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Silent Spring After 50 Years

Andrew P. Morriss

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a foundational document in modern environmentalism: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Today, when Carson’s book is often mentioned but rarely read, it is easy to forget how important it was in shaping American attitudes about the environment. Serialized in The New Yorker, featured as a Book of the Month Club selection, given a CBS TV special, and praised by President John F. Kennedy, Silent Spring was a national sensation in the early 1960s. The book led to Carson’s testimony before a Senate subcommittee, which, together with her 1964 death from cancer, established the book’s iconic status and placed Carson on a pedestal as the “mother of the environmental movement.”

It is difficult to justify Silent Spring’s reputation as crusading investigative reporting. Carson was a longtime critic of DDT rather than a scientist who discovered pesticide problems in research. She edited 1940s reports by her boss at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Clarence Cottam, which were critical of DDT’s use to control mosquitoes in marshlands. Indeed, in the anniversary volume I coedited for the Cato Institute, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu report that Carson herself unsuccessfully pitched an article attacking DDT to Reader’s Digest in 1945.

Unfortunately, the legacy of Silent Spring is—at best—mixed. Carson rightly pointed to abuses by government pesticide-spraying programs that ignored private property rights and caused significant harm. But Carson also embraced strands of what University of Maryland economist Robert Nelson has labeled “environmental religion.” Indeed, as Desrochers and Shimizu show, the intellectual “groundwaters” for Silent Spring included sources such as her friend William Vogt’s 1948 best-seller Road to Survival, which praised pests such as tsetse flies and malaria-carrying mosquitoes as “blessings in disguise” for reducing populations in poor countries, whose “greatest national assets” included high death rates. And Carson’s message that chemicals posed an existential threat—she termed pesticides like DDT “biocides”—helped legitimize the long-standing strain of apocalyptic thinking that environmentalists have ever since invoked to justify measures restricting liberty. Indeed, Carson’s original title for the book, Man Against the Earth, embodied the apocalyptic theme.

Carson was not the first to write about the dangers of pesticides, nor was she the first to sound the alarm over environmental issues. As early as 1948 Fairfield Osborne’s Our Plundered Planet, which warned of bird death from pesticide spraying, was a bestseller. Even Carson’s metaphor of a “silent spring” was foreshadowed by a 1946 New Republic article, “Dynamite in DDT,” which reported “the silence of total death” after aerial spraying of a forest in Pennsylvania. Six months before Silent Spring, a major publisher issued Murray Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment (although it used the pseudonym Lewis Herber to avoid Bookchin’s radical reputation). In 1959 Robert Rudd published two articles in The Nation that formed the basis for his 1964 book Pesticides and the Living Landscape, which contained many of Carson’s themes. Indeed, Desrochers and Shimizu conclude that Carson’s work was not at all original but “vintage technophobic muckraking in quality literary clothing.” Yet Silent Spring was, and remains, far more important than any of its contemporaries.

There are two reasons for its success. First, when the book came out Carson was established as a major popular American writer. In the forthcoming Cato collection environmental writer Wallace Kaufman notes that Carson’s first books—Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955)—lyrically portrayed ocean life to the American public as part of a wider popular literature on the oceans that included Thor Heyerdahl’s description of a trip across the Pacific on a balsa raft, Kon Tiki (1951). These books established her reputation as a gifted writer, opening readers’ eyes to the wonders of the natural world.

Silent Spring was a departure from this work. As Kaufman notes, New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn encouraged her to take on an adversarial role, writing in a letter to her: “After all there are some things one doesn’t have to be objective and unbiased about—one doesn’t condone murder!” Carson embraced the mission she was given, noting that it allowed her to be “pulling no punches.” Although Silent Spring was a work of advocacy, Carson had credibility with the reading public based on her earlier work, a credibility that authors like Bookchin lacked.

Second, Carson’s literary skill allowed her to link her message to deeply held religious themes in American thinking. As Robert Nelson notes, Carson was brought up in the Presbyterian Church—as were other key environmentalists, including John Muir, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman. In his writings, including The New Holy Wars: Economic versus Environmental Religion, Nelson argues that Presbyterianism’s connections to Calvinism helped shape much American environmental thinking. He quotes environmental historian Mark Stoll: “The moral urgency that animates the environmental movement is also a direct legacy of Calvinism and Puritanism. . . . The activist wing of environmentalism traces its roots through the Puritans directly to God’s holy self-appointed instruments, the committed Calvinists.” Whether consciously or not, Carson connected with this religious legacy; her vision resonated with Americans seeking a spiritual connection with nature. Just as in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, Carson’s tale of rampant poisoning of nature was a morality tale of mankind’s hubris. Indeed, Nelson notes that Carson begins Silent Spring with an Eden-like image of “a town in the heart of America where all life seemed in harmony with its surroundings.” Like the Book of Revelation, Carson offered an apocalyptic vision of the consequences of that hubris—the vision of a spring when “no birds sang” and children “would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours” as a result of man’s arrogant efforts to assume a God-like role in creation. Although most Americans in the early 1960s still believed in what Nelson terms the economic religion of progress, the combination of rapid social change after World War II and the nuclear arms race made many receptive to an apocalyptic message.

