Rachel Carson: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
—Rachel Carson

In honour of International Women’s Day approaching on March 8th, today I wanted to honour Rachel Carson. It is almost 55 years since the publication of her seminal book “Silent Spring” where she expressed concern about the haphazard use of pesticides—particularly DDT—without looking into them more thoroughly. She argued that we needed to understand the impact of pesticides on ecosystems and on the health of living creatures, including us. Her book is often heralded as what helped launch the environmental movement and she had (and still has) many fans all over the world. One important individual who took notice of her message was none other than President John F. Kennedy who subsequently asked his Science Advisory Council to launch an investigation into the safety of the use of DDT as a result of reading Carson’s book. (DDT was eventually banned in the US in 1972.)

Carson helped people realize that we need regulatory bodies, and that big business can’t do what it wants without confirming the safety of those actions, largely because big business is often motivated more by profits than by what’s in the best interest of the general public. Organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration are examples of precisely the type of regulatory bodies Carson argued for, and that the current Administration appears poised to dismantle.

It makes sense that we need clean water and clean air, and we can’t rely on the forces that drive the free market to maintain those for us. We obviously can’t let companies dump toxic waste in rivers simply because that’s the cheapest option for them. And we shouldn’t let factories dump tonnes of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere without paying some sort of price for that pollution either.

Of course, toxins like DDT aren’t necessarily something that should be banned outright. As many scientists will point out, the toxicity is in the dose, not the molecule. Many products that some environmental groups want completely banned aren’t unsafe in the small amounts we’re exposed to, and what scientific inquiry needs to do is to determine precisely what those thresholds for safety are, and ensure that society conforms to them.

Even DDT has a role to play in the world to this day. Although here in North America it makes sense to look for alternatives to DDT that are more selective and less toxic to animals and human beings, and that don’t linger around in the environment as long. But DDT is an extremely important component in fighting malaria in both Asia and Africa, and without its availability as a pesticide in those continents, millions of lives would be at greater risk.

Rachel Carson faced a lot of criticism as a result of her book, much of it coming after her death. (She died from breast cancer in 1964.) Some described her as nothing more than a hysterical woman, and many companies that manufactured pesticides began a smear campaign, trying to discredit both her and the research she described. Many people still blame her for any subsequent problems that resulted from the banning of pesticides. In 2004 for example, Michael Crichton had one of the characters in his novel “State of Fear” offer this little tidbit: “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler.” Although it was only a bit of dialogue from a story of fiction, Crichton made it clear in future interviews that he believed the statement.

To be totally fair to Rachel Carson—and I believe she deserves nothing less—she didn’t advocate the complete banning of pesticides. I’ve read her book: if you look carefully in it, she simply wanted to make sure we made proper decisions about safely using them. In her own words:

It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge.

After “Silent Spring” came out, the modern environmental movement was born. As with most things in life, such principles as those she expressed can be taken to an extreme, leading some overzealous groups to advocate for complete bans rather than proper study and regulation. Nuclear energy, managed forestry, aquaculture, genetically modified foods and industrial farming are just some of the many environmental issues that have some people arguing against them 100 percent, despite the fact that they all have a role to play in the modern world.

I expect that if Rachel Carson were alive today, she would have something to say about greenhouse gas emissions and the threat they pose to our society. And I’m sure her comments would be as poignant and as tempered as they were more than a half century ago. Perhaps we should all strive to be so eloquent in our own efforts to help save the planet.

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