inimitable Dr Roy Spencer PhD will find this on page 144 of his book Climate Confusion (emphasis as original):

    The world’s poor are already dying by the millions because of misguided environmental policies. European countries have threatened trade restrictions on African countries if they use DDT, a relatively safe and extremely effective pesticide that developed countries have already used to conquer malaria. As a result of this ban nearly one million Africans die every year from malaria. Many more are permanently disabled. Forcing the environmental policies of wealthy countries on the poor countries has cause, and continues to cause, death and suffering.

  • Joshua

    Nikki Haley vetoes bill that would provide funding for teenagers to teenagers to get HPV vaccinations. 

    Just look at what Rachel Carson hath wrought!

  • Tom Scharf

    @20 Tim Lambert

     Banning the agricultural use of DDT has saved lives from malaria by slowing the evolution of resistance. 

    Congratulations on the strangest, most ill conceived argument I have read all year.  

    I suppose this makes sense to you in some twisted way.  You should also support the banning of all antibiotics and vaccines, just think of all the lives you caould save!  

  • Jeffn

    #26, Joshua
    I find this fascinating. Are you suggesting that Greenpeace et al attacked DDT purely out of a concern about resistance in mosquitoes and not for the stated reason that it was one of the “dirty dozen?”
    Out of curiosity, who do you think is responsible for what health officials called a catastrophe, yet you acknowledge only as a “could be argued was negative?” Was it coincidence that the non ban ban had the effect of a ban. Who instigated the ban- keeping in mind we all know who used to take credit for it?
    What’s amazing about the denial of responsibility here is the impact on today’s issues. Calling the UN together to pander to environmentalist scare stories is a losers bet- when the rational leaders at the table water down the worst of the environmentalists demands they get called corporate tools. When the predictable consequences come to pass they environmentalists will hang them out to dry. “I didn’t do it!”
    We should poll all the world leaders on it at Rio. If we can find one.

  • Tom Scharf

    People want a black and white world.  DDT is either good or bad.  You are either right or wrong, next subject.  Life just isn’t that simple.  

    If DDT is “mostly good”, and better than any alternatives, it should be allowed to be used until a better alternative is found.  Mostly good is clearly a judgment call, and not everyone will agree.

    There are too many in the environmental movement that operate from a “do no harm” perspective that has become a rigid dogma,  utterly blind to the harm that occurs by NOT doing something such as the use of DDT.

    Many people are wired in such a way that they are unnaturally averse to taking a positive action that helps many, but injures a few.  They are myopic on the injured few, to the detriment of the many.

      

  • Dean

    @31 Are you aware that he was referring to mosquito resistance to DDT? Surely this is a bad thing? Banning an action that undermines the effectiveness of DDT is a good thing and seems obvious to me. As to chemophobia, the hard dichotomy that some environmentalists draw between natural=good and manmade=bad is simplistic and wrong. Nonetheless, our industrial processes have introduced a large number of substances to the environment that either were not there before or were there in vastly smaller quantities. The precautionary principle strikes me as a good way to deal with this totally haphazard process. Certainly it is possible to overapply it. But at the moment it seems to be underapplied. The precautionary principle is already in effect for the introduction of new medical drugs. And while people debate whether the DEA is overly cautious or not in approving new drugs, I don’t hear many people saying that we should drop it altogether and let drug companies start selling whatever they want with no approval process.

  • andrewt

    31. We already ban use of antibiotics in agriculture to slow/prevent resistant pathogens appearing, e.g: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/health/fda-is-ordered-to-restrict-use-of-antibiotics-in-livestock.html

  • huxley

    In the 2000s several articles appeared on this Carson/DDT/malaria theme that looked solid at the time. Robert Gwadz of the National Institute of Health was quoted in National Geographic: “The ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children.” However, since then there has been much debate and I am not sure what to think now.

    I doubt that it’s as simple as “Carson lied; millions died.” Counterfactual arguments are speculative by nature. I suspect that stopping malaria is much more complicated than spraying around fulsome amounts of DDT. I imagine that poverty, poor infrastructure and chaotic third-world governments make eliminating malaria much more difficult than, say, in Florida USA, where I grew up and remember the bug trucks rumbling by in the darkness, laying down fogs of DDT.

