Fifty Years Later: Rachel Carson Is Still Wrong

Back in 1996, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Jonathan Tolman authored an article entitled “Rachel Was Wrong,” in which he explained why biologist Rachel Carson mistakenly condemned chemicals — and pesticides in particular. This month marks the 50th anniversary of her in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which history shows is, in fact, still wrong.

Carson did make one reasonable plea for judicious use of pesticides, stating:

“All this is not to say that there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities, not mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with insects.”

Yet her harsh and unscientific rhetoric, rebuked in Science magazine at the time (“Chemicals and Pests,” I. L. Baldwin, September 28, 1962) about chemicals in general took policy in the opposite direction.

Ironically, while Carson called for policy based on reason over myths, she opened her book up with a “Fable for Tomorrow,” describing a town in which chemicals have destroyed wildlife and people die from chemical exposures. She admitted it doesn’t exist, but somehow we are supposed act on her myth because, “It might easily have a thousand counterparts in America.”

In her chapter on “Elixirs of Death” she postulates that man-made chemicals affect processes of the human body in “sinister and often deadly ways.” Regarding the pesticide DDT — which was then used to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes — she concluded that “the threat of chronic poisoning and degenerative changes of the liver and organs is very real.” Another chapter addresses cancer in which she says one expert “now gives DDT the definite rating of a chemical carcinogen.”

But her vision of a chemically caused cancer epidemic never came to pass. In fact, people are living longer and healthier lives, cancer rates have declined even as chemical use increased, and chemicals are not among the key causes of cancer.

Carson was particularly wrong about DDT. Humans were exposed to massive amounts of DDT without showing ill effect. Many scholars have well documented how Carson’s anti-DDT rhetoric contributed to malaria problems by encouraging many governments around the world to stop using it completely. Meanwhile, limited and targeted uses of DDT could have saved millions of lives. Unfortunately, malaria now kills more than a million people and makes hundreds of millions seriously ill annually, mostly children in the developing world. Groups like Africa Fighting Malaria have helped reverse some of these trends by encouraging targeted uses of DDT to save lives, but many children continue to die from malaria needlessly.

Today Carson’s legacy of misinformation lives on within the politically organized environmental movement. They oppose pesticide spraying to control deadly diseases like West Nile virus, and advocate “organic farming” using “natural chemicals,” even though there is little evidence that organic farming makes food any healthier.

It is also true that, despite green contentions, organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment, a topic I addressed this past spring in a presentation at the biannual meeting of the The International Center for Research on Environmental Issues (ICREI). Publication is forthcoming.

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