Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson: New Documentary on PBS Tonight

We are all still living in the intellectual and public policy world that Rachel Carson constructed.

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RachelCarsonAmericanExperience
American Experience/PBS

Tonight on PBS, a well-crafted hagiography in the form of a two-hour documentary detailing the life and work of environmentalist Rachel Carson will air as part of the American Experience series. Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring is widely credited for igniting the modern environmentalist movement. Trained as a marine biologist, Carson worked for many years as a publicist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leaving after her book The Sea Around Us became a national bestseller in 1951.

Directed by Michelle Ferrari, produced by Ferrari and Rafael de la Uz, and executive produced by Mark Samels, the documentary devotes two-thirds of its time to detailing her formative years. After her father died, Carson shouldered the responsibilities of supporting her mother, her sisters, and eventually adopting the son of one her nieces who died. The documentary also delves into the tender and sustaining friendship that developed between Carson and her Southport Maine neighbor Dorothy Freeman.

The documentary culminates with the publication and the massive impact of Silent Spring. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are all still living in the intellectual and public policy world that Rachel Carson constructed in that book. "Already alarmed about the environmental damage caused by the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Carson determined to alert the public to the dangers of pesticides and began the work that would define her legacy," explains the documentary press release. The film details how the U.S. public became alarmed when it learned that radioactive strontium-90 from the fallout of atmospheric tests of atomic bombs had been detected in the milk that their children were drinking. The 1954 Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test was much more powerful than the researchers had calculated releasing a vast cloud of fallout that, among other things, doused the Lucky Dragon Japanese fishing boat downwind with highly radioactive white dust particles. The 23 fishers suffered significant radiation poisoning and one died.

Thus it was no accident that Carson opened Silent Spring with a "a fable for tomorrow" portraying an idyllic American town in which all the birds were silent and people were ill with new kinds of sickness had been dusted with a "white granular powder" that some weeks before "had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams." This evocative image succeeded brilliantly in alarming a good bit of the public about modern synthetic chemicals and stirred powerful reactions among policymakers in Washington, DC. And, not surprisingly, it provoked a furious series of attacks – many unfair and quite sexist—from the chemical companies and lots research scientists. For example, Monsanto tried somewhat ham-fistedly to counter Silent Spring with "The Desolate Year" detailing how crop failures and disease would spread without modern pesticides.

Time has proved that Carson was right that agricultural spraying of the popular pesticide DDT did reduce the populations of hawks and eagles by thinning their eggshells. She was also right that widespread use had resulted in increasing pesticide resistance among many targeted insect species. These findings did indicate that they should be used more judiciously.

Somewhat surprisingly, the documentary does not delve any more deeply into what science has discovered about the risks and benefits of synthetic pesticides in the 55 years since the publication of Carson's book. So what light does subsequent research shed on the claims made in Silent Spring?

As an elegant and effective rhetorician Carson understood that while some Americans might be a bit worried about the health of birds and other wildlife, what would really get their attention is cancer. She was most concerned about the long-term effects of exposures to pesticides and other synthetic chemicals, but she sought to frighten readers with anecdotes about acute exposure producing cancer with months or weeks. She tells a story about a woman "who abhorred spiders" and who sprayed her basement with DDT in mid-August. She died of acute leukemia a couple of months later. In another passage, Carson cites a man embarrassed by his roach-infested office who again sprayed DDT and who "within a short time … began to bruise and bleed." He was within a month of spraying diagnosed with aplastic anemia. Again, comparing pesticides to the contamination of milk by radioactive fallout, Carson aimed to worry parents about the possibility of their kids getting cancer.

The PBS documentary shows clips of Carson interviews aired on the CBS Reports program in the spring of 1963 with Eric Severeid. "We have to remember that the children born today are exposed to these chemicals since birth; perhaps before birth," warns Carson. Now what is going to happen to them in adult life as a result of that exposure? We simply don't know because we've never had this kind of experience." Nearly 55 years after the publication of Silent Spring we do know and, fortunately, Carson's concerns have turned out to be way overblown.

For example, in Silent Spring Carson warned, "Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease [her emphasis]." That is still true today. But why had cancer emerged as the greatest killer of children in the 1950s? Not because it had significantly increased, but because far fewer were dying of the infectious diseases that had killed them in droves during earlier decades. The good news is that due to improvements in treatment the death rate from cancer for children 14 and under has fallen from 6.5 in 1969 to 2 per 100,000 now. Cancer incidence has ticked up for children under age 14 from 13 cases in 1974 to 17 cases per 100,000 now. As the American Cancer Society notes, a small percentage of cancer in children results from inherited genetic mutations, but otherwise, there are "few known risk factors for childhood cancer."

