Friday, September 28, 2012

From The Climate Policy Network

Silent Spring at 50
The False Alarm of Rachel Carson 

Silent Spring Book-of-the-Month-Club edition.JPG 
 This week Silent Spring will turn 50. Rachel Carson’s jeremiad against pesticides is credited by many as launching the modern environmentalist movement, and the author, who died in 1964, is being widely lauded for her efforts. In Silent Spring, Carson crafted a passionate denunciation of modern technology that drives environmentalist ideology today. At its heart is this belief: Nature is beneficent, stable, and even a source of moral good; humanity is arrogant, heedless, and often the source of moral evil. --Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, October 2012

Did cancer doom ever arrive? No. In Silent Spring Carson cites data showing that American farmers were then applying about 637 million pounds of pesticides to their crops. The most recent Environmental Protection Agency estimate is that farmers used 1.1 billion pounds in 2007. What happened to cancer incidence rates? According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, age-adjusted incidence rates have been dropping for nearly two decades. Why? Largely because fewer Americans are smoking and lots of women stopped using hormone replacement therapy, which researchers have now concluded significantly increased the risk of breast cancer. --Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, October 2012

This iconic book, hardly scrutinized over the decades, substituted sensationalism for fact and apocalyptic pronouncements for genuine knowledge. Carson made little effort to provide a balanced perspective and consistently ignored key evidence that would have contradicted her work. Despite her reputation as a careful science- and fact-based writer, Carson produced a best-seller full of significant errors and sins of omission.  Carson vilified the use of DDT and other pest controls in agriculture but ignored their role in saving millions of lives worldwide from malaria, typhus, dysentery, among other diseases. Millions of deaths, and much greater human suffering, ultimately resulted from pesticide bans as part of disease-eradication campaigns. -- Roger Meiners,
Master Resource, 21 September 2012

 Carson produced a best-seller full of significant errors and sins of omission. Far from being on the verge of collapse, American bird populations were, by and large, increasing at the time of Silent Spring’s publication. Although Carson was active in the Audubon Society, she ignored Audubon’s annual bird count, which had long been the best single source on bird population. Instead she relied on anecdotes claiming bird population was collapsing. It is inconceivable that Carson did not know about the annual bird count–some of which occurred in the locations she asserted were in collapse. -- Roger Meiners, 
Master Resource, 21 September 2012

Rachel Carson's mentor and the source for much of her case that synthetic pesticides, and DDT in particular, were devastating bird life and causing widespread cancer in people, was a fervent denier of the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. His name was Wilhelm Hueper. An immigrant to the United States from Germany (who shook off an embarrassing but brief enthusiasm for Nazism that led him to seek a job back in Hitler's Germany) he became the first director of the environmental cancer section of the US National Cancer Institute. There he single-mindedly pursued the idea that cancer was on the increase and that the cause was largely synthetic chemicals in the environment. He encountered resistance, however, and not just from the chemical industry. Medical scientists were growing convinced that the rise of lung cancer was being caused by a rise in smoking. Hueper would have none of it. –-Matt Ridley, The Spectator, 20 September 2012 

 Dr. Baldwin led a committee at the National Academy of Sciences studying the impact of pesticides on wildlife. In his review, he praised Ms. Carsons’s literary skills and her desire to protect nature. But, he wrote, “Mankind has been engaged in the process of upsetting the balance of nature since the dawn of civilization.” While Ms. Carson imagined life in harmony before DDT, Dr. Baldwin saw that civilization depended on farmers and doctors fighting “an unrelenting war” against insects, parasites and disease. He complained that “Silent Spring” was not a scientific balancing of costs and benefits but rather a “prosecuting attorney’s impassioned plea for action.” But scientists like him were no match for Ms. Carson’s rhetoric. DDT became taboo even though there wasn’t evidence that it was carcinogenic (and subsequent studies repeatedly failed to prove harm to humans). -- John Tierney,
The New York Times, 5 June 2007

A half-century ago this summer, Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring began to appear in serialized form in The New Yorker, instilling an awareness of environmental impacts in the very fabric of our culture. Silent Spring now affects everything we do, buy, eat and wear. It has also shaped how we think about technology in general and pesticides in particular, seeing them at best as necessary evils. This legacy has yielded both good and bad results. The good is that Silent Spring inspired the creation of federal regulation that subjects pesticides and new technologies to strict scientific scrutiny before they can be commercialized and used. The bad is that the demonization of agricultural technology obscures the overwhelming environmental fact of our times, that such technology — even pesticides — has been an overwhelming good for the environment and human health. --Charlie Stenholm and John Block,
USA Today, 27 September 2012

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