Carson’s reputation, writing skill, and connection with deep religious themes in American life thus positioned Silent Spring to have a major impact on Americans’ thinking about the environment. Unfortunately its message was deeply flawed.

Although today writers often portray her as a scientist, Carson had only a master’s degree, working professionally as a popular science writer for the federal government and as a freelance writer. Measured against the scientific standards of her day, her work is deficient. In particular, three important flaws mar Carson’s argument and persist in much environmental thinking.

First, as an advocate, Carson made no effort at a balanced presentation. She ignored important evidence— including evidence that she must have known about—that contradicted her story. For example, Carson was active in the Audubon Society and served on its board of directors. Audubon conducted a regular Christmas bird census count across the United States. Carson surely knew not only that the census failed to show declining populations of many of the birds she discussed, but also that even those with declining populations began their declines well before the introduction of organic pesticides. This unwillingness to consider evidence that does not fit “the narrative” remains a problem for environmentalists today, as the “Climategate” emails illustrate in the debate over climate change.

Second, Carson embraced the ideas of a cancer expert, Dr. William Hueper, who did not consider tobacco use a significant factor in cancer incidence. While most Americans today would be skeptical of the credentials of a scientist who denied such a link, there was considerable controversy over the issue in the 1950s, and so Hueper’s position was not ridiculous. Yet despite the controversy and significant public discussion of tobacco’s impact, Carson paid no attention to the effect of increasing smoking rates on cancer incidence, instead associating all increases in cancer with chemical use. In the period leading up to the publication of the 1964 Surgeon General’s report Smoking and Health, ignoring the topic could only have been a deliberate choice. Failing to even acknowledge such an important alternative explanation undercuts any claim that Carson was presenting “science” in Silent Spring.

Similarly, Carson did not adjust her cancer numbers for differences in life expectancy or declines in other causes of death. Between 1900 and 1958 Americans’ life expectancy rose from 47.3 to 69.6 years. Of course more Americans were dying of cancer in 1958 than in 1900 because many of those who might have died of cancer in 1900 died of something else before they had a chance for a cancer to develop. Similar oversights remain important for environmentalists today.

Third, Carson paid little attention to the benefits of chemical pesticides. These were (and are) significant. One key benefit was the vast increase in agricultural productivity that pesticides allowed, making food cheaper and more widely available. Another was disease control, with DDT in particular saving millions of people from malaria and other insect-borne diseases. This was a key factor in the presentation of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to DDT’s discoverer, Dr. Paul Müller. Moreover, most of the new pesticides like DDT were substitutes for dangerous arsenical pesticides in widespread use before World War II. And substituting chemicals for labor not only freed people from backbreaking farm work but helped the environment by limiting the need to plow to control weeds, which reduces erosion.

There were serious abuses of chemical pesticides in the 1950s and early 1960s, often funded by government agencies on missions to eradicate pests. Carson rightly pointed out the dangers these mass spraying programs posed to the environment. But, like modern environmentalists confronted with destructive government programs, her remedy was more government, not greater respect for landowners’ property rights. In this, Silent Spring marked an important turning point away from earlier environmental writers like Aldo Leopold, who emphasized development of a “land ethic” and attention to incentives over coercion in A Sand County Almanac. While there are certainly statist tendencies in Leopold and other early writers, those writers paid much more attention to changing hearts and minds than to creating bureaucracies. After Silent Spring, that strand of American environmental thinking vanished for decades.

One of the legacies of Silent Spring was the federalization of environmental law. Carson’s efforts and untimely death helped catalyze a movement to restrict the use of chemical pesticides, including DDT. Despite all the heat and controversy the campaign against DDT generated, few chemical manufacturers mourned its loss, as DDT was cheap and unprotected by patents. Chemical companies much preferred their more lucrative—and often more hazardous—alternative products. What they did not want was a patchwork of state-level regulation of their products. Thus pesticide manufacturers embraced federal regulation as a means of preempting state regulatory efforts. Silent Spring thus deserves some of the credit (or blame) for the conversion of environmental law from a matter largely left to state governments in 1960 to one that Richard Nixon happily federalized in the early 1970s. Today’s environmentalists ought to revere Nixon as a hero, since he not only created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order but also signed several major environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970. Indeed, environmental regulation fit nicely into the Nixon agenda of greater federal control of many aspects of American life, from drug prohibition to wage and price controls.

