Local environmental journalist William Souder’s latest book, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, was officially released yesterday (Tuesday, September 4.). To celebrate, a capacity crowd gathered at Open Book on Washington Avenue to hear Souder talk about Carson, his research, and the toxic cloud of fear, hysteria, and disinformation that has surrounded her controversial best-seller, Silent Spring, since it was published, 50 years ago this month.
Frequently cited as the book that started the environmental movement, Silent Spring alerted the public to the potential dangers of certain pesticides, particularly DDT, as well as the dangers of radiation fallout from above-ground nuclear-bomb testing, which was something the U.S. and Russia did quite frequently back in the 1950s. “Rachel Carson is the cleavage point between the conservation movement of the first half of the 20th century and the environmental movement that dominated the last half of the 20th century,” Souder said in his presentation. “One of the reasons I wrote this book is that I was interested in finding out why the politics over the environment and scientific research is so divisive now. We all live on the same planet and are dependent on the same resources, so you’d think there would be more areas of agreement than there are.”
Unfortunately, “the environment” has become so politicized over the past 50 years that it’s hard to break through the dogma on either side. Does global warming exist? Thousands of scientists say it does, some say it doesn’t, and there’s plenty of disinformation in between. National energy policy is divided between those who want to drill and frack our way to energy independence and those who think the answer to our energy woes is transitioning to alternative sources such as wind, solar, and electric. One side thinks businesses are burdened by too much regulation—from the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Deptartment of Health and Human Services, etc.—and the other side thinks there’s not enough regulation. One side implicitly trusts businesses do to the right thing; the other side believes businesses will only do the right thing if they are required by law to do so. One side trusts science and scientists to provide reliable, rational information about the world in which we live; others think science is bunk, scientists are corrupt, and the only reliable guide to life on planet earth is the Holy Bible.
In each case the sides have been chosen and battle lines drawn. The result is a virtual stalemate on many of the important issues of our day, and the worst case of political gridlock in American history.
Rachel Carson isn’t responsible for all of this rancor, but her book Silent Spring did energize public concern over the rampant and indiscriminate use of pesticides, and did force companies and government officials to be more accountable to the public they serve. One of the interesting things about the fallout from Carson’s book is how far removed much of it is from what Carson herself wrote and advocated. “Carson did not call for a ban on the use of DDT,” says Souder. “As Carson herself pointed out many times, many of her most vocal detractors never read Silent Spring.” The same is probably true for many environmentalists who adopted Silent Spring as their manifesto and distorted Carson’s message to support their own, more extreme environmental agenda.
Either way, the emotional reaction to Carson’s book was the same—abject fear. The only difference is what, exactly, they were afraid of. Chemical companies were afraid their profits would go down. Environmentalists were afraid we’d end up living in a world without fish and birds, but full of mutant children and their cancer-ridden parents. Politicians were afraid they’d lose votes if they appeared unresponsive to the public’s concerns. And everyone else was afraid Rachel Carson might be right, except for those who feared she was wrong.
An interesting case in point is the persistent notion that the ban of DDT use in the United States, in 1972, resulted in millions of preventable deaths from malaria, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. On Tuesday, in the online magazine Slate, Souder wrote an article addressing this issue, which is taken as an article of faith by many Silent Spring detractors.
In the article, Souder argues that the notion that millions of people have died because of the U.S.’s DDT ban is a false, because:
1) DDT was only banned in the United States, not the rest of the world, so it’s always been available to countries outside the U.S.
2) In Silent Spring, Carson explicitly stated that using pesticides to combat malaria and other insect-borne diseases was one of its legitimate, ‘morally necessary’ uses.
3) The primary reasons people in sub-Saharan Africa haven’t gotten as much DDT as they want or need are that most of the population lives in remote, hard-to-reach places; sharp reductions in funding for support groups such as the World Health Organization have limited their reach and effectiveness; and saving these people’s lives was—and still is—a very low priority in the larger political scheme of things.
Still, there is some legitimacy in the argument that, despite what Carson actually wrote in Silent Spring, the reaction to the book waxed hysterical when its content was magnified and distorted by the media echo chamber. Once people who had never read the book were reacting to other people’s reactions, the conversation became unhinged from the facts and it no longer mattered what Carson actually wrote. What mattered was what people thought she wrote. So, the argument goes, over-zealous aid workers spread their overblown concerns to so many people in so many governments and agencies for so long that DDT became a pariah chemical outside the United States, even though it wasn’t explicitly banned. Which is probably true, to some extent—though not quite the extent that Carson detractors would like to believe.
In the end, the most reactionary criticism of Rachel Carson is that she didn’t simply inform the public about the dangers of DDT and nuclear fallout, she engaged their imaginations and inflamed their emotions in a way no one ever had before. Good writing will do that. As Souder put it Tuesday night, “She’s not the only one who had misgivings about DDT and nuclear testing. She’s just the one people listened to.”
In the next few months, you’re likely to hear Rachel Carson’s name pop up more frequently than usual, partly because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, and partly because Souder’s book is helping to spark a nationwide conversation about her. (In the October issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, which hits the stands in a couple of weeks, you can read an excerpt from On a Farther Shore, as well as a Q&A with the author.)
It’s election season, of course, so people who are passionate about the environment are going to be butting heads with people whose hatred of environmentalists is equally passionate. As entrenched as these positions are, one has to wonder why the ideological gridlock can’t be dislodged by a more generous analysis of the real-world ramifications of the environmental movement. I used to live in San Diego, and when I was a kid there were days when the smog drifting down from L.A. was so thick we weren’t supposed to go outside. Billowing brown clouds of the stuff would roll across the street and turn the sun into a round, orange disc. After 10 minutes of playing tennis outside, your lungs would burn and you couldn’t get enough oxygen. Now, those days are a distant memory and hardly anyone ever uses the word “smog” anymore. The simple switch to unleaded gasoline and more stringent emission standards cleared up 90 percent of the problem and completely changed the lives of millions of people—not to mention fueling a market for newer, better cars.
In the world of pesticides, far from stifling their use in agriculture and other areas, it can be argued the DDT ban in the United States created a whole new market for pesticides that target select insects and are used for specific purposes, as opposed to the one-chemical-kills-it-all approach with DDT. New markets for insect-resistant crop seeds were also created, as well as jobs for the people who researched, developed, marketed, and distributed them. We still use plenty of poisons and chemicals to kill and control insects (god forbid they ever ban DEET!), but we can take some small comfort in knowing—or at least believing, with the best available information—that the poisons we use today aren’t quite as dangerous, and aren’t spread quite as indiscriminately, as DDT was in the 1950s and 1960s.
The one thing that hasn’t changed in the 50 years since Silent Spring was published is the power of fear to run roughshod over reasoned discourse. Fear without facts is more toxic than anything Dow or Monsanto can cook up in its labs—and that is something we all need to be more aware of. (Without getting all hysterical about it, of course.)