Despite activist urgent alarms, subsequent decades of research have proved that exposure to trace amounts of all sorts of synthetic chemicals are not increasing the age-adjusted incidence of cancer. In fact, the cancer incidence rate among Americans has been falling for more than two decades. According to the latest Cancer Statistics 2017 report from the American Cancer Society, the overall cancer incidence rate (2004-2013) was stable in women and declined by approximately 2% annually in men, while the cancer death rate (2005-2014) declined by about 1.5% annually in both men and women. As the American Cancer Society has noted, "Exposure to carcinogenic agents in occupational, community, and other settings is thought to account for a relatively small percentage of cancer deaths – about 4 percent from occupational exposures and 2 percent from environmental pollutants (man-made and naturally occurring)."

The documentary also includes a clip from CBS Reports featuring American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens. "Miss Carson is concerned with every possibility of hazard and danger whereas the agricultural school has to concern itself with the probability, the likelihood of danger and assess that against utility," states White-Stevens. "If we had to investigate every possibility, we would never make any advances at all because this would require an infinite time for experimental work and we would never be finished." White-Stevens was arguing against what is now known as the precautionary principle; the idea that new technologies must be proven entirely safe before they can be deployed.

At the end of the documentary, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes rightly observes that Rachel Carson began a new public conversation. "It's a conversation about the pros and cons of technology; it's a conversation about the role of nature in our life, and about whether or not we make our lives better through technological innovations or whether we do damage that outweighs the benefits." I think that the benefits modern technological progress massively outweigh the risks.

Check your local PBS listings for when it airs tonight.

For more background check out my 40-year and 50-year anniversary reviews of Silent Spring.

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  1. Tonight on PBS

    Sorry, I stopped watching 3-2-1 contact a loooooong time ago. I occasionally like Austin City Limits but not enough to want it payed for by all.

    1. We’re gonna Zoom Zoom Zooma Zoom.

      We’re gonna Zooma Zooma Zooma Zoom.

  2. How many people in third world countries died as a result of DDT bans?

    1. Approximately 400k/year in Africa according to Ronald’s book. I think it was malaria-related deaths?

    2. This is the fundamental problem with the precautionary principle: doing one thing might cause x number of people to die, not doing that thing might cause a different group of people, y, to die. IE, there’s no such thing as “safe alternatives,” there’s risks in everything we do or don’t do.

      1. It assumes that there is no cost to inaction, which is of course untrue in nearly every case.

    3. The same people who happily killed millions in the third world over the small reduction in eagle populations are today perfectly happy to watch windmills kill eagles by the thousands because GLOBAL WARMING!!

      1. But won’t subscribe to nuclear power because of precautionary principle calculations more absurd than the ones used to ban DDT.

        1. The environmental movement is evil. It really is.

          1. They’re a bunch of watermons.Pop

          2. Evil gives them too much credit. The members of the environmental movement are simply ignorant and not very bright.

            1. They also suffer from oikophobia.

          3. George Reisman has a good book(lette) on the “toxicity” of environmentalism. In short, our environment is just what’s around us, so what is human action aside from improving our environment in our own eyes? What goes by the name environmentalism is prioritizing animals or even plants over other humans, which is hard to say isn’t evil.

        2. if radiation causes cancer, why do they use radiation to help cure some cancers…

      2. The Progressive Left doesn’t really care about anyone but themselves. Never have, never will. They are also impervious to hints; they have yet to pick up that every Communist revolution quickly sets out to liquidate the ‘intellectual class’ (i.e. The Progressive Left). And they don’t EVER domthe math.

        So, they are exactly as suited run the world as the largely illiterate Asristocracy of the middle ages.

        1. Srsly are you really that goddam stupid? WTF is wrong with you brain dead right wing morons?

      3. Typical comment from a brain dead republican right wing idiot, no wonder this country and planet are doomed with ignorant aholes like you stumbling around drunkenly spewing nonsense…feckin idjit

        1. someone’s panties are in a serious bunch…

          1. “Ignorant” Says the commenter with absolutely zero refutation for either the article or the “right-wing” commenters (seriously — do you even know what site you’ve visited?).

            I’m sure you “fucking love science” — why don’t you go away and don’t come back until you have some on those sciency “facts” we yokels keep hearing about?

