Just over 100 years ago, on May 27th, 1907, Rachel Carson was born. Her book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, is considered by many to have launched the modern environmental movement. Inspired by concerns over misuse of the chemical DDT, the book had the specific effect of leading to the banning of DDT use in most of the world.
Just yesterday, in the New York Times, John Tierney wrote a column entitled “Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science,” referring to Rachel Carson and the impact of her book. Tierney’s observations are important to note in this larger context, because Carson’s impassioned prose has become the norm for environmental dialog, and this extends to countless environmental issues.
Tierney writes “the chemophobia inspired by Ms. Carson’s book has been harmful in various ways. The obsession with eliminating minute risks from synthetic chemicals has wasted vast sums of money: environmental experts complain that the billions spent cleaning up Superfund sites would be better spent on more serious dangers.”
We have opined on DDT in particular, and chemophobia in general, in two feature stories, “Bring Back DDT,” and “Chemophobia,” written by EcoWorld science correspondant Dr. Edward Wheeler. Scientific evidence does not support the notion that DDT, properly used, causes more harm than good. In fact, quite the opposite is true – to this day, no better and more effective measure to fight malaria has been found. Once DDT was banned, malaria returned to areas where it had been all but eliminated – and millions of people have died as a result.
The larger challenge worth examining on the centenary of Rachel Carson’s birth is that rational scientific inquiry is no match for emotional rhetoric. This comes as no surprise, of course, but the degree to which emotional rhetoric is overtaking issues where economics and environmental concerns intersect is becoming all-inclusive. A perfect example of this is the rush to develop biofuel in order to combat global warming. The practical result of this has been massive new rounds of tropical deforestation to develop biofuel plantations. This tropical deforestation, in turn, is undoubtedly contributing to droughts, extreme weather, and global warming. Read “When Green is Brown” or any of our posts in the categories “Biofuel” and “Global Warming.” Biofuel feels good for a variety of compelling emotional reasons, but in reality, clean and efficient use of petroleum is probably not as “brown” as biofuel eked from former tropical rainforests.
To the uninitiated, all of these points to ponder are mere nuances compared to the compelling emotional appeals that are, unfortunately, parroted unrelentingly by nearly every media pundit, public school teacher and politician in America. Even most scientists have now become frighteningly selective in the scope of what might still inspire scientific skepticism.
For these reasons, Rachel Carson’s legacy is mixed. Her powerful, emotional prose continues to captivate and inspire generations of concerned citizens. But policies based on emotional arguments are ripe for exploitation, and often entirely removed from what a rational environmentalist might really want.