    However, I’m not impressed by the legalistic arguments that DDT was never completely banned. Silent Spring sparked a veritable jihad against DDT. Whatever loopholes there were, DDT was as popular as Zyklon B. As the National Geographic article put it: “Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure.”

    Rachel Carson was an effective writer and she described DDT and its chemical relatives as “Elixirs of Death” (the title of her third chapter), which had insinuated themselves into the tissues of living organisms all over the planet, and whose “safe dose” was unknown.

    Silent Spring was a terrifying book and it lay the foundation for the fear of chemicals and technology that we have today..

  • Steve Mennie

    As well, our paranoai about all things natural results in the indiscrimate use of anti-bacterial  hand soaps that are apparently now doing the same for all sorts of microscopic life: providing the basis for development of resistance. Medical science is having a tough time keeping up with morphing viruses in hospital environments. I would say that indiscrimate/over use of what are essentially positive and useful products often lead to unforseen negatives.

  • Joshua

    huxley -

    I imagine that poverty, poor infrastructure and chaotic third-world governments make eliminating malaria much more difficult than, say, in Florida USA, where I grew up and remember the bug trucks rumbling by in the darkness, laying down fogs of DDT.

    Among the disinformation promulgated by the “Rachel Carson killed millions” memeists is the notion that DDT was the reason why we eliminated malaria in this country, and that the “bans” on DDT worldwide after malaria was wiped out in the U.S. is yet another example of the work of elitist of environmentalists.

    In fact, the use of DDT was only one factor in the elimination of DDT in the U.S. Other, very key, elements were those as you describe, i.e., draining swamps and building good housing. Look at the timeline of the campaign to eliminate DDT and compare it with the timeline of the development of and use of DDT – you will find it instructive and see that crucial developments were made before DDT was even used.

    The arguments about whether or not there was a “ban” are most commonly hyperbolic on both sides. Arguing about the nature of the “ban” serves the simplistic foolishness: On the one side, it wasn’t a “ban,” it was an international agreement, and it was an agreement to not use DDT for inappropriate agricultural purposes not vector control. That argument avoids the reality that DDT became difficult to procure as a result of the international agreements. On the other side, there were entirely legitimate reasons to restrict the indiscriminate spraying of DDT for agricultural purposes – in particular in countries without the needed infrastructure to ensure proper usage. The problem of resistance was well established before the international treaties were signed, and even in areas where widespread usage for agricultural purposes continued despite international agreements, malaria has continued to spread. But railing against the “ban” fosters the conspiratorial mindset of those who wish to equate all environmentalists with tyrannical statists.

    Same old, same old, and the beat goes on. Everyone bangs their favorite drums and nothing positive happens. It saddens me.

  • huxley

    Here’s the bang-up beginning to the third chapter of Silent Spring (my bolding). Carson is a marvelous writer. Note how the argument in paragraph 3, looks ahead to those against genetic modification:

    3. Elixirs of Death

    FOR THE FIRST TIME in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. In the less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere. They have been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from streams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they may have been applied a dozen years before. They have entered and lodged in the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domestic and wild animals so universally that scientists carrying on animal experiments find it almost impossible to locate subjects free from such contamination. They have been found in fish in remote mountain lakes, in earthworms burrowing in soil, in the eggs of birds “” and in man himself. For these chemicals are now stored in the bodies of the vast majority of human beings, regardless of age. They occur in the mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child.

    All this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects. The discovery did not come by chance: insects were widely used to test chemicals as agents of death for man.

    The result has been a seemingly endless stream of synthetic insecticides. In being man-made “” by ingenious laboratory manipulation of the molecules, substituting atoms, altering their arrangement “” they differ sharply from the simpler insecticides of prewar days. These were derived from naturally occurring minerals and plant products “” compounds of arsenic, copper, lead, manganese, zinc, and other minerals, pyrethrum from the dried flowers of chrysanthemums, nicotine sulphate from some of the relatives of tobacco, and rotenone from leguminous plants of the East Indies.

    What sets the new synthetic insecticides apart is their enormous biological potency. They have immense power not merely to poison but to enter into the most vital processes of the body and change them in sinister and often deadly ways.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “But railing against the “ban” fosters the conspiratorial mindset of those who wish to equate all environmentalists with tyrannical statists.”

