Silent Alarmism: A Centennial We Could Do Without
Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, the 1962 book that launched the modern environmental movement, was born a century ago this week, and it is no wonder that green activists are celebrating her legacy. She practically invented the environmental alarmist strategy that has been so successful in pushing a radical environmental agenda. (I won’t go into Carson’s contribution to the ongoing malaria epidemic in many poor countries owing to her demonization of DDT; for more on that, see here, here, and here.) Her paradigm has been disastrous for rational political discourse. It is a template for bypassing debate and ignoring consequences. Here’s how it works.
First, identify your cause and the laws you want to see enacted. In the environmentalist’s blinkered view of the world, everything is connected linearly, not in the multifaceted manner of the real world. Therefore, in the greens’ view, the removal of a problem will not cause other, unforeseen, problems. For Carson, the problem was the impact of pesticides on bird life; the elimination of pesticides would solve that problem. No other considerations—such as the impact DDT restrictions had on malaria control—could be allowed to come into play. A modern example of this idea is the notion that fossil fuels can be removed from the energy supply to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions without adverse consequences.
Second, create an apocalyptic scenario. The whole point of Carson’s Silent Spring, embodied in the title, was to paint a picture of a world without avian life — that is, a world without birdsong. This simple, evocative message horrified readers, shocking them on a visceral level. Environmentalist-stoked fears about “Frankenfoods” resulting from out-of-control biotechnology follow this model.
Third, claim there’s a threat to children. For those unmoved by fears of a birdless world, this should suffice. Carson said in her book that, “A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease.” Her statistics were misleading — the actual rate of cancer among children is unchanged since the 1900s, but cancer’s incidence relative to other diseases has increased as medical technology has vanquished many of those other diseases
Fourth, don the mantle of science and dismiss any evidence that contradicts your position. Carson used statistics and scientific data to provide a seemingly empirical basis for her alarmist claims. The spin continued even when the EPA’s own scientists concluded that, “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man...DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man...The use of DDT under the regulations involved here [does] not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.” Yet evidence doesn’t matter; the authority of claiming to represent science “proves” that action is needed. Even hotly disputed scientific claims, such as those concerning the effects of endocrine disruptors (substances that can disrupt the production of certain human hormones) on human health, can provide a seemingly invincible case when asserted in the right way.
Fifth, use the previous three steps to create a clamor that rules out rational debate. With a potential catastrophe, a threat to the innocent, and a ream of supposedly empirical data on your side, you have a recipe for urgent action—though one based on emotion and uncritical acceptance of assertion. Public policy is not (nor should it be) a rational process—emotion and acceptance of authority often drive it—so in recognition of that, modern democracies have created checks and balances. Yet, as the case of DDT shows, the alarmist model can often overcome these checks. If you can also destroy the credibility of your political opponents through ad hominem attacks, so much the better.
Finally, once your measures have been adopted, defend them ruthlessly. The alarmist model relies on its successes being unassailable. Critical examination threatens to reveal that measures advanced by alarmists may be unwarranted, ineffective and, in many cases, positively harmful. Once one such measure is repealed, people may think twice about passing more like it.
The world may finally be waking up to the unintended consequences of restrictions on pesticide use—though not in time to prevent millions of unnecessary deaths. The World Health Organization has called on environmentalists “to help save African babies as you are helping to save the environment” and endorsed increased use of DDT to fight malaria. Now people need to wake up to the harm caused to the political process by Rachel Carson’s other legacy, the paradigm of alarmism.