Celebrating Rachel Carson's 100th Anniversary—The Alternative Version

|

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Silent Spring author and environmentalist icon Rachel Carson is this Sunday. But not everyone wants to celebrate. Republican senatorial curmudgeon Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is blocking a congressional resolution by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) that aims to honor Carson's "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility."

Since I have written a bit on Carson's legacy and her "scientific rigor," I was called by a reporter from an alternative news site, the Raw Story, for my thoughts on Carson and Coburn. My first thought was "oh please don't put me on the side of Coburn." I did tell him that while it might be OK to celebrate Carson's "poetic sensibility," her "scientific rigor" left something to be desired. Subsequent decades of research have conclusively shown that Carson was excessively alarmist about the environmental and health effects of trace exposures to man-made chemicals. Part of the explanation for Carson's mistakes is the primitive state of toxicology and cancer research 40 to 50 years ago. However, Carson's fault is that, like many of her ideological descendants today, whenever she encountered data she always chose to interpret it as exemplifying the worst possible case.

Now Coburn is a man with whom I fundamentally disagree on the policy implications of many scientific findings. Nevertheless, I outlined to the reporter my objections to the misleading science in Silent Spring. It turns out that I needn't have worried overmuch about the Coburn connection; the Raw Story article accurately quotes a couple of my throwaway lines in which I struggled to find something nice to say about Carson. To wit:

Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for the libertarian magazine Reason, has been critical of the quality of Carson's scientific research and favors the limited use of DDT for anti-malaria purposes. He told RAW STORY in a phone interview Tuesday that there had nevertheless been some positive benefits from Silent Spring.

"To a certain extent, she launched a movement based on bad science that nevertheless had good results," Bailey argued, explaining that Carson had essentially become a 'myth.'

"Let's face it, Americans needed to be alerted to problems of pollution, and there's value in that," he added.

All true as far as it goes, but the quotations make me seem a bit more pollyanna-ish about Carson than I am. So as a way to join–in an alternative way–the 100th anniversary celebration of Carson's legacy, may I invite you to take a look at my analysis of Silent Spring on its 40th anniversary here. For more of my adventures in the war over DDT take a look at my article "DDT, Eggshells and Me" in which I comprehensively review the scientific papers on DDT and its effects on birds here.

In that article I conclude:

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asked, "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."

Banning DDT saved thousands of raptors over the past 30 years, but outright bans and misguided fears about the pesticide cost the lives of millions of people who died of insect-borne diseases like malaria. The 500 million people who come down with malaria every year might well wonder what authoritarian made that decision.

The good news is that 35 years after DDT was banned in the U.S. as a result, at least in part, of Carson's polemic, that the World Health Organization has approved it for use in controlling malaria mosquitoes again.

For more excellent reporting on the legacy of Rachel Carson, see my colleague Katherine Mangu-Ward's Wall Street Journal op/ed here.

NEXT: The Story of Space X

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. WHY DO YOU HATE ME, RON? YOU SON OF A BITCH! WHY THE FUCK DO YOU HATE ME?!

  2. WHY DO YOU HATE ME, RON?

    Probably because he’s a shill for Big DDT. Did you notice the lack fo disclosure? How do we know that Bailey hasn’t cornered the market on DDT futures or isn’t driving up the price of eagle meat because he happens to own the largest commerical eagle farm in the world?

  3. alternately he finds the normally thick shells of raptor eggs too hard to open, and enjoys the thinning effects that allow him easier access to the sweet, sweet albumen.

  4. dhex: Nix on eagle eggs–they taste too much like fish. 😉

  5. Good article, Ron. It renews my faith in you. It might have been nice to point out that the avoidance of DDT use in agriculture has actually been a good thing for malaria control — mosquitoes develop DDT resistance very quickly with indiscriminate use.

