Thank you, Rachel Carson

©Greenpeace/NewmanI grew up without eagles.

I was a child of the 60s, and the place where I spent most of my youth was upstate New York in the United States.Largely agricultural, the area was heavily sprayed with pesticides. The marshes at the north end of Cayuga lake were sprayed with DDT. Because of this, as a child, I thought of eagles and herons as exotic species that featured in picture books, and lived far away. Not so. Eagles, herons, and a handful of other raptors and large bird species once ranged across upstate New York. But by the time I was a child, they were all gone.

It took a Zoologist named Rachel Carson to figure out why. Because before she wrote Silent Spring, there was nobody charged with noticing. There was no Environmental Protection Agency. There were no eco-activists. If the US Department of Agriculture wanted to cause widespread collateral damage to birds and aquatic wildlife in its relentless pursuit of eradicating perceived pests, who was to raise a hand in protest?
The book Rachel Carson wrote so profoundly woke a complacent public to what it was doing to the planet, it changed the world. The EPA, Greenpeace, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in the US are arguably all direct decendents of Silent Spring, along with bans on dozens of chemicals she targeted in her pages. But Silent Spring wasn’t about chemicals.

What Carson exposed was more: a corporate, government, and social blindness to consequences, to linkedness, to the basics of balance and response in natural systems.

On the hundredth anniversary of her birth, Carson’s legacy, like that of the environmental movement in general, is a patchwork of tiny significant battles won in the name of a war in which we’re continuing to lose ground. As Elizabeth Kolbert reports in the New Yorker:

[The Bush Administration] has done its best to gut the safeguards put in place after “Silent Spring.” When, for instance, the E.P.A. proposed new rules on mercury emissions from power plants, the proposal turned out to contain several paragraphs lifted, virtually verbatim, from an industry lobbyist’s memos. (With minor changes, those regulations are now in effect.) Just last month, the Administration proposed new rules on the retrofitting of old power plants. The more or less explicit purpose of the rules is to accommodate a power company, Duke Energy, that the E.P.A. had itself sued for violating the Clean Air Act. Also last month, the E.P.A.announced that it would once again delay taking action on two drinking-water contaminants, perchlorate, an ingredient of rocket fuel,and M.T.B.E., a fuel additive.

And in the wider picture, we’re still dangerously deluded that nature is so robust that it can take anything we throw at it.
As Mark Lytle, who wrote The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and the Rise of the Environmental Movement notes in his reply to Carson sceptic John Tierney,

Carson’s real target in Silent Spring was not DDT, but man’s arrogance towards nature. Biologist Barry Commoner described this flaw as mankind’s capacity to find solutions before understanding what the problem is. Or as Carson explained, “I think we are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

That “as never before” is truer today than it was then.
My niece and nephew back in upstate New York can thank Rachel Carson that they’re growing up with herons and eagles as common sights.
But they’ll only be spared from seeing the extinction of the polar bear in their lifetime, and far worse things, if we as human beings prove we can ultimately be guided by the wisdom she championed.

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8 thoughts on “Thank you, Rachel Carson”

  1. Let’s see, if I look up your IP address will it suggest that you have been paid to post this comment by the industry shills at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, perhaps? Hey, aren’t you the people who Exxon funded to give us that great line about “C02, they call it pollution, we call it life?”

    The Center for Media and Democracy has been on to you fellas for a while.

    The ban on DDT hasn’t killed anyone, and only junk scientists shilling for the industry would be caught dead saying it has.

    In fact, here’s what a real scientist says about it:

    DDT usage for malaria control involves spraying the walls and backs of furniture, so as to kill and repel adult mosquitoes that may carry the malaria parasite. Other chemicals are available for this purpose…

    DDT is not used for outdoor mosquito control, partly because scientific studies have demonstrated toxicity to wildlife, but mainly because its persistence in the environment rapidly leads to the development of resistance to the insecticide in mosquito populations. There are now much more effective and acceptable insecticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, to kill larval mosquitoes outdoors.

    Malaria is responsible for enormous suffering and death. The facts are readily available in the scientific literature. To blame a reduction in DDT usage for the death of 10–30 million people from malaria is not just simple-minded, it is demonstrably wrong. To blame a mythical, monolithic entity called the environmental lobby for the total reduction in DDT usage is not just paranoid, it is also demonstrably wrong. Your article is not only poor journalism, it is an insult to the people who work for the control of parasitic diseases that afflict developing nations.

    Dr Alan Lymbery
    Professor Andrew Thompson
    Parasitology Unit
    Division of Health Sciences
    Murdoch University

  2. It’s too bad the millions and millions of poor Africans that have died from malaria can’t come here to give their opinion on Rachel Carson. Thanks to her there wasn’t enough international support and funding for DDT spraying against mosquitos; so countless Africans are bitten by mosquitos and die from malaria. Who cares if millions of Africans are dead, you got to see your Peregrine Falcons and Eagles. I guess it was all worth it.

  3. Thanks Page, Martin, and Larry. This actually didn’t start out as what it turned into. My starting point was the pattern of attack on Carson and how it resembles the counterforce against climate science. But then I realised I was letting the industry pundits set the agenda, and it was time to simply honour what she did.

  4. Learning about DDT was a staple part of my school biology education, somewhere between the ages of 10 and 14, and so became the reason I learned about food chains, peristant organic pollutants and species extinction. One more example of Carson’s influence I guess. In my case the example species was the Peregrine Falcon, which was pretty much wiped out in the UK by DDT. I can still count the number I’ve seen in the wild on my fingers. (and some of those were in New York City)

  5. Brian, That was great. I was inspired by Rachel Carson at an early age and your Thank You speaks for me and millions of others who understand. I am going to link your post from my Mercury Emissions blog later today.

  6. What can I say, except “what a beautiful post”?

    Eagles were probably one of the primary reasons that I knew what the term “endangered specie” was at a young age. So I can thank Rachel Carson too, indirectly.

    Thanks, Brian. No one could have said it better.

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