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“Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson” (Reassessing environmentalism’s fateful turn from science to advocacy)

“Carson made little effort to provide a balanced perspective and consistently ignored key evidence that would have contradicted her work. Thus, while the book provided a range of notable ideas, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance.”

- Roger Meiners, et. al (cover insert)

Widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement when published 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has had a profound impact on our society. While Carson was not the first to write about the dangers of pesticides or to sound environmental alarms, her writing style and ability to reach out to a broad audience allowed her to capture and retain the attention of the public.

Yet this iconic book, hardly scrutinized over the decades, substituted sensationalism for fact and apocalyptic pronouncements for genuine knowledge.

Our just released 11-author study, Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, reexamines Carson’s historical context and science, as well as the policy consequences of Silent Spring‘s core ideas. We assembled scholars from different disciplines and asked them to evaluate Carson’s work given the state of knowledge at the time she was writing. What information was available that she ignored? Where did she deviate from accepted science of the day?

Our findings are unsettling. Carson made little effort to provide a balanced perspective and consistently ignored key evidence that would have contradicted her work. Thus, while the book provided a range of notable ideas, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance.

Despite her reputation as a careful science- and fact-based writer, Carson produced a best-seller full of significant errors and sins of omission. Three areas are particularly noteworthy:

· Carson vilified the use of DDT and other pest controls in agriculture but ignored their role in saving millions of lives worldwide from malaria, typhus, dysentery, among other diseases. Millions of deaths, and much greater human suffering, ultimately resulted from pesticide bans as part of disease-eradication campaigns. Carson knew of the beneficial effects of DDT, but never discussed it; her story was all negative.

· Far from being on the verge of collapse, American bird populations were, by and large, increasing at the time of Silent Spring’s publication. Although Carson was active in the Audubon Society, she ignored Audubon’s annual bird count, which had long been the best single source on bird population. Instead she relied on anecdotes claiming bird population was collapsing. It is inconceivable that Carson did not know about the annual bird count–some of which occurred in the locations she asserted were in collapse.

· Cancer rates, exaggerated in the book, were increasing largely because far fewer people were dying from other diseases. Further, once statistical adjustments are made for population age and tobacco use, the apparent rise in cancer rates that so alarmed Silent Spring readers disappeared. Although writing at a time when scientists had come to agree that tobacco was a major cause of lung cancer, Carson ignored tobacco and relied on peculiar theories about its origins. She specifically ignored Public Health Service data on this point.

Silent Spring presented nature as a benign happy place that was “in balance.” Man was guilty of upsetting the balance and causing environmental catastrophes. As shown in the chapter on that issue, nature is far more nuanced and resilient than Carson understood. Her view that “natural” pests, such as wasps, could be used to control other bugs that were harmful in crop production, was not only short of the mark for agriculture, but overly optimistic about how benign such “natural” pests can be.

Carson’s “you can’t be too safe” standard is seen today in the “precautionary principle” that helps to retard the adoption of superior technology that would benefit people and the environment. Her simplified view of risk appears to have impacted the drafting of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act that set impossible standards in some areas not remotely related to human health or technical feasibility.

An intellectual, and public policy reconsideration, of Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring is long overdue.

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ABOUT THE EDITOR AUTHORS

ROGER MEINERS is the Goolsby Distinguished Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Texas at Arlington and a senior fellow at the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.

PIERRE DESROCHERS is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. His main research areas include technical innovation, business-environmental interactions, economic development, and energy policy and food policy.

ANDREW MORRISS is D. Paul Jones, Jr. & Charlene A. Jones Chairholder in Law and Professor of Business at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and is a senior fellow at the Property and Environmental Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. He has authored or coauthored more than 50 book chapters, scholarly articles, and books.

14 comments

1 rbradley { 09.21.12 at 8:08 am }

It is hard to believe that there has been no full-scale reconsideration of Silent Spring. Perhaps it has been because no one FME (free-market environmental) scholar could do the whole thing–versus your 11-person effort.

