Friday, June 15, 2007

Rachel Carson Vindicated

Readers may or may not be aware of an ongoing misinformation campaign being waged against Rachel Carson, the woman widely credited for the birth of the modern environmental movement.

In 1962 she wrote Silent Spring, a cautionary criticism about the impacts of widespread pesticide use, particularly DDT, on both the natural world and human health. However, recent efforts to posthumously honour Rachel Carson have been stalled thanks to the work of certain Republicans in the US Senate, in particular one Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who implicitly holds Carson responsible for millions of malaria deaths that have occurred in the developing world. The people at Celsias have done a perfect job outlining the controversy and showing why the this accusation is false.

This unfortunate misconception is the result of a very misleading and inaccurate campaign that is being waged against Carson and the movement that she helped to initiate. Basically, the argument is that she pushed for a ban on the use of DDT, which led to the deaths of millions of people every year around the world. I hope to demonstrate that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. First, and possibly most important, is the fact that Carson never advocated an absolute ban on the use of DDT.

The article does indeed demonstrate that point, as do the words of Rachel Carson herself with her common sense prescription that governments should, "Spray as little as you possibly can" rather than, "Spray to the limit of your capacity".

Intervention at an intelligent and effective minimum, rather than a hysterical and reactionary maximum....that's good policy we can generalize to any political issue.

So once again the air clears and we see that it's certain "conservative" politicians who are overreacting - both in endorsing the indiscriminant use DDT and their wholly inaccurate attack on Rachel Carson.

Thanks to Celsias for a great summary of the issue.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

for posting this.

I'm not sure why exactly but this issue has really hit me hard, quite possibly because Rachel Carson reminds me of my mother, and her mother before her.

Good people doing good things for the right reasons.

It has really bothered me, even in a very jaded world I know too well, to see her name and reputation trashed some 40 years after her death.

I am so glad to see scientists and others standing up for her . . . finally.

Scruffy Dan said...

I wrote about this whole fiasco here:

The fact is that Carson never advocated a ban on DDT for anti-malaria uses, and DDT was never banned for anti-malarial uses.

" 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."
-Rachel Carson in Silent Spring

Cerberus said...

I thank you as well. I read a lot and I've read a lot of authors who attribute genocide to her for DDT.

Until this post I had actually never read or heard any kind of rebuttal.


E. R. Dunhill said...

It's interesting, or perhaps disheartening: I don't see this kind of slander directed toward Leopold, Roosevelt, Abbey, or any of the other men who were so formative of the modern environmental movement. Is this a coincidence?

Sue said...

Thanks greatly for this posting on Rachel Carson and the link to Celsius. I had only recently heard these claims about Carson, DDT 'bans' and malaria from students, and am very glad to now have a good concise factual reference to use for response! It's been forty years since I read Rachel Carson, I guess it's time to read Silent Spring again.

eugene plawiuk said...

Thank you for exposing this concerted political smear campaign being waged against the Mother of the Environmental movement. Which is why she is being attacked by the Republican Right.

Anonymous said...

"Spray as little as you possibly can" rather than, "Spray to the limit of your capacity".

I, as a conservative, would agree with the sentiment stated by Carson. However, if she was not advocating the ban of DDT, why was it then banned? Why is it taht every "environmentalist" hails her as a heoine for getting DDT banned?

Like it or not Tom Coburn's (R-OK)argument holds water. The net effect of the ban on DDT is that it has caused the death of untold numbers of people in the developing world.

Maybe it is my small conservative mind, but I just don't understand. Where is Coburn wrong?

Odiyya said...

Where colburn is wrong is in blaming Carson for developing world deaths. DDT was banned in the USA and other developed countries, but its use for malaria in the developing world was never targeted.

Malaria and malaria deaths are an issue in the developing world, not the US where the ban took place. This is why Coburn is out of line, and down right dishonest in his campaign.

Either his efforts are a direct target on the environmental movement and its female champion, or he's a remarkably ignorant individual who doesn't take the time to inform himself about the issues he's speaking of. I won't judge which.

E. R. Dunhill said...

anonymous #2,
"Why is it taht every 'environmentalist' hails her as a heoine for getting DDT banned?": Such statements are useless dogma. I would consider myself an environmentalist, and have never hailed Carson for this reason. The term "environmentalist", like the terms, "Christian", "Taoist", "republican", "democrat", "industrialist", &c. have the potential to cover a great many people with varied beliefs. If someone says something you disagree with, please take issue with that person.

Dave said...

One of the reasons that DDT was banned in the USA and throughout most of the world, and why Western-backed malaria eradication & control programs stopped using DDT, was Carson. She claimed that DDT caused cancer, and that its use would lead to a worldwide cancer epidemic. We now know that she was wrong about that. She also distorted the findings of existing science to support her belief that DDT was harmful to wildlife, esp. birds.

The consequence was more than 90 million dead, most of them small children and pregnant mothers.

Belatedly, the World Health Organization has come to grips with this disaster. In a Sept. 15, 2006 press release they announced, "Nearly thirty years after phasing out the widespread use of indoor spraying with DDT and other insecticides to control malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that this intervention will once again play a major role in its efforts to fight the disease."

It is to late to bring back the millions who died because of Rachel Carson's folly, but this belated policy reversal will surely reduce the carnage in the future.

dave at burtonsys dot com but please no spam

Anonymous said...

The misinformation persists, despite all evidence to the contrary.

1. Carson DID NOT say DDT caused cancer (although we still are working on linkages) -- she raised the general question of effects of chemical pesticides, given the physiologic systems they attack.

2. Carson DID NOT advocate a ban on chemical pesticides, let alone DDT specifically. READ Silent Spring, esp. pg. 12 "It is not my contention that chemical pesticides must never be used."

3. DDT was banned 8 yrs. after her death, and it was later groups who decided to focus on that pesticide as the one with most demonstrated and most deadly side-effects.

Malaria-ridden areas generally do NOT observe a ban on DDT. Its use, however, has resulted in increasing resistance among disease-carrier insects not only to DDT but all other chemical pesticides. It's now used sparingly, only in the nighttime netting and not wholesale, careless spraying.

The millions of kids who've suffered and died from malaria are not Carson's victims but the victims of those who refuse to spend the money to use safer controls NOT TO MENTION DEALING WITH THE DISEASE ITSELF.

Those who insist on buying into Coburn's (bought and paid for by chemical producers) and others' arguments are willingfully distorting or denying evidence and reality.

Signed, a stateside historian