Go read, “The Enduring Relevance of Rachel Carson”

Seriously, go read this whole essay — especially if you’re looking for some snarky way to complain about the ban on DDT.

It is tough for a single publication or its author to have an impact across nations, cultures, genres, and disciplines. It is tougher still for their appearance on the world stage to spark a social movement, rekindle human values and awareness, and create new mandates for action. And toughest of all is when the author is a woman, a scientist, who must overcome the prejudices of her time−of gender, of notions of progress, of the omnipotence of untrammelled industry−to articulate a clear-eyed, renewed vision of a better world, a cleaner environment, where people do not merely live, but flourish.

If I had to pick one exemplary work from the environmental canon that does this and does it well, it would be the one that burst on the scene on this day, 16 June, all of 52 years ago, in the United States of America and then swiftly encompassed, in its scope and sweep, the rest of the world. The book, Silent Spring, and its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson, are widely credited to be the sparks that lit the fire of the global environmental movement. Carson, whose 107th birth anniversary came and passed quietly on May 27, with little fanfare other than a commemorative Google Doodle, died fifty years ago after a battle with breast cancer. Why should we bother to remember Rachel Carson and Silent Spring? What could a woman, a book, from over five decades ago have to do with the enormously changed world we live in today? Yet, over the last few weeks, during fieldwork and travels in India’s northeast and the Western Ghats mountains, I thought frequently of Rachel Carson and her prescient words in Silent Spring.

Google Doodle on Rachel Carson's birthday, 27 May 2014 (Courtesy: Google)

2 Responses to Go read, “The Enduring Relevance of Rachel Carson”

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Cut and past plagiarism from Black Flag?

    Bad enough that you use long-discredited arguments from crank science and political cult sites — but you don’t even bother to give credit to your fellow-traveler propagandists?

    Henry I. Miller is an over-the-hill-and-around-the-bend ex-physician at the right-wing Hoover Institute; much of what BF cribbed came from his old 2012 essay. (Who else did you crib from, and where? Why won’t you do the decent, polite thing and offer cites and links to your sources?)

    Here was my response, about two years ago:

    Here’s a thorough debunking of the false claims, from John Quiggin and Tim Lambert:

    Here’s more debunking of the falsehoods:

    Even for a crabby, inaccurate anarchist, you’re being particularly non-thinking on this, BF.

    By the way: At peak DDT use time, 1958 to 1963, 4 million people each year died from malaria, with more than a half-billion people getting infected. Mostly without DDT, and with most of the reduction coming after the publication of Silent Spring, malaria deaths have been cut more than 80%, to fewer than 610,000 per year; infections have been cut more than 50%, to fewer than 225 million per year.

    If we “blame” Rachel Carson for the change in malaria infections and malaria deaths, that means that more than 96 million people were saved from death by Rachel Carson — making here far and away the greatest saver of lives in human history, the greatest savior of humanity.

    Be careful what you claim when you’re bad at math.


  2. Black Flag® says:

    She is among the greatest mass killers in history.

    Rachel Carson was a hugely influential marine biologist best-known for her 1962 book Silent Spring, which became something of a bible for the environmental movement. The book strongly criticized the insecticide DDT, which was widely used in eradicating mosquitoes, among other pests. Silent Spring became a huge bestseller on its release in 1962, and played a major role in changing the public perception of DDT, which soon began to be banned across the world.

    What many people do not realize is that DDT had already saved tens of millions of lives by 1962—perhaps even hundreds of millions. Beginning in the late 1950s, the World Health Organization’s Global Malaria Eradication Program deployed thousands of tons of DDT in the largest mosquito eradication program the world had ever seen. The results were astonishing. Before DDT had been developed, the fight against malaria had almost seemed a losing battle. Now, the disease was eliminated in Taiwan, the West Indies, northern Australia, and much of North Africa. Before DDT, around 800,000 people died of malaria in India every year. By the early 1960s, the number of fatalities had dropped to zero.

    Nor was the case against DDT quite as bulletproof as it might seem. Despite some claims, there is still no clear evidence that DDT can cause cancer in humans. Entomologist J. Gordon Edwards, probably Carson’s most caustic critic, has claimed that: “This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse effects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result.” According to a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: “There is no convincing evidence that DDT, as used indoors against malaria mosquitoes, has caused any harm to humans.”

    It’s not fair to blame Carson for every malaria death since Silent Spring. DDT’s effectiveness was decreasing anyway, as mosquitoes with a genetic resistance to the chemical became dominant. New insecticides proved quite effective in dealing with the disease. And most countries merely banned DDT as an agricultural pesticide, while still permitting its use as a public health tool. Concerns over DDT’s agricultural were arguably justified—it takes a ton of DDT to dust a cotton field, but only a few grams to rid a home of deadly mosquitoes.

    But since Carson’s book soured the public image of the chemical, tropical countries have come under increased pressure to stop using it in mosquito eradication programs. Often, the pressure has come from wealthy Western nations where malaria is non-existent. In the 1990s, malaria rates shot up across South America as aid organizations pressured developing countries to avoid the use of DDT for any reason. In Ecuador, where DDT use to control disease was increased, the incidence of malaria fell by 60 percent. There are genuine concerns over DDT’s safety, its effectiveness has waned since its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, and there are now alternatives in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases. Yet it is likely that at least some people have died in part because of Silent Spring and its campaign against the chemical.


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