            1. Sorry Radioactive — I was referring to the OP.

    4. I am gonna ruffle a lot of eagle feathers here, but I think Rachel Carson was a hero.

      1. I should add that I do not support government intervention in the manufacture of pesticides, as long as I retain the right to sue you for trespass if your pesticides end up on my property.

        1. And you are happy with being sued in turn when your bugs infest neighboring property.

    5. I don’t even use the third world/malaria argument any more. I bitch about the god damn bed bugs!

      1. I think I’ve read that they’re now resistant to DDT.

    6. How about zero? If you want to manufacture and sell DDT in Africa, which is a whole other country, you are free to do so.

  3. I enjoyed the chapter in your book on Rachel Carson’s work. The book, as good as it is at lampooning some really bad arguments, has some major pacing issues. You opened strong with the anecdote about your ride in the taxi, but after that its a non-stop slog through data and research paper conclusions. Great stuff, but its hard to sit longer than 30 minutes reading that book. More personal stories to break up the (incredibly important) data would have elevated that book from great to excellent.

    1. Personal stories are anecdotes – and, other than for a little flavor, irrelevant. ‘Putting a human face’ on this stuff is why you get things like the PP, recycling, ‘the islands are sinking’ when the cold, hard data shows nothing of the sort.

      And its that data that underpins Bailey’s argument – too many personal asides makes it too hard to *focus* on his arguments, far harder than a straight slog through with no breaks.

      1. Its a matter of taste. I think that anecdotes are great ways to reinforce ideas and facts that are supported by data. Anecdotes can help pace your book and make it more fun and interesting to read too. You seem to be insinuating that anecdotes can only push people toward anti-science views. I argue that they can be used for both good and bad purposes.

        1. I really enjoyed Ron’s book, so I lent it to my cousin. I read it in two days, he’s had it for a couple months and hasn’t finished it. So yeah, you mans fun read is another mans slog.

          1. Fair enough — I find the book very educational, but find the writing style and the format of the chapters to be extremely boring.

              1. Oh Stop it Ron. My wife read your book to me during road trips. She found it exceedingly boring, I enjoyed it immensely.

                You cant please everyone.

                1. *I should mention, the wife loves sci/fi fantasy fiction. Ex – Dragon Riders something something. I have absolutely no use for that. I haven’t read fiction since I was a child.

              2. OK, Ron — I will now read your book. I hope the graphs are easy to read on Kindle, though. — J

  4. Well, dang it, this morning I heard a mention of this on NPR and they said they were going to “examine” the life of the woman whose book led to “the creation of the modern environmental movement” by which I took it to mean that they would delve into the argument that “the creation of the of the modern environmental movement” wasn’t necessarily a brag on her. Kinda maybe like Hitler’s role in the creation of modern European Judaism.

    1. You heard this on NPR about a program being shown on PBS and you still thought ‘fair and balanced’? This ain’t 1970’s era Nova.

  5. “We are all still living in the intellectual and public policy world that Rachel Carson constructed”

    Exclude malaria fatalities from this “we” you speak.

    “”My chief quarrel with DDT in hindsight is that it has greatly added to the population problem,”

    ~ Alexander King, o-founder of the Club of Rome

    1. You down with DDT?

      1. I am down with dead malaria mosquitoes!

        1. I am down with dead mosquitoes. Period. Release the GMO bugs. EVERYWHERE

        2. Correct answer: yeah, you know me.

  6. Trained as a marine biologist, Carson worked for many years as a publicist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leaving after her book The Sea Around Us between became a national bestseller in 1951.

    FTFY

  7. From the sounds of it, the one thing missing is any interviews with the Africans dying of malaria because the cheapest and probably most effective means to stop its spread (DDT) don’t have access to it.

    I wonder why that is.

  8. I am sure this will get rave reviews in Sub-Saharan Africa and Sri Lanka!!

  9. As an elegant and effective rhetorician Carson understood that while some Americans might be a bit worried about the health of birds and other wildlife, what would really get their attention is cancer. She was most concerned about the long-term effects of exposures to pesticides and other synthetic chemicals, but she sought to frighten readers with anecdotes about acute exposure producing cancer with months or weeks.

    That is called lying Ron. How can you claim to be a science reporter and then act like Carson’s actions were okay or at least not worthy of condemnation?

    1. He did it subtlety, by comparing Carson’s anecdotes with hard numbers.

      1. Why is there a need to be subtle about it?

        1. I feel pretty confident at this point saying its Ron’s writing style. You’d have to ask him. Personally, I think he wants to be the adult in the room.