  6. It is Ron Bailey who is wrong, not Rachel Carson. Here’s what she wrote about insecticides and malaria:

    No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story – the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting. …

    What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance. … Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes. …

    Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity’ …, Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

    Following Carson’s advice and banning the agricultural use of DDT saved lives by slowing the evolution of resistance.

    Reason is not a good place to find accurate information about science.

  7. TIM LAMBERT IS OBVIOUSLY A SHILL FOR BIG EAGLE!

    THANKS!

  8. Tim:
    So you saved the village by destroying the village.
    What a farsighted precautionary philosophy.

  9. I don’t Rachel Carson responsible for the fanaticism of her followers. She was right that indescriinate use of DDT was unnecessary and a bad thing. Clearly, the outright ban of DDT was a terrible idea, but that doesn’t mean that it should have been used in a different more limited way.

    Carson was wrong about a lot, but as Ron points out some of that had to do with the primitive state of science back then. Further, I don’t think Carson was a fanatic. I think she would have have moderated her views had she lived long enough to see better science (she died in 1964).

    I don’t buy the hate on Carson. Now, the people who came after her who should have known better but still advocated an outright ban of DDT, they have a lot of blood on their hands and deserve every bit of scorn thrown at them.

  10. RON BAILEY WILL NEVER EAT FISH AGAIN! ALL BAILEY’S FISH ARE BELONG TO ME! ZEUS ALSO COMMANDS THAT I PECK OUT BAILEY’S LIVER! I DO NOT LIKE LIVER BUT I WILL DO AS THE KING OF OLYMPUS DEMANDS!

  11. Tim: Insect resistance is of course a problem–and I didn’t say that she was wrong about everything. However, will you acknowledge that she was wrong about some things?

    For an alternative view of Tim’s strict constructionist environmentalism, take a look at what the Malaria Foundation International has to say here and here.

    For a somewhat less than balanced but nevertheless interesting view of the war of DDT take a look at the generally leftwing site Sourcewatch here.

  12. FLAPPY LIES!

    LAMBERT SHILLS FOR ME!

  13. I HAVE EATEN LIVER BEFORE, BAILEY! YOURS CAN’T BE ANY WORSE THAN THAT OTHER BASTARD’S, AND I DO THAT EVERY DAY! I HAVE EATEN LIVER EVERY MORNING FOR EONS, I AM TIRED OF IT BUT DON’T THINK I WON’T EAT MORE! ZEUS IS A DEMANDING TASK MASTER, BUT I DO NOT LIKE LIGHTNING BOLTS!

  14. I guess we can infer at least one person’s business here…

    Thanks for the interesting read, Ron! Also good contrast in links between Tim’s and your’s. Thanks again!

  15. sorry ’bout that (and for the double)

    (should have read, “I guess we can infer at least one person’s business here…

  16. How do we know that Bailey hasn’t cornered the market on DDT futures or isn’t driving up the price of eagle meat because he happens to own the largest commerical eagle farm in the world?

    Wouldn’t he be in support of a DDT ban if this was the case?

  17. Thanks to Rachel Carson’s efforts to ban the agricultural use of DDT, it remains an effective means of protecting people from malaria through minimal applications around homes. Had resistance among mosquito populations been allowed to increase as it was during the bad old days, millions more would have died.

    So let’s all thank Rachel Carson for alerting the world to that danger, and saving so many.

  18. A few weeks ago American Idol opened the eyes of tens of millions of Americans to the very real threat of African malaria with the Idol Gives Back charity fund raiser.

    However, the question in my mind is this: Why the conspicuous silence? Dead silence, if you will. Why, exactly, does malaria kill so many Africans?

    This happens to be a real issue for Virginia Postrel who tells us why….

    Two million people a year, most of them little kids, are dying because of the West’s anti-DDT superstition. Two…million…people…a…year.

    Anti-DDT taboos undoubtedly kill even more than that, since the
    debilitation caused by malaria helps keep Africa desperately poor.

    Ryan Seacrest could have enlightened about fifty million people and simultaneously help erase two and a half generations of unquestioning loyalty to the DDT myth. Yet he didn’t. Why not?

