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Rachel Carson and the Fight Against Indiscriminate Pesticide Use Essay

In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson details the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use, which had “already silenced the voice of spring in countless towns in America” (Carson (1962) page 3). ‘Miss Carson,’ as many of her detractors referred to her, received ridicule from academics, industry leaders and professional journals for over a decade. Years after her death, conservative and libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute attacked her and the apparent successes for environmentalism in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the ban of DDT to provide an example of a ‘failed’ government program. Rachel Carson revealed the dangers imposed by indiscriminate pesticide use in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Although Carson used DDT as her focus, the chemical was an example of the numerous synthesized pesticides employed in many aspects of mankind’s daily lives.

As a biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson was alerted to the “numerous case reports of damage to birds and fish after DDT application” and believed that “because DDT was so effective, it unbalanced ecosystems” (Oreskes (2010) page 219). Carson expanded her research and eventually published her revealing book to alert the public and bring an end to indiscriminate use. The book made numerous claims against pesticides, illustrated the destruction caused by prior use and warned of a future in which “over increasingly large areas… spring comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song” (Carson (1962) page 88).

These “elixers of death,” she warned, are less insecticides as they are “biocides” (Carson (1962) pages 15, 8), infiltrating water supplies, food supplies and organisms from the bald eagle to man. “If [Silent Spring] stimulated the public to press for unwise and ill-conceived restrictions on the production, use or development of new chemicals, it will be the consumer who suffers.”

Dr. William Darby, 1962

Heralded as one of the most influential books in the environmental movement, Carson’s writing was less scientific and more thought provoking. Her often-extreme word choices and diction provided a sense of urgency for some, but drew many detractors. Doctor William Darby, a Professor of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University, reviewed Silent Spring shortly after its publishing. According to Darby, the “dramatic description[s]” were simply a ploy to mask other scientific findings are mislead the public (Darby (1962)). Darby accused Carson of “name-drops by quoting or referring to renowned scientists out of context… [leading] the reader to conclude that the authority mentioned is in accord with the author’s position” (Darby (1962)). To further refute her claims, Darby refers to her as “Miss Carson” throughout his essay. This treatment of certainly harmed, or was an attempt to harm, her credibility in the scientific field.

He continues “her ignorance or biases on some of the considerations throw doubt on her competence to judge policy” (Darby (1962)). Darby stated that “if it stimulated the public to press for unwise and ill-conceived restrictions on the production, use or development of new chemicals, it will be the consumer who suffers.” Here was an academic, in the field of biochemistry, blatantly denouncing Carson and her conclusions. In The Chemicals Around Us, a viewpoint published in Chemical Weekly in July 1962, Carson was referred to as a “crank” and that her writing style was more indicative of “a lawyer preparing a brief” (Chemical Weekly (1962)). Obviously a somewhat biased publication, the article continued to claim that although “her facts are correct, her conclusions less certain, and her innuendos misleading… such a public be damned attitude was outmoded some years ago and… too many people are watching.”

The phrase, “too many people are watching” referred to the chemical industry and pro-chemical government, implying that despite her efforts, they would fight back against such erroneous claims with ease. Carson’s detractors were not publishing this information against her for publicity, but were concerned. They were not concerned about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, but rather the ability of public outrage and the future of the chemicals industry. By attacking Carson’s conclusions and writing style, they could distract from the dangerous scientific findings. Facing harsh criticism, Carson’s urgent push for policy against indiscriminate pesticide use seemed to stall. When President Kennedy tasked the President’s Science Advisory Committee with investigating the claims, a new hope emerged. Although the committee did not back or deny Carson’s claims, they lay the burden of proof “on those who argued that persistent pesticides were safe” (Oreskes (2010) page 222).

The paradigm shifted against the chemical industry. The findings established that the industry itself was tasked with proving the pesticides used were not a danger to human health or the environment, “explicitly invoking the standard of reasonable doubt,” rather than those against indiscriminate use proving pesticides were a danger (Oreskes (2010) pages 220-224). According to Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, “the legal phrase reasonable doubt suggests that they were guided by existing legal frameworks… to demonstrate the safety of their products,” and that “manufacturers had not demonstrated the safety of DDT, and reasonable people now had reason to doubt it” (Oreskes (2010) page 222). It took two more Presidential Administrations before President Nixon authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and in 1972, the ban on the use of DDT in the United States.

The environmental movement, the work done by Rachel Carson, the President’s Science Advisory Committee, numerous scientists and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and banning of DDT was often heralded as a true governmental policy success story. Not until the early 2000s did the evidence exist that DDT was in fact harmful to humans, and a dangerous carcinogen (Oreskes (2010) page 229). For three decades, the establishment of the EPA was used as an example to follow for the creation of new social, economic and environmental policies. As conservative and libertarian think tanks in the mid 1990s were facing new policies and government regulation conflicting with their ideals, a new strategy for combat emerged. By slandering Carson, “freemarketeers realized [they] could strengthen the argument against regulation in general. (Oreskes (2010) page 218).

To argue against regulation, they would destroy the main example of successful policy and regulation: the establishment of the EPA and banning of DDT. In the late 1990s, groups such as the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute renewed the attacks on Rachel Carson and the “junk-science”—scientific findings that could not be explained under the free-market system—that led to the ban of DDT in the United States. These think tanks, backed monetarily by Philip Morris and other corporation, “organized off-the record briefings [with members of Congress], wrote and placed op-ed pieces, and organized radio interviews” (Oreskes, (2010) page 234). The Heartland Institute, focused on “free-market solutions to social and economic problems… insist[ed] that some one million…lives could be saved annually” in developing countries around the world through the use of DDT (Oreskes (2010) page 233).

There were even claims that her “false alarm” about pesticides led to the death of millions, making her “worse than Hitler” (Oreskes (2010) page 217). By destroying Carson’s reputation at the expense of key facts and scientific findings, these groups were changing history. “Orwell understood that those in power will always seek to control history, because whoever controls the past controls the present” (Oreskes (2010) page 238). Conservative and Libertarian think tanks believed they could control history to derail the progress of regulatory authority in the United States. In the forward to Silent Spring, Carson quotes Albert Schweitzer, “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall, He will end by destroying the earth” (Carson (1962) Forward).

According to Carson, “it took hundreds of millions of years for life to produce the life that now inhabits the earth… [and] to adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s, it would require not merely the years of a man’s life but he life of generations” (Carson (1962) page 7). Rachel Carson believed indiscriminate pesticide use and the continued development of synthetic chemicals would devastate our planet in a way that would require generations for the environment to reach equilibrium.

E. B. White, an American essayist once wrote, “I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival is we accommodated ourselves to the planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially” (Carson (1962) Forward). By allowing the leaders of this nation to be manipulated by groups controlling history, we failed not only Rachel Carson, but ourselves, our environment and our future.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co,
1962. (Carson (1962))

“The Chemicals Around Us.” Viewpoint, Chemical Weekly. July 14, 1962: 5. (Chemical Weekly (1962))

Darby, William J. Text from Jukes, Thomas, 1962. “A Town in Harmony.” Chemical & Engineering News (Aug 18): 5.
(Darby (1962))

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. “Chapter 7: Denial Rides Again.” Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. (Oreskes (2010))


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