    Yes, and so does denying the ban. Just as denying the ban fosters the conspiratorial mindset of those who wish to equate anyone in favour of technological progress with tools of greedy and uncaring industrialists out to rape the environment for a fast buck. And conversely, asserting the ban is seen as a smokescreen for their activities.

    Polemicists simplify and exaggerate for effect. The answer to extremity is moderation, not the opposite extreme.

    Everything has good and bad consequences, and people make mistakes. Technological progress I believe has had more good consequences than bad, but I don’t deny that there are bad consequences, and there have been mistakes, and I don’t disagree that we should try to do something about them if we can.

    But environmentalism also has good and bad consequences, and environmentalists have made mistakes. Environmentalism is a reaction to the bad consequences of technology, and it has a tendency to obsess over them, and to ignore the other side of the equation – the reasons why we invented the technology in the first place. And it has come to see industry and technology as a scourge on the Earth, technological humanity as a fatal disease. The neo-Malthusians speak of resources running out, and pollution choking the biosphere, and humans exceeding the world’s carrying capacity, and headed for a crash.

    It’s an error. Not all environmentalists subscribe to it, and certainly not all environmental scientists, but it makes a very good polemic, it gets people worked up enough to donate and to act, and so it appears disproportionately in the advertising for environmentalism. I don’t say that it’s any less honest than the industrialists’ advertising the benefits of their own products, like shampoo, and I’m quite sure that it’s sincerely believed, but it’s distorted and extreme.

    That people think so is not really a problem, though. It’s good to have a critical eye kept on technological changes, to point out potential problems and to apply pressure to find better ways to do it. It helps to keep the technological optimists’ enthusiasm in check. The thing that is more worrisome is that *some* of them believe this is about saving the world, and that if the democratic political negotiation doesn’t go their way, they are justified in bypassing it.

    I don’t mean the mild and reasonable sort of environmentalism we see on here. I mean stuff like this: “Society is verging on a philosophical choice between liberty or life. But there is a third way between democracy and authoritarianism that the authors leave for the final chapter. Having brought the reader to the realization that in order to halt or even slow the disastrous process of climate change we must choose between liberal democracy and a form of authoritarian government by experts, the authors offer up a radical reform of democracy that would entail the painful choice of curtailing our worldwide reliance on growth economies, along with various legal and fiscal reforms. Unpalatable as this choice may be, they argue for the adoption of this fundamental reform of democracy over the journey to authoritarianism.”

    Frankly, I think *you* ought to find that scary, too. Both directly, and because of the backlash it provokes.

    I don’t like it when people on ‘my side’ say that all environmentalism is motivated by this sort of philosophy, because it isn’t. Environmentalism is a valid concern, and a useful part of the debate, and there are a lot of things in it I support. (For example, I wasn’t kidding above when I talked about what’s happening to the Golden Eagles in #5.) Science makes mistakes, and environmentalists are sometimes better at spotting them.

    But it really doesn’t help to deny that it is an influential part of the environmentalist milieu, or that environmentalism never makes mistakes, or that industry isn’t sometimes unfairly put upon.

    I think that’s what Ropeik was trying to say. He says at the beginning that Silent Spring did a lot of good, and at the end says (wrongly in my view) that man’s treatment of the environment is leading to catastrophe. But that as well as this good, the anti-technological spin of the book has led to a technology-fearing element in Western society that causes problems. He whizzes through these complicated and controversial subjects too glibly – as polemicists are wont to do. And you can certainly pick him up on those. But it’s not really an article about the detailed history or picky technicalities, but the broad consequences for society. And on that, I think it ought to be entirely possible for the more moderate and well-informed wing of the environmental movement to agree.

  • TanGeng

    The world could use a lot fewer polemicists.  Let’s get rid of them instead.  Hehe.

  • huxley

    Even reading Carson today gives me chills. I sense the residues of all the chemicals I have eaten, drunk, or absorbed through my skin present in my tissues insiduousuly corrupting me and inviting disease in.

    Carson and her apologists may point to the occasional careful escape clauses she inserted into her writing about how she wasn’t opposed to all uses of DDT and pesticides, but that’s not the emotional takeaway from the book, that’s not what people remember. Not at all.

    Here are the first four paragraphs of Silent Spring. I had forgotten what a brilliant writer Carson was. Beauty and terror.

