Rachel Carson and the Deaths of Millions

At times it seems that there are more sites honoring Rachel Carson than Josef Stalin at his peak. There's an environmental advocacy institute (at Chatham University, her alma mater), a state office building in Harrisburg, several research institutions, a number of schools (no less than eight, by my count), and here in Pittsburgh, we got this bridge   

The bridge in question, once known as the 9th Street Bridge, was renamed the Rachel Carson Bridge late last year at the request of Esther L. Barazzone, president of Chatham University. It's one of three downtown suspension bridges crossing the Allegheny. Together they're known as the "Three Sisters". The other two are named for Roberto Clemente and Andy Warhol, respectively. (Andy probably wouldn't have minded the "sisters" appellation, but as for Roberto...  I wouldn't care to speculate.)  

The renaming resolution was a piece of political boilerplate passed unanimously by the Allegheny County Council with no debate or publicity. According to Eileen Watt, who sponsored the motion, the Council was looking to honor a woman who was a native of Pittsburgh. (Which is not quite the case, Carson having been raised in Springdale, twenty miles north.) Very little mention was made concerning Carson's actual accomplishments, something for which the Council may come to feel grateful.

Because Carson's accomplishments are effectively wrapped up in Silent Spring, a book hailed as "one of the five most influential of the 20th century" (Modern Library) and "One of the hundred most significant of the past millennium" (Life Magazine), but one which many view as one of those books, like Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, that we'd very much like to somehow see unwritten.

In 1958 Carson received a letter from her close friend Olga Huckins, which told a strange and alarming story. A short time previously, Huckins' bird sanctuary north of Cape Cod had been sprayed for insects, leading to a mass die-off of birds. The pesticide implicated was DDT.

Carson looked into it, her alarm deepening she discovered several similar incidents involving fish and birds. Originally set on treating the subject in an article, she instead embarked on a book-length project, spending over four years on the manuscript that became Silent Spring.

Silent Spring was published in September 1962 to immediate and near-universal acclaim. It was a strange time in American history - the public had only recently endured scares over radioactive fallout from nuclear testing and a horrifying incident involving the pregnancy drug thalidomide, which led to gross birth defects. Silent Spring rode this wave of paranoia as if designed for it.

Along with a thirty-week run on The New York Times bestseller list, the book was discussed in the Senate, debated by Congressional committees, analyzed by the presidential Science Advisory Committee and widely covered on television. All of which was a deep pity, because Silent Spring was an extremely dishonest and flawed piece of work.

Carson's book was rife with omissions, misrepresentations, and errors. She neglected to mention that the spraying of Huckin's bird sanctuary was accompanied by fuel oil, which would have harmed the birds in and of itself. The fact that DDT had eliminated malaria in the northern hemisphere went unnoted. The threat of cancer (Carson herself had been diagnosed with breast cancer while at work on the book) was overemphasized -- to put it mildly -- on no scientific basis.

But far worse was the tone of hysteria permeating the entire work. DDT was not simply a chemical compound, to be analyzed dispassionately like any other. No - it was representation of absolute evil, a demonic threat to all forms of life, one that had to be ousted from the environment at all costs. Such an overwrought treatment is perhaps understandable from a woman effectively writing under the gun of cancer, but it's scarcely acceptable in a work purporting to be a serious scientific study.

This attitude of Carson's was imported into environmentalism whole, becoming the standard for dealing with environmental matters of all kinds.

DDT became target number one for the new environmental movement (one organization, the World Wildlife Fund, was founded with no other goal than its elimination). It was an uphill battle for several years, since serious scientific analysis of Carson's claims overthrew virtually all of them. DDT did not cause cancer. It had no health effects whatsoever on humans, mammals, or any other higher animals. The sole deletorious effect involved the eggs of raptors, where ambiguous evidence of shell-thinning was discovered.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency, founded in answer to the uproar generated by Silent Spring, dismissed claims against DDT.

The environmentalists solved that one by going straight to the top. The EPA's head, William D. Ruckelshaus, was a committed environmentalist and a member of several environmental organizations, with widespread connections throughout the movement. On June 14, 1972, Ruckelshaus rescinded the registration for DDT, effectively banning the compound. (Many sources, such as this site, claim that there never was any such ban, a contention easily answered by this EPA release.) Ruckelshaus later worked for the World Wildlife Federation, a fact that may or may not be relevant.

