Did Rachel Carson really kill more people than Stalin?
On the centenary of her birth, the author of Silent Spring is idolised by greens and demonised by the right. Both sides need to turn over a new leaf.
Last year, the British government’s Environment Agency conducted a poll among top British greens to find out who their ‘eco-heroes’ were. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, first published in 1962, came out on top (1). More recently, a writer for The Times (London) endorsed Carson as being up there with Galileo, Darwin and William Wilberforce. She apparently pitted herself against ‘zillion-dollar industries and a tame-poodle science establishment that legitimised dreadful environmental desecrations in return for research funding’ (2).
Carson’s Silent Spring is now best known as the book that cast doubt on the insecticide Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT). DDT had been widely used in the fight against malaria in the early and mid-twentieth century. Carson’s claims that the insecticide damaged the natural environment and might even cause cancer in humans (later proven to be erroneous) gave rise to anti-DDT, and more broadly anti-insecticide, campaigning in the 1960s and 70s. As a consequence, DDT was banned in America in 1972 by the Environment Protection Agency and its use was severely restricted in Europe. This impacted in turn on its use in Latin America and Africa, where malaria is still a big problem.
So today, on the centenary of her birth, Carson is both idolised by environmentalists and demonised by those concerned about the continuing devastation caused by malaria in the developing world. She is hailed by greens as a lone woman who fought against big corporations to highlight the dangers of insecticides and chemicals, and denounced by many right-leaning commentators (not normally known for their concern for the people of Africa) for causing ‘millions of deaths’ in the developing world and holding back the fight against disease and destitution.
What is the truth about Carson? Hero, villain or neither? I decided to re-read her book (which, I wager, is more than some of her supporters and detractors have done) to find out the truth about the author who has been turned into a symbol of both good and evil.
Much of the contemporary praising of Carson as One Woman who single-handedly challenged powerful destructive forces is based heavily on Al Gore’s introduction to the 1994 edition of Silent Spring (3). Then vice president of the US, Gore’s hagiographic piece of myth-making about Carson cheered her for raising awareness about how modern pesticides lead, or so Gore claimed, to ‘reduced fertility, testicular and breast cancer, and malformation of the genital organs’ amongst humans (4). Gore claimed that Carson ‘changed the course of history’. Similarly, one British writer has recently claimed that Carson ‘changed the world’: ‘More and more farmers are going over to organics… last year my buddleias were covered with Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, Commas and Peacocks.’ (5)
Where many liberal commentators and greens seem unable to face up to the fact that Carson was plain wrong about DDT causing cancer in humans, some on the right blame Carson for the rise of anti-science and anti-progress trends across society. Many right-leaning writers hold Carson responsible for millions of deaths by malaria. In Britain, James Delingpole argued in his book How to Be Right: The Essential Guide to Making Lefty Liberals History that ‘the poster girl of the eco movement [is] one of the twentieth century’s worst mass-murderers’. He claimed that Carson, ‘by effecting the ban on DDT’, deprived the developing world of ‘its most cost-effective control against mosquitoes, leading to millions of quite unnecessary deaths’ (6).
Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute in the US charges Carson with ‘genocide’ (7). One writer goes so far as to argue that Carson’s ideology ‘has led to more deaths than Stalin’s purges’ (8).
Both sides employ pure hyperbole and overlook the facts. Green supporters of Carson claim she ‘changed the world’ and conveniently ignore all the things she got so wrong about pesticides and chemicals. Right-wing critics of Carson also claim that she changed the world (but for the worse), and in their rush to blame Carson for malaria overlook all the other factors that contribute to the spread of disease in the developing world, such as dire poverty, underdevelopment, conflict and so on. Both sides overestimate Carson’s contribution to world history, and fail to interrogate the origins of today’s misanthropic outlook, of which Carson was merely one small part.
Forget the Culture Wars; these are the Carson Wars. And it is time we settled them once and for all.
