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October 05th 2009 print

J.F. Beck

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s magnum opus Silent Spring made her famous and a darling of the left. In making her case against DDT Carson constructs not a sturdy cornerstone of scientific truth but rather an elaborate tissue of exaggerations and lies.

Science Fiction masquerading as science 

Rachel Carson’s magnum opus Silent Spring – described on the back cover as “the cornerstone of modern environmentalism” – made her famous and a darling of the left. Silent Spring, first published in 1962, still sells briskly, currently ranked 1,187 in sales at Amazon – not bad for an almost 50 year-old book. It is, of course, required reading for university students and prospective friends of the environment. 

In making her case against DDT Carson constructs not a sturdy cornerstone of scientific truth but rather an elaborate tissue of exaggerations and lies. She could have persuasively argued that DDT’s persistence makes it unsuited to agricultural use. This simple, factually correct argument is not the stuff of which best-selling books are made, however. Better to confect the Silent Spring horror story. 

Carson’s introduction to chapter three (Elixirs of Death): 

For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. 

Several pages later upping the fear factor: 

All of this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War. In the course of developing agents of chemical warfare, some of the chemicals created in the laboratory were found to be lethal to insects.

The first synthetic insecticide on Carson’s list: DDT. As proof of DDT’s threat to human health Carson relies not on scientific studies but rather on anecdotal evidence, citing this improbable scenario: 

One [case history] concerned a house-wife who abhorred spiders. In mid-August she had gone into her basement with an aerosol spray containing DDT and petroleum distillate. She sprayed the entire basement thoroughly… As she finished the spraying she began to feel quite ill, with nausea and extreme anxiety and nervousness. Within the next few days she felt better, however, and apparently not suspecting the cause of her difficulty, she repeated the entire procedure in September, running through two more cycles of spraying, falling ill, recovering temporarily, spraying again. After the third use of the aerosol new symptoms developed: fever, pains in the joints and general malaise, acute phlebitis in one leg. When examined by Dr. Hargraves she was found to be suffering from acute leukemia. She died within the following month. 

All of this is nonsense. Humans have forever been “subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals”: literally thousands of dangerous chemicals are ubiquitous in nature – hydrogen cyanide, oxalic acid, carbon monoxide, lead, hydrogen sulphide, aflatoxin, the soup of toxins in smoke from fires for warmth and cooking, and many more natural nasties can cause illness or death. 

Contrary to Carson’s suggestion, no amount of DDT can cause leukemia or any other form of cancer to develop in a matter of months, if ever, and the chemical is not acutely toxic: no one is known to have died of DDT poisoning. The massive quantities of DDT dispersed into the environment caused no silent springs or cancer epidemics. 

Carson’s suggestion notwithstanding, DDT was not a product of World War II weapons research, having been first synthesised in 1874. The much more acutely toxic parathion, suggested as a suitable alternative upon the banning of DDT, is a close relative of the chemical warfare agents (so called nerve gases) sarin and VX, however. 

In any event, DDT and other commonly encountered synthetic pesticides are no more dangerous to the average human’s health than are the natural chemicals in our food, eminent cancer researcher Bruce Ames estimating that “99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer in laboratory rats. Cooking food also produces dangerous chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic and also found in tobacco smoke. 

According to Ames, a single cup of coffee contains more potential natural carcinogens than a human will consume of potentially carcinogenic synthetic pesticide residues in a year. This doesn’t mean that we should stop drinking coffee and eating fruits and vegetables in order to avoid the carcinogens they contain. 

The point is that the tiny amounts of the synthetic and natural chemicals we encounter continuously throughout our lives generally pose a vanishingly small threat to our health. Many on the left do not see it that way, Paul Ehrlich warning that DDT and related chemicals "may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945" predicting that American life expectancy could drop to the low 40s by 1980. With the chemical “threat” failing to materialize the left now tells us we must fear a new “threat” to our health: genetically engineered foods. 

Norman Borlaug, widely credited as the father of the Green Revolution, which saved upwards of a billion developing world lives, was contemptuous of anti-chemical “fear-provoking, irresponsible environmentalists”, publicly calling their efforts to ban DDT and other agricultural chemicals “vicious” and “hysterical”. Given that the modern environmental movement was built on Rachel Carson’s fear-provoking, irresponsible and at times hysterical cornerstone – Silent Spring – it’s only natural that the movement shares these characteristics. The viciousness? It’s the left’s traditional tool for silencing opposition. If that doesn’t work there’s always violence. 

J. F. Beck, a keen observer of the left, is a West Australian blogger.