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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2007
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Bulldozers and Blasphemy
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Completing Colin Fletcher
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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: Trashing Rachel Carson
The pesticide lobby still wants revenge
By Carl Pope
September/October 2007

Carl Pope Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, was born a century ago last May. Her 1962 book on the deadly overuse of pesticides like DDT is the source of many of the tenets of modern environmentalism: that our efforts to control nature in the pursuit of short-term benefits can backfire, that we need to take scientific warnings seriously, and that we should look before we leap into new technologies. For many of us, this quiet marine biologist is a continuing inspiration. For others, she is a symbol of the supposedly genocidal consequences of "junk science."

On the occasion of Carson's centennial, bipartisan members of Congress from her home states of Pennsylvania and Maryland tried to honor her with a resolution and by naming a post office after her. Their efforts were blocked by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) because, according to a spokesperson, "millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson's junk science claims about DDT."

Coburn inherited the mantle of chief defender of DDT following the inglorious departure of former House speaker Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who began his career as an exterminator and advocated a return of the banned pesticide. Joining Coburn in demonizing Carson are a plethora of blogs, reports, and Web sites, all pressing the fictions that the use of DDT to combat malaria was banned because of her book, that the ban caused a resurgence of the disease around the world, and that Carson--and by extension, environmentalism--is thus responsible for millions of deaths.

In fact, Carson never called for a total ban of DDT, nor was its antimalarial use ever discontinued. What she advocated was a halt to the massive agricultural application of the pesticide, and its restrained use in combating malaria. Ironically, the resurgence of malaria-carrying mosquitoes came not because she called for a ban but, in part, because her warnings were not heeded soon enough: Overuse of agricultural DDT caused some insects to develop a resistance to what had been the world's most effective antimalarial agent.

While Carson-bashing by wing-nut senators and Web sites may not be surprising, it is still a shock to find it in the pages of the New York Times. In June, science columnist John Tierney took his swing, branding Silent Spring "a hodgepodge of science and junk science" and strangely citing the attacks on Carson by a pesticide advocate as proof that her argument was flawed. Incredibly, Tierney finds it "debatable" that restrictions on DDT protected wildlife--a position easily refuted by the remarkable return from near extinction of the brown pelican, peregrine falcon, and bald eagle after the chemical was banned in the United States.

Their recovery is Carson's real legacy, as is the continuing decline of DDT levels in humans. Other persistent organochlorine pesticides have been restricted or banned as well, and while their carcinogenic effects may not be as dire as she feared, their role in disrupting endocrine and reproductive systems is becoming increasingly clear. Largely because of Carson, toxicologists now routinely search for the unanticipated consequences of chemical releases into the environment.

Why is Carson's memory still so charged? Perhaps because she was one of the first to reveal the risks of overreliance on technology. At a time when science was largely seen as a Promethean tool to conquer nature, Carson employed it instead as a moral call for increased humility. The need for such humility is now as great as, if not greater than, it was in 1962. In a recent New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert compares the mindless reliance on dangerous pesticides in Carson's time with the Bush administration's "disregard for inconvenient evidence."

Decades after her death, Carson still challenges our industrial society. Humanity clearly has vast technological powers--but they are not the solution to every problem. We are still learning that with these powers come moral and ethical obligations and that our responsibility must be as far-reaching as the toxic molecules our industrial processes have loosed on the world. So happy centennial, Rachel--we need you now more than ever.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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