    Just asking.

  19. I’ll take, “Because it’s a myth, TWC” for 500.

  20. Wait, Rachel Carson urged minimal use of DDT because she thought it was bad for birds, and then that turned out to not really be the case, but minimal use was good for staving off resistant mosquito strains, so this means she was right?

    As I understand it, she sounds like more of a broken clock. What am I missing?

  21. joe:

    it remains an effective means of protecting people from malaria through minimal applications around homes.

    At best a half truth. Many in the international environmental community could not have cared less about protecting DDT’s effectiveness–they tried desperately to get DDT banned entirely for any uses at all as part of the Persistant Organic Pollutants treaty. They later backed down after a fierce campaign by groups like Malaria Foundation International.

  22. No Joe, you’ll take two million dead per year.

  23. Uh…from an earlier post in this thread:

    What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance. … Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes. …

    Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity’ …, Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

    That’s Carson on DDT as an disease-prevention tool. Maybe she was just throwing every argument out there and one of them happened to stick, but you can’t say she didn’t make the resistant-strains case.

  24. Dr. T.

    “but minimal use was good for staving off resistant mosquito strains, so this means she was right?”

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

    She advised reducing use for both reasons.

  25. NotThatDavid:

    You’ve correctly discribed Carson’s form of argument.

    I invite anyone with some extra time on their hands to go back and re-read Silent Spring. I think you’ll be amazed at the generally poor quality of the scientific evidence she cites. Not to mention her constant penchant to draw the most negative possible conclusions from evidence there was.

  26. That would be
    “described” and
    “conclusions from what evidence there was.”

  27. thoreau,

    Read the quote Tim Lambert posted. She urged the minimal use of DDT because it was bad for birds, AND BECAUSE ITS WIDESPREAD USE WAS CAUSING MOSQUITOES TO BECOME RESISTANT.

    She raised the issue of malarial resistance in “Silent Spring,” as one of her core arguments for limiting – not banning, she explicitly endorses it limited use – the use of DDT as an agricultural product.

    Also, she was correct about the effect of DDT on birds. The effects have long been confirmed.

  28. Uh oh, the eagles have been reading one too many Urkobold posts.

  29. Ron,

    It is a “half truth” that DDT remains effective at stopping malaria through domestic use?

    TWC,

    No, I’ll will take “every single life saved from malaria through DDT usage in the past 20 years, and going forward.” Had the agricultural use continued, and resistance among mosquitoes have become widespread, all of those millions of people would be dead.

    Oops, sorry, thoreau. Didn’t mean to pile on.

  30. Ron,

    “misguided fears about the pesticide cost the lives of millions of people who died of insect-borne diseases like malaria”

    For someone giving RC a hard time about her tendency to go worst case without supporting evidence, I find this statement interesting…

    I haven’t seen good evidence to support this assertion. Estimating the change in mortality due to changes in public policy isn’t as straight forward as your analysis implies. Particularly given that DDT is only effective when used properly.

  31. There are a lot of skeptics re Saint Rachel. Here are two links to websites that provide further information about Rachel Carson and DDT —
    http://www.fightingmalaria.org/
    and CEI’s newest site
    http://www.rachelwaswrong.org

  32. Tim Lambert has perfected the art of drive-by trolling.

    For this reason, he sucks.

  33. RYAN SEACREST WILL BE THE NEXT WITHOUT A LIVER WHEN THE REVOLUTION COMES!

  34. I HAVE EATEN LIVER BEFORE, BAILEY! YOURS CAN’T BE ANY WORSE THAN THAT OTHER BASTARD’S, AND I DO THAT EVERY DAY! I HAVE EATEN LIVER EVERY MORNING FOR EONS, I AM TIRED OF IT BUT DON’T THINK I WON’T EAT MORE!

    I recommmend a side of fava beans, and a nice chianti.