Carson’s role in history
The mainstream view of Carson’s unique contribution to modern history – which is indulged both by her supporters and her critics – is so generous that it would embarrass Carlyle, the originator of the Great Men school of history.
Gore, for example, argues that Silent Spring ‘rank[s] among the rare books that have transformed our society’. In truth, Carson was by no means a lone voice or activist. Silent Spring opens with many acknowledgements to experts on environmental and public health matters. As Carson says in the book, concern about chemical pollution was on the rise among government scientists in America, Canada and the Netherlands, as well as among ‘conservationists and many wildlife biologists’ (p86), long before she put pen to paper (9). Carson herself records that:
- as early as 1950, the US Food and Drug Administration declared it extremely likely that the potential hazard of DDT to humans had been underestimated (p23);
- in 1960, specialists in the ecology of the soil met at Syracuse University to warn that ‘a few false moves on the part of man’ might result in the destruction of soil productivity and a takeover, of the soil, by arthropods – insects, crustaceans, arachnids and myriapods (p61);
- in 1961, Justice William O. Douglas published My Wilderness: East to Katahdin (Doubleday), in which he denounced the US Forest Service for the ecological destruction its spraying of the Bridger National Forest in Wyoming had brought about (pp67-68).
Carson’s footnotes are likewise studded not just with references to obscure academic warnings from the 1950s, but also with references to more public, mainstream complaints about pesticides and chemicals. Carson was not the pioneer many believe her to be, whether that be a pioneer of anti-pesticide campaigning or a pioneer of death and disease in Africa. Rather, she stood on the shoulders of a growing body of dissent from US capitalism. She took her lead from a broadening sense of disillusionment with progress and with man’s control of nature that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Carson did not change the world; rather her outlook was shaped by the changing world around her.
One of the most striking features of both liberal and conservative treatments of Carson is their refusal to place her within the wider cultural context of US self-doubt in what were the apogee years of the Cold War. This is strange considering that Carson clearly relates her concerns about chemicals to worries about radiation and nuclear weapons (pp6, 7, 8, 16, 44), as well as worries about what Dwight D Eisenhower, in his farewell speech as US president in 1960, had referred to as the military-industrial complex (pp 28, 69). You don’t have to be an historian or a sociologist to be able to situate Carson within the earliest expressions of the 1960s counterculture and the way in which it penetrated major parts of the US establishment. From the muckraking but bestselling journalist Vance Packard and his 1956 attack on advertising (The Hidden Persuaders) through to Thomas Kuhn and his 1962 attack on the idea of objective progress in science (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), Carson was part of a climate of intellectual disillusionment with what Cold War America had achieved; of disillusionment with consumption, and indeed with modernity and what was taken to be human nature.
If we are seriously considering the continuing impact, in 2007, of liberal American writers of the 1950s and early 1960s, then Carson must merely take her place alongside John Kenneth Galbraith’s attack on Americans’ dependence on consumer goods, The Affluent Society (1957); Ralph Nader’s 1959 anti-automotive article for The Nation, ‘The Safe Car You Can’t Buy’ (10); Jane Jacobs’s famous 1961 critique of US urban planners, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Hannah Arendt’s disturbing series of reports on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, published in the New Yorker in February and March 1963, shortly after Carson had written about chemicals in the same magazine; and Stanley Milgram’s equally disturbing report, in 1963, of his experiments on obedience to authority (11).
Even before the period 1960-63, which US diplomatic historian Michael R Beschloss has referred to as the ‘crisis years’ of Kennedy vs Krushchev, a certain revulsion toward modern American society had been setting in (12). In movies this was clear from John Ford’s searing epic on race, The Searchers (1956) and Douglas Sirk’s indictment of Texan oil, Written on the Wind (1957). It was clear from Alfred Hitchcock’s cynical take on Cold War spying (North by Northwest, 1959) and his journey to the heart of madness in America (Psycho, 1960). It was detectable in Stanley Kubrick’s coded critique of Empire (Spartacus, 1960), and it was unmistakable in Sam Fuller’s typically over-the-top critique of US business as a form of crime (Underworld, USA, 1961). Novelists also took their distance from US institutions. Joseph Heller trashed the US military (Catch 22, 1961); Mary McCarthy satirised classy graduates of Vassar University (The Group, 1963).
