ENVIRONMENT

WAS RACHEL CARSON WRONG?

On her centenary, some critics blame her for all the lives lost to malaria

BRIAN BETHUNE June 4 2007
ENVIRONMENT

WAS RACHEL CARSON WRONG?

On her centenary, some critics blame her for all the lives lost to malaria

BRIAN BETHUNE June 4 2007

WAS RACHEL CARSON WRONG?

ENVIRONMENT

On her centenary, some critics blame her for all the lives lost to malaria

BRIAN BETHUNE

In 1962, Silent Spring sparked a violent summer storm in the U.S., as Rachel Carson’s beautifully written assault on the effects of widespread chemical spraying raced up the bestseller lists. Carson, already ill with the breast cancer that would kill her two years later, faced a furious chemical-industry counter-campaign, complete with lawsuits and the sexist insults so casually tossed about in her time. The FBI investigated her as a potential Communist agent out to disrupt the national food chain. A former government marine biologist, Carson had no financial backing or institutional support, but she did have credibility as a wellknown and gifted writer on natural history. Public opinion, already alarmed by spraying programs, swung decisively to her side.

In the year of her centenary—Carson was born May 27,1907—it’s difficult to overestimate her significance. Silent Spring is one of the most influential books of the 20th century, and its author the founding mother of modern environmentalism. In America, pesticide use, particularly DDT, was severely curtailed by her efforts, while the Environmental Protection Agency (l970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973) followed in Carson’s wake as surely as dying birds trail an oil spill. David Suzuki, Canada’s own ecological icon, once said, “Rachel Carson essentially directed my life.” An elementary school, a bridge, and a Maryland state park all bear her name. Her birthplace in Springdale, Penn., is a national historic site. For biographer Linda Lear, that’s about the least her country owes Carson “for showing what a single individual could accomplish by speaking out, and for warning us about the arrogance with which we approach the natural world.”

But, for a vocal minority, it’s Carson’s very reputation—her status as a saint in what they dismiss as a secular religion—that makes her legacy poisonous. Websites and op-ed pages accuse her of a straight-line responsibility for

the deaths of millions of Third World malaria and yellow fever victims since the 1970s. That’s when, the critics say, a Carson-inspired ban on DDT destroyed humanity’s best defence against the disease-bearing mosquitoes that kill more than a million people every year. Having used DDT in the First World long enough to wipe out malaria there, they add, eco-imperialists now prevent its use anywhere, saving African birds at the cost of African children, malaria’s prime victims.

The attacks are more notable for their venom than their attention to detail. Consider Dennis Avery’s mid-April posting on the website of the American Conservative Union Foundation. Avery, formerly a senior analyst for the State Department and currently at the Hudson Institute, mistakenly marked Carson’s birthday on April 12. He blames her for “at least” 30 million deaths— meaning everyone who has died of malaria or yellow fever in the last 40 years. That figure, he goes on to claim, is “five times as many as Hitler killed in his concentration death camps, albeit inadvertently”—a statement that manages to be at once vicious, factually wrong (about four million Nazi victims died in the death camps) and syntactically absurd (assuming Avery means Carson was the accidental killer, not Hitler).

But being sloppy and prone to bizarre Hitler analogies are par for the course in media fulminations. Style doesn’t necessarily mean Avery and like-minded souls such as Steven Milloy of JunkScience.com are wrong. The story they tell would be a grotesquely ironic instance of the law of unintended consequences at work, were it true. But it’s not. For all the vitriol—Milloy thinks Carson’s name should be stripped from public prop-

erty—it’s astonishing how weak the case against Carson is. For one thing, critics completely ignore the situation in her day.

In a just-released book of tributes to Carson, Edward O. Wilson, probably the most distinguished environmental scientist in American history, describes the temper of the times. Living better chemically—and atomically—barely captures it. Wilson sat on a U.S. National Research Council committee that evaluated a proposal to create a new, parallel Panama Canal by a series of precisely timed

nuclear explosions. (They voted it down.)

One project that did get off the drawing board was the fire-ant eradication program of 1958, discussed at length in Silent Spring and vividly recalled by Wilson who, as a bugmad 13-year-old Boy Scout in 1942, was the first person to record the arrival of the invasive South American species at the docks near his Mobile, Ala., home. In what Wilson calls the “Vietnam of Entomology,” the U.S. Agriculture Department sprayed a million acres

with powerful insecticides. Wildlife and livestock developed fatal nervous disorders, while bird and beneficial insect populations were decimated. The effect on human health was never assessed. The fire ants, who bear the Latin name invicta (“unconquered”) for good reason, easily survived the carpet bombing.

When Carson’s critics argue—although not without dispute—that 30 years of research have shown DDT to be less toxic for humans than most environmental contaminants, it’s worth remembering that no one knew that in 1962. In that year ofDDT’s peak usage, 80 million kg were sprayed across the U.S., without any idea of its long-term effects.

As for Carson’s responsibility for malarial deaths, the word of environmentalists is far from the only thing curtailing DDT use in the Third World. In the glory days of the Chemical Era, the World Health Organization commenced a program in 1955 to eradicate malaria worldwide via DDT. At first it was highly successful (reducing mortality rates from 192 per 100,000 to seven per 100,000), but resistance soon emerged in insect populations. Widespread agricultural use of DDT—just like the agricultural use of antibiotics—sped up the development of resistant strains, inflicting lasting harm on health care. But even before resistance took hold, DDT was less effective in tropical regions than in North America and Europe because of inefficient infrastructures and the continuous life cycle of mosquitoes there. The WHO program, in fact, was never applied in subSaharan Africa for those reasons, and that is why mortality rates there never fell to the same extent as elsewhere, and why Africa remains the epicentre of the epidemic. The WHO abandoned its ambitious goal of eradication in 1969, and now focuses its attention on controlling the disease.

DDT, sprayed in judicious amounts on interior walls, remains the best malaria control known. Carson, in fact, would probably not have stood with those environmentalists opposed to any use of DDT. Silent Spring called not for a ban on pesticide use, but for increased study, a precise weighing of costs and benefits and, above all, humility in the face of what we still don’t know about the natural order. For Rachel Carson, arrogancecorporate, governmental, scientific or environmental—was always the enemy. M