April 23, 2007

Comments by Moderator Tom Dunlap

The Last Chapters
This part of the book upset many people, for here Carson argued that the "conquest of nature" was a futile exercise and a dangerous delusion. To a post-war generation raised on the wonders of modern science and dreams of a high-tech future, this was heresy of the worst sort. Injured pride accounted for some of the reaction--economic entomologists saw themselves as part of the vanguard of Progress and the hope of the world for recommending DDT--but injured ideology for much more. Carson offended against the dream of a triumphant humanity, doing as it wished. Worse, she used science to argue for her view.

She did not, please note, reject insect control or even technology, as some of her more heated critics argued. She praised Edward Knipling's high-tech project of eradicating screw worm flies by releasing millions of male flies sterilized by radiation. She rejected our control of nature. Critics saw that as a radical rejection of science, but that shill for science, Francis Bacon, said, in the seventeenth century, that "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed," and while moderns fastened on the "command," obedience came first. Bacon's position meant that nature placed limits on what we did, but limits were the last thing post-war Americans wanted to discover.

Some environmentalists seized on Carson's prescriptions to argue that ecology would lead us into the Earthly Paradise of harmony with nature. While that would be an improvement over the one promised in the ads--the Earthly Paradise of Consumer Goods--Carson had a different message: of humility in the face of forces larger and older than humans. On that see her article, "Help Your Child to Wonder," and the book that followed, The Sense of Wonder. [to be discussed in November.


Norma said...

Rachel Carson's work has caused the death of more Africans than the Atlantic slave trade. Why are you glorifying her? Are women heroines so scarce? No one died from DDT, but millions die from malaria.

Ellen said...

Rachel Carson mentioned insect sterilization in Silent Spring. Anyone know how that bio-technology has progressed in the past 40 years?

Mark Madison said...


Thanks for your comment. I suspect your comment was so concise and strongly worded that people were hesitant to reply, but I will wade in.

This claim about Rachel Carson causing the death of many people in the developing world recurs every year or so both in American newpapers and overseas in the developing world. Of course the situation is more complex. When I lived in the Philippines DDT and its related insecticides were still used in individual houses, as it still is in parts of Africa. To blame Carson for malarial deaths really does a disservice to her claims in Silent Spring. Carson was mostly concerned about indiscriminate use of pesticides in the U.S.--(e.g., spraying schoolyards or picnic grounds). She did not oppose all use of pesticides nor did she oppose using them in certain critical situations.

To refer back to Tom Dunlap's earlier point about historical context, Carson was writing in an era when pesticides were treated as a panacea for all insect ills. She helped balance that view and we are still engaged in an ongoing dialogue to find that balance.

Bernie said...

Norma, your comment is one that often comes up in the pesticide-use debate especially since the recent U.N. recommendation to reintroduce DDT in the fight against malaria. And while I don't agree that Rachel Carson's work caused the death of Africans, I do think your point bears looking into. I'd like to offer a couple of references that directly address this issue.

One source of information is on the USFWS Contaminants program website: http://www.fws.gov/contaminants/Info/DDT.cfm There is a section titled: "Common Myths about Rachel Carson and DDT." Another good source of information is at: http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/carson/berenbaum.htm in an essay by a science professor, May Berenbaum, at the University of Illinois. The research continues as technological advances allow us to learn more and more.

Rachel Carson was not an alarmist. You could say that what Rachel Carson's work did was to open a door of awareness.

Anonymous said...

The internet is a terrific source of information, but it also contains much disinformation. A case in point is the view expressed by Norma that millions of deaths have occurred in the tropics from malaria because DDT has been banned in the U.S. DDT has been banned in the U.S. for general use, but it is still available for use and distribution overseas. In fact, it could be used in this country should a public health emergency arise. However, the modern day opponents of Rachel Carson offer a one-dimensional argument. They do not acknowledge that the widespread use of DDT could result in the resistance of mosquitoes to the insecticide. DDT is not the only insecticide available for malaria prevention. There are others in use, but they must be used in a timely and rational manner. (There are some exciting vaccines on the horizon for the medical prevention of malaria that bypass vector control.)

julie said...

Fascinating point about Bacon believing that nature puts limits on what humans can do. I think that the concept of limits is a key issue behind most environmental crises. So many seem to believe that any limitations on human actions threaten our species, culture, and country.

Yet as Aldo Leopold points out, civilized humans have always limited their actions toward other humans through ethics. Leopold sought to expand ethics into an ecological concept to mean "a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence."

As I understand Carson, she seemed to believe that a combination of reason and emotion would lead us to desist from environmental abuse. I prefer Leopold's explicit urging that we enlarge our ethical system to encompass the natural community we inhabit. Did Carson read A Sand County Almanac? I think she would have agreed with Leopold's eloquent definition of the land ethic that "changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it."