  35. …THUP-THUP-THUP-THUP!

  36. YOU ARE A COPYCAT AND A HACK, LECTOR! I HAVE BEEN EATING HUMAN EONS SINCE MANKIND WAS GIFTED FIRE, YOU EAT ONE AND ALL OF A SUDDEN IT’S A BOOK AND MOVIE DEAL, BOLLOCKS! YOU WILL BE SECOND WITHOUT A LIVER WHEN THE REVOLUTION COMES!

  37. I HAVE BEEN EATING HUMAN LIVERS FOR EONS! HUMAN EONS AREN’T FOOD, HUMAN EONS ARE FAR TOO SHORT TO BE FOOD!

  38. Environmentalists have their saints just like any other ideology does.

  39. Since your average American isn’t at risk for catching malaria, the complete banning of DDT isn’t a big issue with us.

    Then again, the bedbug epidemic in this age of rapid and frequent global travel is starting to get some attention. But most people haven’t yet figured out that the solution is careful, limited application of truly effective pesticides like DDT.

  40. Sounds like Carson was calling for moderation rather than overuse or an outright ban. We’ll never really know how Carson would’ve reacted to an outright ban of DDT since she was dead before any of the bans were implemented.

    So if the argument is over whether an outright ban was agood thing or not, it’s best to leave Carson out of it because all name-dropping her is going to do is make it a religious argument. I mean, if a witch hunt is what you want, let’s at least use an actual bureaucrat like William Ruckleshaus.

  41. the art of drive-by trolling.

    It is called “Hit & Run”…

    But I have to agree with Tim Lambert that Carson should not be blamed for the excesses of some of her followers. Especially when she *explicitly* told them otherwise.

    (Ron, what’s so wrong about the WWF advocating for a complete ban and then backing down on malaria control in the face of evidence? That seems like effective issue advocacy by the WWF, not to mention the best overall outcome. In contrast, the problem with the reactionary Tom Coburns of the world is that nothing short of an intervention from Jesus will get them to change their mind).

  42. Ron, what’s so wrong about the WWF advocating for a complete ban and then backing down on malaria control in the face of evidence? That seems like effective issue advocacy by the WWF, not to mention the best overall outcome.

    Wait, wait, I missed this part.

    I find that the WWF’s policy positions are usually thoughtful and well-considered, since they have the intellectual backing of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.

  43. Joe, neither of your remarks to me has anything to do with the mythology of DDT, which is what my original post and quote from VP was about.

    The West is uniformly superstitious about DDT and the myth is that DDT is 100% BAD and is rightfully banned.

    The fact that limited indoor use of DDT could save millions of lives annually was ignored by the Idol crew on the show I mentioned.

    But you knew that….

    And since DDT isn’t often used for malaria prevention I don’t see millions of lives saved over the past twenty years.

  44. The real reason this is an issue is that the chemical industry wants to destroy the memory of Rachel Carson, who helped start a movement that hurt them greatly. To paraphrase what I’ve said about global warming and development, you’d think that Rachel Carson single-handedly killed millions of Africans.

  45. Yeah, well anyone that complains that Carson’s science wasn’t good (it wasn’t) but then turns around and make the similarly ignorant/dishonest/slimeball claim of the sort that “banning DDT cost millions of Africans their lives to malaria” (which is dishonest in a about three different ways at least, not least of which being that most African nations DID NOT STOP USING DDT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL REASONS IN THE FIRST PLACE AND IN FACT INCREASED ITS USE) really wins no points with me. What are the ACTUAL reasons given for why DDT ACTUALLY stopped being used in malaria-wracked countries? Over and over: it’s because mosquitoes developed resistance to it (primarily because of overuse in agriculture), not because any of these countries gave a shit about environmental concerns.

    Of course, this doesn’t fit the convenient fiction that Bailey is pushing though, so instead, we’re not told this: instead we’re told that millions of lives could have been saved and were doomed DOOMED because of environmentalists!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.