Sunday, May 27, 2007


Rachel Carson would be 100 today, but don’t look for Congress to recognize her centenary or her contribution to our world: a bill that would have done just that is currently being blocked by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R.)

Coburn’s opposition rests on his assertion that Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring – which his website tellingly mis-identifies as The Silent Spring -- was based on “junk science” that turned the world against DDT, condemning tens of millions of people – many of them children – to death from malaria.

Coburn’s hardly alone in vilifying Carson, and using malaria deaths to do so. There’s been a large measure of such vilification, including plenty from Rush Limbaugh, whose loathing of the environmentalist movement which, in many ways Silent Spring catalyzed if not actually inaugurated, is all-but constant.

Tens of millions of deaths and the wholesale banning of DDT and other “benevolent” chemicals, all placed upon the shoulders of this thoughtful, graceful writer and thinker.

Whose crime was – what? The raising of consciousness, that’s what.

Despite the blogs and blasts and blather about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring bearing the responsibility for banning DDT and killing those tens of millions of humans, what she actually did was far less draconian – and far more subversive. She raised questions which in turn raised consciousness. She asked us to think.

Carson, it shouldn’t have to be pointed out, had no power to legislate or ban anything. She was a writer – nor did she in that role advocate or encourage the wholesale banning of DDT. Rather, she advocated for a more critical, careful, thoughtful, and research-based approach to the use of broad-kill pesticides in specific and our relationship to nature in general.

Such an argument, of course, requires thought on both sides. Understanding such an argument requires a careful reading of Carson’s book, as any serious book calls for care in its consumption. She was alarmed by trends that she found both in nature and in the scientific literature that had surrounded DDT for a decade and more before she wrote Silent Spring

And what’s all-but forgotten is that there was a time, not all that long ago, when a book—a book, one that you had to read! – could launch a debate, create a movement or, considering the four decades’ worth of Carson-bashing, both a movement and a counter-movement – but it could, at least back in the earlier days of television’s assault on our ability to read, which is to say our ability to think.

That ability itself seems an increasingly endangered species on, it must be admitted, both sides of the argument; on, it must be also admitted, all sides of every argument these days: all chemicals are bad versus all environmentalists are “wackos” (Limbaugh’s word not mine.)

That’s too easy on each side – and that’s why irrational invective has grown so pervasive. Harder to think – and even harder to think seriously.

As Rachel Carson did. Here’s what she had to say in one of the closing paragraphs of Silent Spring:

“Through all these new, imaginative, and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures there runs a constant theme, the awareness that we are dealing with life – with living populations and all their pressures and counterpressures, their surges and recessions. Only by taking account of such forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves.”

Sound wild-eyed and fanatical to you? Me, either.

Happy hundredth, Rachel Carson – we’re all the better, despite our every effort not to be, for your presence here, and so is our world.