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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