    A Fable for Tomorrow

    THERE WAS ONCE a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.

    Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.

    Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

    There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example “” where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Actually, we do know where the three minute DDT hate against Carson <a href=”http://dagblog.com”>came from</a>, the tobacco industry, in an attempt to deflect WHO programs against tobacco, and we know <a href=”http://rabett.blogspot.co.uk/2007/05/original-sin-tobacco-denialism-is.html”>whose bright idea</a> it was, Roger Bate.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    First link should have been this

  • Joshua

    NiV -

    FWIW -

    I’m with you for most of post #40. Please consider that along with the rest of this comment.

    My points of disagreement:

    Frankly, I think *you* ought to find that scary, too. Both directly, and because of the backlash it provokes.

    I don’t find that kind of rhetoric particularly scary because I think that the chances of it manifesting in some actual form of governance to be miniscule. Taken as an extreme at one end of the spectrum, it actually has some value – just as does extremist libertarianism.  It helps clear the building sight so a solid foundation can be laid. It stimulates discussion of where the extremes of the debate should be set. If I thought it anywhere near likely that such rhetoric would be manifest in some actual form of government, I would think it scary, just as I see extremist libertarianism really scary to the extent that I see potential that it might be manifest in our society.

    But that as well as this good, the anti-technological spin of the book has led to a technology-fearing element in Western society that causes problems.

    I think that you have exaggerated the impact of the book. Perhaps the book in itself has “led to…” what you describe, but I think that you’d be better off considering other elements that go into the mix.

    Anti-technological tendencies are part of the human condition. They were prior to Silent Spring. They exist among people who are probably entirely or mostly unaffected by any direct line of influence from Silent Spring. Consider, as just one of many examples, the technology-fearing elements in Niki Haley’s policy stance, or the similar stance voiced by Michelle Bachmann during the Republican nomination debates. 

    You can’t start the clock with Silent Spring as moment the problem was created. There is a bi-directional dynamic at play, and there has been for a long time. Silent Spring was written in a context. It was not the creation moment or the big bang of the technology fear universe. The parallel to me is when “skeptical” climate debate combatants want to start the clock on climate tribalism with climategate, as if were the moment when climate tribalism was conceived. In your earlier paragraphs you seem to recognize this well, but in my view you strayed from staying consistent with that recognition as you neared the end of your post.

  • huxley

    Joshua: I think you underestimate the impact of Silent Spring. And it wasn’t just that one book but an ongoing series of books, magazine articles, and newspaper stories all with the same theme of how chemicals, radiation, capitalism, population and technology were not just ruining the world aesthetically as poets like William Blake complained, but threatening our very existence.

    Here’s a cheery bit from a computer writer and visionary whom I admired in those days:

    Now begins the winter of the world.

    We are poisoning everything.

    With so little time left, we are of course expanding and accelerating every form of pollution and destruction.

    We are killing the last of our beautiful brothers, the whales, just to provide marginal amortization of the whale-ships that are going to be scrapped anyway.

    Item: supposedly the Sahara Desert was man-made. It is growing fast.
    Set down upon this beautiful planet, a garden spot of the universe, we are turning it into a poisoned pigsty.

    You and I may starve to death, dear reader. In some year fairly soon now, around the turn of the century, there will no longer be nearly enough food for the teeming billions.

    – Ted Nelson, Computer Lib, 1974

    I believed all those books and environmentalists. I was writing letters to the New Zealand consulate, considering emigration. I figured that it was only a matter of time before the world began a terrible decline and I would live a shortened life in the squalor and rubble that remained.

    But it didn’t happen. The world population more than doubled, but we just got more propserous in most ways. Global obesity became the new starvation. People are living longer and better. I wish there were more whales but the whales are still here, and the birds are still singing, and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker may even be alive.

    It appears that the world is more resilient and humans more adaptable than the Rachel Carsons imagined. I don’t discount their contribution, but I question their legacy of fear.

  • Joshua

    huxley -

    I don’t know how we can quantify the impact precisely. But I would say that your description of your own experience suggests that you are an outlier, not someone that serves as a good example for understanding the larger impact.

  • BillC

    @Joshua 47 – Nice to see you back. You always say that thing about anyone’s individual experience being an outlier. Mine and yours too probably, that’s why we find each other on these blogs.

