How Silent Spring Became the First Shot in the War Over the Environment

50 years old this month, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring helped kickstart the environmental movement and led the U.S. to ban the pesticide DDT. So why do some people blame Carson for millions of malaria deaths in Africa?

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Rachel Carson author of 'Silent Spring' on Nov. 29, 1962.

When my predecessors at TIME reviewed ecologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring 50 years ago this month, they were less than impressed. While the piece praised her graceful writing style, it argued that Carson’s “emotional and inaccurate outburst” was “hysterically overemphatic,” which I believe is a fancy way of saying that the lady writer let her feelings get the best of her. The title of the review — “Pesticides: The Price for Progress”— gave away the game.

TIME’s take was gentle compared to the reactions of some of Carson’s other contemporary critics. Chemical companies threatened her with lawsuits after she argued that pesticide overuse was ruining the environment and threatening human health. Others insinuated that she wanted to cripple American agriculture. As a former chemical-industry spokesman put it bluntly, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

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In a recent piece for Slate, William Souder, the author of a new biography of Carson, describes the extent of the chemical industry’s campaign against the mild-mannered writer:

Carson’s critics pushed her to the left end of the political spectrum, to a remote corner of the freaky fringe that at the time included organic farmers, food faddists, and anti-fluoridationists. One pesticide maker, which threatened to sue if Silent Spring was published, was more explicit: Carson, the company claimed, was in league with “sinister parties” whose goal was to undermine American agriculture and free enterprise in order to further the interests of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. The word Communist—in 1962 the most potent of insults—wasn’t used, but it was understood. Silent Spring, said its more ardent detractors, was un-American.

That anger seems all the more hyperbolic today, when Silent Spring is regarded by most as a masterpiece, one of the most influential books of the 20th century. The criticism of Carson — and the sexism implicit in much of it — is a relic from an age devoted to better living through chemistry. You can picture the dismissals being delivered by very serious men in fedoras, wreathed in cigarette smoke.

Yet 50 years after its publication and 48 years after Carson’s untimely death from breast cancer, there’s still a small but vibrant industry in attacking Silent Spring and its author. The claim now is that her polemic against pesticides led the world to phase out the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. That might seem like a good thing. In Silent Spring Carson describes the toxic effects of DDT use on animals, particularly birds; in 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency banned it, partly on the grounds that it was a probable human carcinogen. So long-lived and potent is DDT that even now, 40 years after the ban, traces of the chemical can still be found in the environment.

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But DDT was also effective in killing the mosquitoes that carry malaria. Conservative critics have argued that by turning the world against DDT, Carson crippled efforts to fight the deadly disease in Africa, where it kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. The right-wing Conservative Enterprise Institute maintains a website called arguing that Carson’s “extreme rhetoric generated a culture of fear, resulting in policies that have deprived many people access to life-saving chemicals,” namely DDT. In 2005, British politician Dick Taverne wrote that “the anti-DDT campaign that she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.”

In 2007, the New York Times‘ John Tierney laid out the case against Carson:

Ms. Carson used dubious statistics and anecdotes (like the improbable story of a woman who instantly developed cancer after spraying her basement with DDT) to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass. She rightly noted threats to some birds, like eagles and other raptors, but she wildly imagined a mass “biocide.” She warned that one of the most common American birds, the robin, was “on the verge of extinction” — an especially odd claim given the large numbers of robins recorded in Audubon bird counts before her book.

Carson wasn’t perfect — the quality of her book is as much in its poetry as in her ability to marshal facts — but the notion that she is somehow responsible for the continued scourge of malaria in Africa is absurd.. Carson took pains to make it clear that she wasn’t calling for the banning of all pesticides, especially those that might be able to protect human beings against insect-transmitted diseases. Indeed, she wrote in Silent Spring:

It is not my contention 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.

Carson simply wanted to bring some balance to the use of powerful chemicals at a time when ecology was barely considered a science and industry had license to do whatever it wanted in the name of progress. As for DDT, many experts believe the pesticide would have been less effective against malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the scattered and remote villages of sub-Saharan Africa than it was in more densely populated North America. Africa’s staggering malaria death toll has more to do with decades of Western indifference than it does with a single book or single chemical.

If Silent Spring gave birth to the modern green movement, the critical reaction to it created the blueprint for how industry would defend itself against environmentalism. Whether it’s pesticides, asbestos or air pollution, the battle plan has been the same: question the science, attack the scientists’ credibility and warn of unbearable costs. The plan hasn’t worked: the U.S. has become cleaner and healthier since Silent Spring, and the Dark Ages that serious men warned us about have yet to descend. But the fight is far from over, as the polarized debate over climate change demonstrates. Rachel Carson may have prophesied a silent spring, but the battle between her believers and her enemies will be long and loud.

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