2 Jon Boone { 09.21.12 at 1:06 pm }

There is much about the book, Silent Spring, that has been vetted intellectually and with regard to public policy–even before its publication. Discerning readers might want to read William Souder’s brief comments about the issue raised here, which appeared in Slate a few weeks ago, entitled, Rachel Carson Didn’t Kill Millions of Africans:http://tinyurl.com/cdfo7wz. Souder is the author of the recently published book, “On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.

I knew Carson slightly in my youth as we, with others, watched birds along the C&O Canal. I became more fully aware of the tempest surrounding her book many years later as I worked to reclaim large birds of prey–Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons–whose populations had plummeted during those halcyon years of rather indiscriminate DDT spraying. On this, the science is clear: DDT got into the groundwater, which flowed into rivers and streams, which was ingested by marine life, which was ultimately consumed by eagles, ospreys, and falcons. Although the chemical didn’t harm these birds outright, it did make their egg shells very brittle–so brittle the eggs broke upon incubation. For several human generations, these birds did not bring young into the world in large portions of their range.

Granted that there were other influences that affected their population decline, not least rapid habitat loss. And it took another generation of assiduous effort on the part government, educational institutions, and environmental groups to jump start new populations of these birds after indiscriminate spraying of DDT was banned by Congress. It is doubtful these efforts would have been successful if DDT remained with its former ubiquity.

I remain grateful for Carson’s alarum. As an oceanographer, she at least understood the rudiments of biological epidemiology–and was far more competent than economists, geographers, and businessmen to make critical judgments about data.

That mainline environmental organizations, in their increasingly unscientific way, went on to make public relations campaigns based upon a sloganeering take on Silent Spring is disgraceful. Here’s Carson in her own words:

“It is not my contention,” Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge.”

I think Souder has it about right in Slate,

“Carson did not seek to end the use of pesticides—only their heedless overuse at a time when it was all but impossible to escape exposure to them. Aerial insecticide spraying campaigns over forests, cities, and suburbs; the routine application of insecticides to crops by farmers at concentrations far above what was considered “safe;” and the residential use of insecticides in everything from shelf paper to aerosol “bombs” had contaminated the landscape in exactly the same manner as the fallout from the then-pervasive testing of nuclear weapons—a connection Carson made explicit in Silent Spring.”

3 Pierre { 09.22.12 at 7:49 am }

Jon – we address all these issues in the book. In addition, you might look up the Cato event on it http://www.cato.org/event.php?eventid=9185

As to the notion that her marine biology training somehow ensured that she took a sensible approach to the topic, check out what more qualified experts had to say about the book at the time http://www1.umn.edu/ships/pesticides/library/darby1962.htm

4 Jon Boone { 09.22.12 at 9:33 am }

Thanks, Pierre. I’ll watch the Cato presentation later this weekend. But I’m familiar with the arguments put forth by Mr. Darby at the time of Silent Spring’s publication, which is why I mentioned that the book had been (and has been for decades) vetted, even before publication.

I did not say that Carson’s methodology was exemplary or that she was entirely right in her conclusions. Quite the contrary. The best one could say about the main thrust of Silent Spring is that it was provisional and in great need of further study. And I’m not the first to suggest that her own mortal health problems (cancer) contributed to her overwrought prose. She knew she didn’t have a lot of time left.

She was right about DDT and its effects on the reproduction of raptors, as subsequent analysis has shown. The eradication (it was this thorough) of the birds I had mentioned from much of the continental United States in such a brief time period cried out for action, certainly action in the form of a moratorium allowing genuine scientific accounting of the problem.

If time allows over the next weeks, I’ll read your book so that I have a more comprehensive view of your position. However, I don’t expect that we’ll disagree about many of the specifics. As Bill Sounder suggests, this is a complex issue.

But I hope we all agree that ideology should not be the master of any inquiry, whether it’s tinged with free marketry or with a self appointed desire to save the world–and humanity–from itself.