  • Joshua

    Hey Bill -

    “Mine and yours too probably, that’s why we find each other on these blogs.”

    Sometimes people inside this bubble lose perspective. I’d say that by definition, if you’re reading this comment you’re an outlier.

  • Dean

    I think it has become fairly standard in the US for activists to use extreme rhetoric, and the “killed millions” theme matches and exceeds, IMO, anything in Silent Spring. I think that most of the public, excepting some activists, tend to discount that rhetoric. And in the past, the wheeling and dealing of the political process dulled the policy edges. But these days the political process is driven by blockages caused by who ever is in the minority at the moment, and if they are driven by extremist rhetoric, then it can have a large impact. It is far easier to destroy than to build.

  • http://www.dropeik.com David Ropeik

    I was rewarded, as a journalist, to have triggered such a thoughtful conversation. Even more so in that the comments are respectful, while there is plenty of disagreement that belies the commenter’s underlying point of view.

    Mostly it the conversation reminds me of how naive I was (and young…they’re related) when I read Silent Spring, and accepted with passion but not so much critical thinking what the environmental mantras were. And in that spirit I offer this, an excerpt of a little poem by Dorothy Parker I keep on my desk…to challenge myself to keep my thinking honest:

    When I was young and bold and strong, Oh, right was right and wrong was wrong. My plume on high, my flag unfurled, I rode away to right the world. “Come out, you dogs, and fight!” said I and wept there was but once to die. But I am old; and good and bad Are woven in a crazy plaid.”

  • BillC

    Dean – Global rhetorical Warming Amplifies Blocking Patterns…?

  • harrywr2

    #50 DeanBut these days the political process is driven by blockages caused by who ever is in the minority at the momentThe blockages have always been there and always will be there.The US Senate was designed by the founders to be a deliberative body that was slow to respond to whatever the popular wisdom of the day demanded simply because the popular wisdom of the day or fad to use a less kind term  frequently turns out wrong.

  • http://arthur.shumwaysmith.com/life/ Arthur Smith

    David Ropeik – the world certainly isn’t as black and white as it at first appears – but too far that way leads to Yeats – “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” 

    The unfortunate reality of life is every decision we make, every action we take has the potential for great good or great harm. Should the blame for bad consequences be laid more at those who, with good intentions, inspire action or more directly at those who continue to act despite the harm they should be able to see? No person can know all the consequences of their actions, or especially how others will react, but we should be able to correct our beliefs if they consistently lead to harm.

    I’ve written a bit more on this in the past – here – “Every choice we make changes the world, at least in some small way, changing at least ever so slightly the course of future history. And that means that every choice may carry with it a change in future human (or other beings’) pain, suffering, perhaps even death; or on the other hand happiness, joy, and life, if one fork in the road is taken rather than the other. Only the omniscient can fully know the implications of every choice, but it is our mortal, moral duty to seek as far as we can, to make right choices as far as we are able.”

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    In the case of Silent Spring, the nonsense about it being responsible for malaria spreading and deaths was in fact manufactured by Roger Bate, a libertarian think tank twit,  who was interested in using it as a club against the WHO.  It had nothing to do with anything else.

  • BBD

    While entirely agreeing with the genesis account provided by scholar Eli, I would add that the new demonisation of Carson is purposeful.

    It exists in the same, venerable tradition of manufacturing doubt that stretches back to the tobacco industry in the 1950s.

    The free market fundamentalists wish to limit all government regulation. So, they take a genuinely successful example of regulation and misrepresent it as mass murder of ‘the poor’ (# 29).

    See? They clamour. Regulation is bad! We must have no more regulation! 

    It’s not exactly subtle.

  • John R T

    Thanks, Huxley and Joshua.   ”Silent Spring” and, years later, “ET” led many into the Luddite camp; the Doomsday Clock and Erlich and a host of others contributed:  there are many fathers and mothers of today’s fearful generation.  Fear is an awesome tool, wielded by demagogues and scalawags – my childhood in the ‘solid South’ was tempered by reading Orwell, Koestler, and A. Huxley.  I understood my rejection of the party in control only after working through Popper’s “Open Society.”   With this site, WUWT, CA, BH, and J. Curry, at hand, thoughtful observers have a tool-kit to counter ever-present prevaricators and fear-mongers.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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