ONE HUNDRED YEARS after her birth, and 43 years after her death, Rachel Carson remains a polarizing figure in American culture. She is both revered and reviled for her book "Silent Spring" and the role it played in the creation of the modern environmental movement.
May 27 marked the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth. In the run-up to the date, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) had planned to introduce a resolution celebrating Carson's legacy. However, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) announced that he would block the resolution by the use of a parliamentary device, because, according to a statement from his office, "Carson was the author of the now-debunked 'Silent Spring,' a book that was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT." As a result, Cardin delayed introducing the resolution.
According to Coburn and other conservatives, Carson should be remembered as one of history's worst mass murderers. Her indictment of DDT, they claim, has resulted in something like 90 million preventable deaths from malaria. Like Coburn, these detractors often refer to "Silent Spring" in disparaging terms like "now-debunked" or "junk science" without offering any evidence other than their claim that DDT is perfectly safe and should never have been banned.
I re-read "Silent Spring" for the first time in more than 30 years over the Memorial Day weekend. I remembered Carson's intense focus on chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides—especially DDT—and their effects on wildlife—especially birds. What I did not remember was her eloquence and grace as a writer and her insistence that humans are not above nature, but an integral part of it.
Carson was obviously obsessed with DDT. She returns to it again and again in "Silent Spring" and makes claims about the insecticide that, even at the time, seemed unlikely to turn out to be true. Consider, however, the state of scientific knowledge in 1962, the year "Silent Spring" was published. The same issue of C&EN that carried a highly critical review of "Silent Spring" (entitled, "Silence, Miss Carson") contained an article on biochemists' efforts to decipher the genetic code. The mechanisms of carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, and teratogenicity had barely begun to be understood. Consider also that resistance to DDT was already widespread among mosquitoes and other target insects and that antimalarial campaigns were being modified as a result of that resistance.
Over the two decades prior to the publication of "Silent Spring," the world witnessed an explosion of indiscriminate pesticide use. Hundreds of millions of pounds of insecticides and herbicides were spread over millions of acres of forests, prairies, and croplands to kill insects and clear brush and weeds.
At a time when humans largely believed themselves to be apart from nature and destined to control it, Carson argued passionately that nature is, in fact, a network of interconnections and interdependencies and that humans are a part of that network and threaten its cohesion at their own peril. "Man," she wrote, "however much he may like to pretend the contrary, is part of nature. Can he escape a pollution that is now so thoroughly distributed throughout our world?" What is mainstream today was heretical in 1962, and I think this part of Carson's argument is what earned her such enmity when "Silent Spring" was published.
A certain moral outrage suffuses the book: "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; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have meaning that is deep and imperative."
Carson's prose gave voice to millions who yearned for a value system that effectively opposed the indiscriminate poisoning of their world in the name of economic efficiency. For that, Sen. Coburn and his ilk still cannot forgive her.
Thanks for reading.
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