Meanwhile, building on Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1898), C Wright Mills, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Herbert Marcuse came to view US consumption as ‘a seduction, a form of captivity’ (13). Influenced by the Frankfurt School in philosophy, the New Left of the early 1960s questioned some of the basic principles of communism. One of those principles was support for new technology. In the eyes of the New Left, the all-embracing arms race between East and West showed that technology itself was not neutral. In One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse summed the argument up with the statement: ‘By virtue of the way it has organised its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian.’ (14) These intellectuals mobilised not against the capitalist elite’s politically motivated use of technology for destructive ends, but against particular technologies.
In late nineteenth-century America, Veblen had satirised what he called ‘conspicuous consumption’. During the Cold War and Vietnam years, a leftish critique of consumerism fused the populist traditions of the past with a new fear of Armageddon and distaste for particular technologies that were seen as sinister or inappropriate. In the process, the new leftish critics of modernity sold the progressive element of left-wing politics short: instead of calling for more production, they raised concerns about the impact of production on nature (often exaggerated); instead of celebrating the further distribution of wealth, they claimed that ‘stuff’ and advertising and all the rest of it made men into slaves, ‘captives’; instead of championing new technologies that might improve agricultural and industrial output and free up man’s time, they demonised new technologies as ‘totalitarian’.
Carson had not been a leftist; she was a marine biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Nevertheless, in Silent Spring she offered only a variant on other intellectual criticisms when she contended that, along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, man-made chemical contamination was ‘the central problem of our age’ - that, like radiation, it might ‘easily’ have been bringing about mutations of the human gene (in fact it hadn’t). And she shared with other writers and thinkers of the time a familiar, elite disdain for ‘suburbanites’, whom she accused of a willingness to spray ‘truly astonishing amounts of crabgrass killers to their lawns each year’ (p80).
Only those who ignore the output of certain intellectuals in the 1950s and early 1960s could see Carson as isolated, but nevertheless brave and outspoken. In truth, she was very much influenced by a new intellectual climate of disillusionment with progress and modernity. Where Carson might be described as a pioneer of sorts, however, is in the way she set out the stall of misanthropic thinking from which the politics of environmentalism, which is so widespread today, first emerged. For Carson, nature moved with a deliberate pace, taking hundreds of millions of years to adjust to radiation; man, by contrast, was impetuous and heedless (pp6,7). She argued that the 200 basic chemicals used in postwar pesticides are deployed in ‘man’s assaults upon the environment’, man’s ‘war against nature’, initiating a ‘chain of evil’ (pp6, 7, 9). Interactions between pesticides and other kinds of chemicals, or between pesticides and radiation, can bring dangers of unknown, unpredictable and uncontrollable scope, she claimed (pp32, 44).
Man, she argued, has forgotten his origins and was blind even to his most essential needs for survival. Insulted by man’s introduction of poisons, nature is, in Carson’s anthropomorphic and teleological conception of it, ‘striking back’ (pp39, 40, 56-57). Indeed, chapter 15 of her book is titled ‘Nature Fights Back’. She claimed that insects were becoming resistant to insecticides, and thus DDT and its relatives could be said to have ushered in ‘the true Age of Resistance’ (p264). And in an attempt to restore balance to its complex and permanent flux, nature resists man’s destruction of predators by multiplying prey into ‘a dark tide of enemies’ that may, without predators to kill them, ‘overrun’ mankind (p251). In short, Carson argued that insecticides have let loose ‘a whole Pandora’s box of destructive pests that had never previously been abundant enough to cause trouble’ (p252).