In his contribution to the Cato volume, federalism scholar Jonathan Adler terms the 1970s’ federalization of pesticides the creation of a “broad, untargeted regulatory structure” rather than an effort to “match federal efforts to truly national problems.” Moreover, the new federal regulatory structure was “overly centralized and inflexible.” Environmental pressure groups obtained a place at the table in Washington, but they joined, rather than displaced, the existing special interests from the agricultural and chemical industries. Federalizing regulation of pesticides, as with federalization of environmental law generally, served to shift government interventions to a location far from most citizens, where decisions were made behind closed doors.

This may in part account for Silent Spring’s continued iconic status. The first efforts against mass spraying programs were trespass suits against the government agencies. The courts rejected these, finding that the government’s claim to be upholding the public interest trumped landowners’ property rights. Rebuffed by the courts, antispraying activists turned to a struggle for control of the federal government that was funding the programs. Their victory over DDT was a key early victory by environmental organizations, and contributes to the treatment of Silent Spring as holy writ rather than as a dated, flawed—if extraordinarily well-written—piece of advocacy. That in turn has led to bitter resistance to the use of DDT to save lives in Africa and Asia. Despite mounting evidence—detailed by anti-malaria campaigners Donald Roberts and Richard Tren both in the Cato volume and their book The Excellent Powder (2010)—that indoor spraying of DDT is an essential tool against malaria with few environmental effects, Western environmental groups have fought for decades to deny it to developing countries to use against malarial mosquitoes.

Unlike many of her contemporaries among early environmental writers, Carson never explicitly advocated ending disease-control efforts although, shockingly, quite a few did. Nonetheless, Carson’s failure to credit the public-health benefits of pesticides is a major failing in the book, since the Silent Spring-inspired anti-DDT crusade led to the deaths of millions in Africa and Asia.

Carson never advocated a total ban on pesticides, calling instead for restrictions on their use. She was undoubtedly right that there was excessive pesticide use—partly because expanding New Deal agricultural subsidy programs pushed U.S. farmers toward evermore intensive agriculture, partly because the federal government subsidized aerial spraying for pest control. Carson’s main solution was a proposal for expanded biological controls of pests through the introduction of species that prey on harmful insects. As conservation biologist Nathan Gregory notes in the Cato volume, this was a solution “as rife with hubris as the technological solutions Carson condemns.” Indeed today the deliberate introduction of invasive species would be viewed by most environmentalists and biologists as problematic at best and catastrophic at worst. Gregory points out that Carson does not deserve blame for her failure to anticipate two decades of development of understanding of conservation biology that undermined her proposed approach. But today’s environmentalists can be held accountable for their continued advocacy of unrealistic alternatives.

From wind farms to biofuels, environmentalists today are just as likely to embrace environmentally damaging and ineffective solutions as Rachel Carson was. Ironically, wind farms today may pose a greater threat to bird populations than pesticides ever did, and misguided U.S. efforts to force domestic production of corn-based ethanol have played havoc with groundwater supplies and soil quality throughout the Midwest. Despite their nominal commitment to “science,” many environmentalists embrace the Rachel Carson notion of science: a popularized version of ideas whose real-life complexity defies simple solutions to problems. Moreover, like Carson, they often advocate government programs whose unintended consequences can be as deleterious as the problems they are intended to solve.

Man’s interaction with his environment is a complex subject, one we are only beginning to understand. Unfortunately modern environmentalism too often focuses on only a fraction of those interactions and turns too hastily to statist solutions. Had Carson written a book like her first three rather than a polemic, she would have produced a careful and thoughtful work that presented the complexity of the environment, incorporated the readily available data on bird populations she ignored, adjusted her cancer statistics for the increase in life expectancies, paid attention to tobacco’s role, and been as critical of invasive species-based solutions as she was of chemical ones. That book might have launched a different environmental movement from the one that now claims her as its intellectual mother.

Rachel Carson was uniquely positioned in the early 1960s to affect the future direction of American environmentalism, and it is unfortunate that she chose the path she did. Of course a careful, thoughtful weighing of the health and environmental benefits of pesticide use that took into account the lives saved in Africa and Asia and the benefits of no-till agriculture on soil erosion might not have sold quite as many copies as a sensationalist portrayal of a spring without songbirds.

What might such an alternative environmentalism look like? It would value the lives saved from the ravages of malaria, celebrating human beings as what Julian Simon termed “the ultimate resource.” It would counsel against massive government interventions like the gypsy-moth and fire-ant eradication programs Carson decried, focusing instead on developing incentives for landowners to encourage responsible behavior. It would emphasize local knowledge of particular ecosystems, not grand pronouncements by bureaucrats from Washington. It would emphasize the need to understand tradeoffs, not proclaim absolutes.

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