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Killing Silent Spring

by Katrina Vanden Heuvel

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and a seminal figure for the modern environmental movement, would have turned one hundred this past Sunday. "Carson's book altered the nature of environmentalism," is how the Washington Post described her legacy. "Previously, it had been mainly about preserving and appreciating parks and other beautiful places. But Carson's message was that all of nature should be protected, for its own sake and because people eventually would suffer if it was degraded."

"What she said was, the Earth itself needs an advocate," said Patricia M. DeMarco, Executive Director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association.

But when Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland — where Carson was a longtime resident — tried to honor her with a Senate resolution it was blocked by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. "Rachel Carson has been an inspiration to a generation of environmentalists, scientists and biologists who made a difference and changed the irresponsible use of pesticides," Cardin said. "Honoring her 100th birthday should not be controversial. I wanted to share that with our country."

Indeed, Elizabeth Kolbert describes the magnitude of Carson's impact in The New Yorker, "As much as any book can, 'Silent Spring' changed the world by describing it. An immediate best-seller, the book launched the modern environmental movement, which, in turn, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of the Clean Air, the Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts, and the banning of a long list of pesticides, including dieldrin."

But in a released statement Coburn insisted, "[Silent Spring] was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT" which is used to fight malaria. Spokesman John Hart claims that the treatment of malaria was hindered by Carson's work: "…millions of people in the developing world died because the environmental movement, inspired by Rachel Carson, created a climate of fear and hysteria about DDT."

But those who have studied Carson's work know that it is Coburn who is reacting with unfounded hysteria. In a 1964 tribute/obituary in The New Yorker, E.B. White wrote that Carson "was not a fanatic or a cultist. She was not against chemicals per se. She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man...."

Linda Lear, a professor at George Washington University and a biographer of Carson, said Carson never called for a complete ban on DDT. "Carson was never against the use of DDT," Lear said. "She was against the misuse of DDT."

And Neal Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Audubon Naturalist Society in Maryland where Carson was a longtime board member, concurs with Lear. "Carson was not opposed to pesticide use — she was opposed to pesticide abuse," Fitzpatrick says. "And Coburn obviously never read Silent Spring. It's filled with examples of broad spraying of chemical poisons and the destructive impact on natural resources. Carson's focus on the wonder of nature is a value not shared by Coburn."

In these times, when the Bush administration muzzles scientists and caters its policies to the desires of corporate lobbyists, Rachel Carson's commitment to truth-telling and hard work in order to care for our planet needs to be fully appreciated — and revisited.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

© 2007 The Nation

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