          1. I don’t see how glossing over the fact that Carson’s science has been widely discredited and that her book caused great harm is being “the adult in the room”.

            1. Yes you do. Its human nature to want to appear calm and collected and above the fray.

              1. That is not appearing calm and collected. It makes Bailey look like a liar or someone more interested in not offending people than he is in telling the truth. And that is not a good quality in someone who claims to be a science reporter.

                1. “someone more interested in not offending people than he is in telling the truth”

                  Not saying I agree with him in this matter, but this is exactly the sort of display Ron is going for. He doesn’t want to emotionally stir the pot and have his “sciency” credentials revoked. The second he starts in with rhetoric supporting his unpopular stance he’ll be ostracized.

                  Also, he told the truth, just not in the bombastic way some would prefer, or the world may need.

                  1. John – Ronald dedicated almost an entire chapter in his book to refuting Rachel Carson’s work. In fact, he even blames her and her adherents for 400k/year African deaths related to malaria that could have been prevented with the use of DDT.

                    He just doesn’t use the straight-forward language you employ. He doesn’t have to say “Rachel Carson is a liar” when he’s already saying it in a more elegant way. We see this in academia too – people refute arguments without saying “x is a damn liar!”

                    1. He could say “X is wrong about DDT”, but he leaves that up in the air here. I’ll just have to assume the quotation marks were his elegant way of saying that…

                    2. From the article: “Nearly 55 years after the publication of Silent Spring we do know and, fortunately, Carson’s concerns have turned out to be way overblown.”

                      Do you really need the language to be reduced to “X is wrong about DDT”?

                    3. From the article: “Nearly 55 years after the publication of Silent Spring we do know and, fortunately, Carson’s concerns have turned out to be way overblown.”

                      Do you really need the language to be reduced to “X is wrong about DDT”?

                      Saying that her concerns were generally overblown is a far cry from saying that her particular position on X, Y or Z was dead wrong. It’s the epitome of vague.

                    4. We see this in academia too – people refute arguments without saying “x is a damn liar!”

                      And, since they refuse to call liars liars, Paul Ehrlich is still a respected ‘scientist’–Michael Mann is still teaching.

                      And we are all suffering because the micro-brained people who are the only ones who can get elected fall for their garbage because no one said that these folks were liars in a way the simple-minded can understand.

                    5. Azathoth!! – So all we needed to do was have a few more people say “Paul Ehrlich is a liar” and he wouldn’t be in academia today? I don’t know about that…

                2. This is your worst article yet, Shackelford! Quit pushing the gay agenda!!!

                3. Jeez thats a bit over the top.

                  I tried to be subtle. See end of the thread.

    2. How can you claim to be a science reporter and then act like Carson’s actions were okay or at least not worthy of condemnation?

      Yeah, rather favorable praise for the closest thing to Lysenkoism that can be found in the West.

      Considering the hamstrung state of medical regulation and the cost/risk aversion of medical care in this country, it would be dead simple to argue that Carson was far more selfless and successful with regard to “the peoples’ cause” than Lysenko.

    3. act like Carson’s actions were okay or at least not worthy of condemnation?

      Like it or not, the status quo ante was utter silence reinforced by strong self-interest by TOP MEN that such silence was to be maintained. Her contribution was the same as Edward Snowden – allowing for the creation of a public debate that would NEVER have occurred absent a very courageous sparkplug.

      The notion that she is responsible for everything that has occurred since she died or is responsible for how the public debate then progresses is completely fucking insane. She is responsible for opening the debate and making it public. That’s it. Opposing that is nothing but adherence to STFU authoritarianism.

  10. Dixie Lee Ray took Carson apart in her book ‘Trashing the Planet’ along with other junk science..She had the scientific background to back it up also.

    1. Yes she did. I don’t understand how Ron can write a review of a documentary on Carson and not mention how badly her claims have been discredited over the years or mention the enormous harm banning DDT did in the third world.

      1. He literally dedicated around 50 pages of his book to it, though. Just sayin’.

      2. I might be mistaken, but he writes this review after having not long ago written that the adverse health effects of DDT (to humans) was non-existent. I guess we’ll have to wait for a few more years of articles mentioning DDT before there will emerge a consensus of belief among accredited Ron Bailleys about the impact.

    2. But Ray did nothing to stop Washington state from being overrun with socialists now did she?

      1. She set Womxn’s rights back 50 years.

  11. OT: Now that my Facebook feed has turned into an endless run of self-important anti-Trump cock-bleeding, I vote for Trump to do absolutely nothing to please the left, and leave their hopes and desires a smoking crater.