She went on to argue that the average person stores potentially harmful amounts of DDT, and ‘almost certainly’ starts life in the womb by absorbing it through the placenta (‘children are more susceptible to poisoning than adults’, she wrote). ‘There has been no such parallel situation in medical history. No one yet knows what the ultimate consequences may be.’ (pp22, 23) Not only did these claims about masses of people poisoned by pesticides and chemicals prove to be wrong; they also contain within them early expressions of both environmentalism and fear of an unknown future. In her portrayal of nature ‘resisting’ man, Carson expressed the idea that nature is the real driving force of history and that people are a kind of plague on the planet who would soon be kept in check by nature’s wrath. This has become a mainstream view today, in the environmentalist lobby’s claims that man’s actions are destroying the planet and that Gaia will eventually fight back with hurricanes and floods and new diseases. At the same time, Carson’s concern about the unknown ‘ultimate consequences’ of pesticide-use looks like an early formulation of the precautionary principle – the idea that we should refrain from experimenting in areas of medicine and science if we are not certain that the outcome will be safe.
Elsewhere, Carson articulated a defence of animal rights and biodiversity. In all these matters, and especially in her hostility to man’s works and to the suburban masses, Carson indeed wrote much of the book for modern environmentalism: she was one of the first to articulate the exaggerated and unfounded fears and the anti-human, anti-development sentiments that underpin the politics of environmentalism today. That is one thing she should certainly be held to account for, and we can see clearly that it emerges, not from one woman’s mind, but from an intellectual climate of doubt and uncertainty in the mid-twentieth century.
However, let us not claim that Carson single-handedly nurtured the rise of disease, and especially malaria, in the developing world. That is to overlook the way in which uneven development and new emerging ideas about nature and progress have conspired to keep communities in the Third World poor and very often diseased.
Overestimating Carson’s impact
Carson’s supporters view her in isolation from the intellectual trends of the 1950s and early 1960s. So according to Gore, she was ‘writing against the grain of an orthodoxy rooted in the earliest days of the scientific revolution: that man (and of course this meant the male of our species) was properly the center and the master of all things’. Carson is eulogised as a single adoptive mother whose lethal cancer (she died of breast cancer in 1964) might even have been induced by toxic chemicals; a revolutionary woman whom the chauvinist moneyed lobbyists of Big Chemical tried to suppress as ‘hysterical’; a woman who, early on and rightly, had attacked the way US politics was afflicted by the ‘twin contaminations of special-interest money and influence’.
Here Carson is a lone, oppressed, tragically ill female exposer of rapacious corporations and their male lobbyists on Capitol Hill. It is a view that is contemporary, heroic, therapeutic… and facile. Carson indeed prompted the censoring wrath of capitalist corporations (only the naïve could be surprised that corporations would behave in such a manner); but when she serialised Silent Spring she was already an award-winning full-time writer. The New Yorker acclaimed her, and so did millions of readers. President John F Kennedy himself also gave Carson a kind of endorsement: he told his Science Advisory Committee to give its verdict on the problems discussed in Silent Spring.
On the flipside, Carson’s critics see her as a lone destroyer - particularly of public health in the developing world. On the rightist American website FrontPageMagazine, the slaughter of millions of children and pregnant women is laid at Carson’s doorstep: it is claimed that her attack on DDT, and the subsequent banning of DDT, is single-handedly responsible for malaria in Africa and elsewhere. Even the undoubted role of powerful forces in standing in the way of development in the developing world is seen as springing from Carson’s book.
FrontPageMagazine argues that ‘her coterie of admirers at the UN and environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund have managed to bring malaria and typhus back to sub-Saharan Africa with a vengeance’ (15). So even when the UN is held up to ridicule for its role in the South, it is seen as being beholden to Rachel Carson. This takes the Great Men (and women) view of history to a ridiculous level.