5 Pierre { 09.22.12 at 10:14 am }

Dear Jon – I’ll wait until you have had the time to read the book before addressing specifics, but one thing I want to state clearly at this point is that Carson was very much of her time rather than ahead of it. Many other people denounced DDT and synthetic pesticides for a number of reasons (from upsetting the balance of nature to working too well and ensuring that there were too many mouths to feed) before she did and raptor populations were in trouble long before synthetic pesticides came along. She was simply more successful than others in reaching out to a broad audience and did not come up with original insights.

6 Ray { 09.22.12 at 2:32 pm }

I read Silent Spring when I was a college student in the early 1960s and was very alarmed. Later I found out Rachel Carson was lying. Dr. Gordon Edwards, an entomologist, wrote a critique of her book which you can read here.
http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/articles/summ02/Carson.html

7 Jon Boone { 09.22.12 at 7:03 pm }

Watched the book’s CATO launch, which I recommend to others. Better discussion begins at about the 45 minute mark, where presenter Andrew Morriss admits that Carson had many key things right: the persistence of DDT in the environment, the concern about indiscriminate large scale spraying, the problems with the chemical buildup in the food chain, and, not least, influentially galvanizing public policy to more closely evaluate and regulate the use of pesticides, to include inculcating safety standards for handling the stuff, warning labels, dosage standards, etc.

That organizations like USDA compounded the problems–”USDA Bad”–is certainly correct.

Perhaps the larger, and very critical point, made toward the end of the discussion, was that Carson, unlike others in a long muckraking tradition, was herself a scientist who used the cloak of science to fashion a polemic. That is, she cherry picked data to support her case, particularly in areas she didn’t understand well (such as her links to and about cancer), while ignoring data that did not seem to help her thesis–which, because she was so successful, became a very bad precedent. Using science as a polemical tool is now, very unfortunately, a standard for much regulatory processes, where pundits, experts who tailor their arguments in support of various clients, are frequently found wallowing in the mud of disinformation.

Still, as several questioners in the audience readily confessed, Silent Spring became an important document by which government and the general public began to reassess the proper relationship between and among production and safety, entrepreneurial endeavor and risk management, property rights and ecosystem integrity–a whole range of things we now take for granted in the complex process of making a living on this small blue planet….

8 Jon Boone { 09.22.12 at 7:09 pm }

PS. Someone associated with Silent Spring at 50 should contact Amazon to correct the attribution of author(s). Some dimwit has already written a conspiratorial “review” claiming the misattribution of the author was evidence for a right wing plot.

9 Weekly Weather and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That? { 09.24.12 at 1:03 pm }
10 daniel { 09.27.12 at 7:09 pm }

Chief priests and priestesses of the Church of Environmentalism are being questioned?

Gaia is not going to be happy about that!

11 Science, Activism, Credibility – The Role of Science in Environmental Policy « Web of Life Foundation { 09.30.12 at 7:20 pm }

[...] culture where the boundaries between science and activism are substantially blurred (and may always have been) what is the future role of science and of individual scientists in the policy debate? Do activist [...]

12 Otto Wildgruber { 10.04.12 at 1:56 pm }

I wonder where reason was 50 years ago as a fanatic without scientifical education in ornothology wrote a book that became a bible for most of the “educated”. And I wonder, why an incompetent fanatic still fascinates green believers, and most of the “educated”.

13 Some Recent Energy & Environmental News – 10/10/12 from John Droz « Save Our SeaShore { 10.11.12 at 9:03 am }

[...] McKibben, who continues to be a parasite in environmental and energy matters. This is a very good analysis of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on it’s 50th anniversary. Bill and many other [...]

14 Recent Energy and Environmental News – 10th October 2012 « PA Pundits – International { 10.12.12 at 5:02 am }

[...] McKibben, who continues to be a parasite in environmental and energy matters. This is a very good analysis of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on it’s 50th anniversary. Bill and many other [...]

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