Bacon said, "The world is made for man, not man for the world," but Leopold's ethic tosses that dualistic view aside because humanity belongs inseparably to the world and must limit itself accordingly.

Phillip_h said...

I do not think that the environmental movement praises Carson as much as it does because of the fact that she is a woman and famous women are scarce in the environmental movement. There have been lots of great women in the environmental movement. Margaret Murie is an example, she is known to some as the "Grandmother of the Conservation Movement". She also helped protect Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960’s and helped start the Wilderness Act. Some others are Dorothy Stang and Lois Gibbs. There are lots of famous women in the environment movement; Carson is not the only one.
I think Carson is praised for the fact she is an excellent writer and scientist that helped light the flame for the modern environmental movement, not just for the fact she is a woman. And also it is the 100 year anniversary of Carson; she was born May 27, 1907.
I can see how your point of view in the malaria issue but I think Carson was not trying to ban all use of pesticides. Instead encouraging responsible managed use, with an understanding of the impact it has on the entire ecosystem, not just humans. So I do not think you can solely blame Carson and Silent Springs for the deaths in Africa. It is a complex topic but I also you need to take into account the time period when her work was published along with many other issues before putting the blaming on her for the malaria deaths in Africa.

Lisa said...

Several years ago a study by the the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the University of North Carolina and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that DDT likely contributed to premature births in the U.S. during the 1960s.

They are now looking to see if women in other areas of the world are experiencing the same problems.

Fortunately the amount of DDT used in fighting malaria now is far less than was used in the 1960s, but that is what Carson was educating Americans about -- that we should not have been recklessly using large quantities of a pesticide when we knew so little about its impact.

Her warnings should still be heeded today, and not sensationalized as a means of attacking one side of the political spectrum.

Tom Dunlap said...

Well, leave town for three days and the conversation certainly picks up.Thanks, all, for the comments, and in particular for the pleas for context. As an historian I am really interested in putting things in context.
On the DDT-malaria issue, I would recommend people look up (it should be somewhere on the internet) May Berenbaum's op-ed piece from the Washington Post in 2005: "If Malaria's the Problem, DDT is not the Only Answer."
I do not know if Carson read Leopold, who certainly was not widely popular in 1962, but what he said in "A Sand County Almanac" grew out of a tradition of thought that Carson shared. They must have read some of the same sources.

Suze O'Hanlon said...

Interestingly enough, April 24 was Africa Malaria Day in Africa, and yesterday, April 25, was the first-ever Malaria Awareness Day here in the U.S. The positive aspect of this is that the world is paying attention to the welfare of Africans. There are many scientists and organizations conducting research to find non-pesticide solutions to combat malaria even while the DDT debate carries on.

David Klinger said...

I'm interested in probing how craftily orchestrated recent Internet postings and talk radio diatribes may be regarding Rachel Carson's responsibility for the complete and total decline of human civilization ("Rachel Carson, greatest mass murderer since Josef Stalin," "Rachel Carson has caused the deaths of millions of Africans," etc., etc.). They are all too similar, too parallel in their assertions to be the product of rational, independent thought. I'm not so much concerned about the content of the anecdotal, unsubstantiated postings that are running rampant on the conservative wing of the Internet -- which can be authoritatively refuted with a reasoned examination of established scientific fact. I'm more interested in understanding why -- 45 years after Silent Spring was first published -- the writings of a modest, unassuming, classically-trained woman of science can continue to provoke such visceral rantings, especially since we have been granted the advantage of four decades' worth of historical hindsight to evaluate the excesses of government and agribusiness in the 1950s and 1960s. Has the Internet given us a tool for rational discourse on science ... or simply a more rarefied platform for disinformation and intentional obfuscation?

Poetry said...

4 June 2007

After the storm, my mind cleared.

And a high wind arose and blew the tropics north.

running quartz crystals through a blender.

sand through your engines.

bubbles in your bays.

estuaries reaching out toward forbidden seas...

sand through your eyes.

5 June 2007

Calm as baby's breath

as peaceful as the storm's eye

Clouds spread and drawn with rough strokes of stratospheric winds

a warm and windy tropical day.

7 June 2007

Black water at dusk.

Lighting on the horizon.

Warm winds coming in across the darkening waters.

A flash of white wings as an egret takes flight.

And Thunder like God clearing his throat.

8 June 2007

Morning star in the still of the clear, dark waters.

a sky as clear eyed as a young girl.

bruised and tattered storm remnants limp off in the gathering light.

9 June 2007

Tickled her fancy.

giggling all the day long.

pretty good for a Saturday.

Clouds on the lake floating aimlessly by.

She smiled big--grinned really.

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