Smearing Rachel Carson

Photo illustration/US Fish & Wildlife Service

To many, Rachel Carson, who was born 101 years ago on Tuesday, is a hero. Her 1962 book, "Silent Spring," considered a cornerstone of modern environmentalism, earned her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes itself as no less than "the extended shadow of Rachel Carson," and her name graces a number of conservation areas, schools, and environmental prizes.

To others, however, she is responsible for more deaths than Hitler. They blame "Silent Spring" as responsible for a ban on DDT that has left millions vulnerable to malaria. Here's an excerpt from a 2003 article from FrontPage magazine, titled, "Rachel Carson's Ecological Genocide."

A pandemic is slaughtering millions, mostly children and pregnant women – one child every 15 seconds; 3 million people annually; and over 100 million people since 1972 – but there are no protestors [sic] clogging the streets or media stories about this tragedy. These deaths can be laid at the doorstep of author Rachel's Carson. Her 1962 bestselling book Silent Spring detailed the alleged "dangers" of the pesticide DDT, which had practically eliminated malaria. Within ten years, the environmentalist movement had convinced the powers that be to outlaw DDT. Denied the use of this cheap, safe and effective pesticide, millions of people – mostly poor Africans – have died due to the environmentalist dogma propounded by Carson's book. Her coterie of admirers at the U.N. 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.

FrontPage is not alone in blaming the deaths of millions on the Pennsylvania-born wildlife biologist. Capitalism Magazine, also using the word "genocide" to describe Carson's actions, claims that her case against the pesticide is "nonexistent," and that she would sooner sought to "accommodate" malaria than eradicate it. Last year, on the centennial of Carson's birth, The National Review, Reason, the Examiner, and The Wall Street Journal all ran commentaries disputing the scientific basis of her findings that DDT is harmful to humans and wildlife, and claiming that she ignored the benefits of the pesticide. Steve Milloy, Fox News's "Junk Science" commentator, maintains The Malaria Clock: A Green Eco-Imperialist Legacy of Death, which keeps a running tally of those who have died of malaria worldwide since the United States banned DDT in 1972.

Leading the charge against Carson is the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank "dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government." The CEI maintains a site called "Rachel Was Wrong," whose homepage reads, "[T]oday millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson." The site displays images of malaria's victims, mostly Ugandan children.

If these outlets are to be believed, Rachel Carson should be placed in the same category as Stalin and Pol Pot (indeed, a reprint of the FrontPage article on Free Republic does just that). But fortunately for Carson's legacy, her detractors all overlook some crucial evidence exonerating her from the genocide rap. In fact, they're so important, I'll put them in bold:

'Silent Spring' never actually called for a ban on DDT. I'm not saying Carson was a fan of the stuff, but she didn't say that its use should be completely prohibited. Instead she favorably quotes a Dutch biologist who says "Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of your capacity' ... Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible."

DDT was never banned for use against malaria. You'd think all of her critics would have mentioned this, but no. Both the 1972 ban in the United States and the 2001 Stockholm Convention allow the pesticide for use in controlling insect-borne diseases. According to the New Scientist, each year about 1,000 tons of DDT are still released worldwide.
Overuse of DDT makes insects resistant. Rachel Carson put it best when she wrote in "Silent Spring":

No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story – the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.

She was right. Already by 1972, when the US ban went into effect, 19 species of mosquitoes thought to transmit malaria were resistant to DDT. Had DDT not been banned, it is likely that there would be many, many more such species. To the extent that DDT works today, we have Rachel Carson to thank.

DDT isn't always the best way to fight malaria. In 1991, Vietnam switched from a DDT-based campaign to one focusing on rapid treatment, mosquito nets, and a different type of insecticide. The World Health Organization reports that malaria fatalities dropped by 97 percent. Similar methods have reduced fatalities by 50 percent in Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Reasonable people can disagree over how much of a toxic chemical is appropriate for trying to prevent a horrible disease. But if you're going to have a reasonable debate, then you need to acknowledge all the facts.

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