In many ways, Carson is being scapegoated for the inability of capitalist society to provide for every man and woman – and often by individuals on the right of the political spectrum. whose own policies and actions have done much to hold back development overseas. The right knows that environmental destruction is a necessary feature of the anarchy of capitalism. It knows that Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Mutually Assured Destruction – all of which were milestones during the years in which Carson gathered data for Silent Spring, with two of her main concerns being radiation and nuclear destruction - are nothing to celebrate. It knows that its own contribution to development in the Third World is far from admirable; some on the Republican right in America who describe Carson as a ‘mass murderer’ and a ‘genocidaire’ have been supporters of various bombings and invasions and coups in the developing world over the past 30 years. It seems some would rather scapegoat Carson, and the ban on DDT that her work gave rise to, than face up to bigger structural problems in the organisation of society.
Thus, the Carson Wars obscure the issues, and divert us away from the debates we really should be having. Consider the clash over whether DDT is bad for the Third World (as argued by Carson’s fact-ignoring supporters) or whether DDT will save the Third World (as many anti-Carson activists claim). In truth, while DDT would no doubt be extremely helpful for African, Asian and Latin American communities in the short term, spraying the interiors of mud huts with DDT is never going to develop Third World economies and Third World health with the speed that these things deserve. Only industrialisation, irrigation and sanitation can do that, and finally do away with malaria in that part of the world. The obsession with Carson’s legacy means that meaningful debates about developing the Third World are not even on the table.
Carson did not change the world, but she did pave the way for the environmentalist ethos, which is now widespread amongst governments, international institutions, the media and radical activists. If anything, though, today’s Carson fans are even more pessimistic about technology than she ever was. Carson anticipated today’s carbonista arguments by observing: ‘Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.’ And yet, ‘It is not my contention’, she wrote, ‘that chemical insecticides must never be used’ (p12). While she ended her book with the view that control of nature was a ‘phrase conceived in arrogance’, she also looked forward to a future in which insects could be safely sterilised by chemicals, attracted or poisoned by synthetic means, and so on.
Distaste for and distrust of humanity’s achievements, both chemical and nuclear: that is what Carson both reflected from her times and deepened on her own account. Today her followers take such views to still lower depths, while her detractors throw up mud to cover up their own loss of confidence in capitalism. Humanity is left none the wiser by these Carson Wars. An approach to humanity and nature that avoids the errors of both Carson’s followers and detractors: now that would do the whole world a favour.
James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. Visit his website here.
(1) Top 100 eco-heroes as voted by their peers, Environment Agency, 29 October 2006
(2) The Woman who made a difference by Richard Morrison, The Times (London), 16 May 2007
(3) See the introductory text by Al Gore
(5) Margaret Reynolds in The Times (London), 19 May 2007
(6) See How to Be Right: The Essential Guide to Making Lefty Liberals History, by James Delingpole, Headline Review (2007)
(7) Rachel Carson’s Genocide in Capitalism Magazine, May 2007; Rethinking DDT, Fox News, 20 June 2002
(8) Rachel Carson – deadlier than Stalin?, The First Post, 29 May 2007
(9) All page references are to the 1962 Houghton Mifflin edition.
(10) See 50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed To Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism by Mickey Z, The Disinformation Company (2005). It is cited in the Wikipedia entry for Ralph Nader
(11) See Behavioral study of obedience
(12) The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-1963 by Michael R. Beschloss (1961), HarperPerennial (1962). The early and rapid development of US radicalism, even before 1960, is a theme in ‘Coming Apart: An Informal History Of America In the 1960s’ by William L, O’Neill (1971), Times Books, US (1988), and in ‘Berkeley at war: the 1960s’ by W J, Rorabaugh (1989), Oxford University Press (2002).
(13) The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 by Richard Wightman Fox and T J Jackson Lears, Pantheon Books (1983)
(14) See p.5 of One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse (1964), Routledge, (2002)
(15) Rachel Carson’s Ecological Genocide, FrontPageMagazine, 31 July 2003