  12. People like Rachel Carson are a big part of why we can’t have rational discussions about carbon dioxide, what effect, if any, emissions are having on climate, and what would be good policies if in fact the emissions are problematic.

    Instead, it’s a bunch of apocalyptic nonsense to “raise awareness” or “change the conversation” or “root out the deniers” which naturally generates a lot of push back.

    1. I don’t know what makes genocide so attractive. Probably the feeling of intellectual and moral superiority.

      1. Also the “population bomb”. Proggies may not say it but they do think the world is too crowded and wouldn’t mind seeing those dirty places with people just vanish. Mosquitos carrying various disease is just Mother Gaia doing her thing.

        1. I wanna curb-stomp Gaia

      2. As someone who has to work hard to rein in that attitude every day after reading about idiocy and evil, sort of that. Mostly just a desire not to deal with the risk/inconvenience of sharing a world with people you hate.

  13. Nearly 55 years after the publication of Silent Spring we do know and, fortunately, Carson’s concerns have turned out to be way overblown.

    That “fortunately” does pose a conundrum. Yes, it’s fortunate for us in the developed world. It’s fortunate in the long run in that the undeveloped world can develop safely through technology adoption.

    But the many millions of people — and their survivors — who have died from preventable disease because of overreaction to Carson’s concerns may not find it so fortunate.

  14. . . . the tender and sustaining friendship that developed between Carson and her Southport Maine neighbor Dorothy Freeman.

    Is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?

    Seriously though, that is near ‘confirmed bachelor’ on the scale of ‘old-timey euphemisms’.

    1. Ron: Pics or it didn’t happen!

    2. the love that dare not speak it’s name? and you talk about euphemisms…was she the butch or the lipstick? just asking…

  15. At the end of the documentary, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes rightly observes that Rachel Carson began a new public conversation.

    *spits on ground, curses*

    Oreskes is a historian in the same vein as Zinn.

    1. historian, n. one who sprinkles the occasional fact into his fiction

  16. Behold, the one person who have killed more African than King Leopold I of Belgium during his long reign.

    1. Millions, right? Name one.

      1. Chaka Zulu?

  17. A prog friend of mine was going on about how reporting “fake news” should be a crime. I explained to him that what is fake is defined by those in power, and that had the term existed at the time, “Silent Spring” would have been deemed fake news. He soon changed the topic.

  18. “Already alarmed about the environmental damage caused by the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Carson…

    … being a federal government employee decided to be concerned about private use of pesticides instead in order to deflect criticism from her employer.

    Carson isn’t completely wrong, but even where she was right she was completely overblown. It pisses me off that people think her opinions are far more important than Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex. We essentially got the worst of both worlds.

    Fuck government employees.

  19. The wife is all excited about watching this special tonite. And she worked at a major chemical company and knows about some of the toxic shit that used to be released into the environment before Carson’s books drew public attention. Maybe I should stick to asking “what about the unintended malaria deaths?”

    1. Unintended, shminintended. Those were brown people.

    2. unintended?

  20. Silent Spring did try to mention that dosage was the biggest problem. But rather than correct people that banning DDT was just as stupid as over-using it, she preferred her celebrity.

  21. Thank Gaia all the baby boomers died early of cancer. That happened, right?

  22. If it is not titled ‘Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire’ I have no use for it.

  23. Thoughtful post, Ron. I enjoyed reading it.

  24. Somewhat surprisingly, the documentary does not delve any more deeply into what science has discovered about the risks and benefits of synthetic pesticides in the 55 years since the publication of Carson’s book

    Lesbianism is more important than science on PBS.

  25. The only reason needed to kill PBS.

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  27. A pbs documentary celebrating an environmentalist is just a big circle jerk we’re all doing together.

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  29. Time has proved that Carson was right that agricultural spraying of the popular pesticide DDT did reduce the populations of hawks and eagles by thinning their eggshells. She was also right that widespread use had resulted in increasing pesticide resistance among many targeted insect species. These findings did indicate that they should be used more judiciously.

    The evidence is fairly weak, and the cost/benefit tradeoffs are far from clear. How many millions of additional deaths from malaria do you tolerate for saving, say, 1000 haws and eagles?

    At the end of the documentary, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes rightly observes that Rachel Carson began a new public conversation. “It’s a conversation about the pros and cons of technology

    That already presumes a progressive, authoritarian view, in which government imposes rules on everybody based on political mechanisms; “public conversations” is not the way such decisions should be made.

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