With the Ruckelshaus ban, the DDT story deepens into tragedy. One thing unmentioned throughout the debate was the fact that DDT had effectively eliminated malaria in the developed world. Though not as fearful as diseases such as plague or tuberculosis, malaria was a greater killer than any of them, perhaps responsible for up to 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone. Malaria was a slow killer, a parasite that debilitated and weakened over years of repeated attacks. Even when it didn't kill, it reduced its victims to lives of unending misery.  

DDT had ended its reign throughout Europe, the American South, and Latin America, one of the greatest humanitarian advances in recorded history, and one effectively forgotten by the 1970s. Also forgotten was the fact that one more challenge remained. Africa had been left out of previous international efforts due both to its vastness and the fact that the anopheles mosquito and the malaria parasite differed slightly from the species of other regions, seriously complicating any eradication campaign. Consideration was being given to overcoming those problems when the DDT ban undercut all such efforts.

Environmentalists and aid bureaucrats insisted that DDT could be replaced by other pesticides and procedures such as "integrated vector management." But mosquitoes quickly developed resistance to newer pesticides, and vector management was a gimcrack theory that failed everywhere it was tried.

Malaria rates began soaring worldwide, not only in Africa but in areas which a few years earlier had been malaria-free. Only a small number of nations with the financial ability to fund their own programs, such as Ecuador, Mexico, and South Africa, continued DDT use. In all cases, these countries remained healthy. (The Clinton administration demanded that Mexico give up DDT as a condition for NAFTA being put into effect. This was done, and malaria rates shot sky-high.)

Despite clear evidence as to the effects, international aid groups such as the World Health Organization and USAid ceased supporting DDT operations. By the mid-80s, malaria had reached and surpassed previous levels. Up to 500 million people were suffering attacks each year. Two to three million of them died as a result. Up to nine-tenths of the dead were children under five.

So it continued for a quarter of a century. The tide began to turn when South Africa was persuaded in 1995 to abandon DDT in favor of the more expensive pyrethroid. Within three years, resistant mosquitoes appeared. By 2000, malaria cases had shot up by more than 1200%, to 62,000. The government resumed DDT spraying, and within months the disease rate dropped by four-fifths.     

Other African nations began pleading for DDT. The UN had been attempting to ban the pesticide worldwide, but could not ignore evidence of such magnitude. An exception was made for spraying for health purposes, and aid organizations encouraged to begin financing such programs. Even so, it took another five years (and ten to fifteen million-odd deaths) to overcome bureaucratic inertia.

It was only last September that the WHO acquiesced to such programs. Environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace all applauded the decision. It was what they'd wanted all along, so they said.

One of the crucial figures in the fight for DDT was Sen. Tom Coburn, who spent a decade or more fighting alone against Greens, international aid bureaucrats, and the media on behalf of the wretched of the earth. Coburn spent those years contemplating armies of children dead for an empty ideology. So it's no surprise that it was he who stepped in to put a halt to Sen. Benjamin Cardin's resolution honoring Rachel Carson for her great work on the occasion of her centennial this Sunday.

Carson was not directly responsible. She is far from the equivalent of Hitler or Pol Pot that some overheated individuals claim to see in her. Neither are Ruckelshaus or the faceless aid bureaucrats, though we're getting closer to the bone there. No malice was involved in this case, no hatred, no hostility. We are simply confronted with the terrible mystery of human stupidity rendering the highest intentions more murderous than the worst.

But Rachel Carson lit the fuse, and no reinterpretation can ever change that. As Coburn is well aware, you do not pass resolutions in favor of people who were involved in the deaths of millions, however inadvertently. Neither do you name bridges after them, or institutes, or office buildings, or schools. (Or put up statues to them, which is Esther Barazzone's latest scheme.) In particular the schools, since you do not want to give naive children any notion at all that Carson's way is the way that things ought to be done.

It's doubtful that Sen. Coburn or anyone else will ever make any real impression on Carson's reputation. She is an archetype now, something of a goddess-figure embodying human decency and right action. People will sacrifice at her altar despite everything. But that doesn't mean that such gestures as the senator's are empty - at the very least, they embody a statement that the truth is there for those who want it. That counts for quite a bit.

And there's also the fact that people still call it the 9th Street Bridge, in defiance of all the signs and fanfare. That voice of the people counts for something too. 

Most of the information in this piece is adapted from Dunn's work-in-progress tentatively titled American Democide, dealing with left-liberal policies that have resulted in large-scale mortality
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker