'Silent Spring' is 50. The Credit, and the Blame, It Deserves.

'Silent Spring' is 50. The Credit, and the Blame, It Deserves.

      In the 50 years since Silent Spring was published, the environmental movement it helped create has accomplished a great deal. It may be less popular to suggest, but it is no less true, that this seminal book and the movement it helped spawn have also caused a great deal of harm. As much as Rachel Carson’s inspiring work deserves significant credit for our cleaner air and water and progress on so many other environmental issues, it also deserves some of the blame for having helped foster a set of accepted truths and common beliefs that have caused enormous damage to human and environmental health.


     Given that there will hopefully be a lot of deserved praise for Silent Spring on this anniversary, let’s look at the other side of what Carson’s cri de coeur, and environmentalism, have done, because there is an important lesson here about the danger of narrow thinking that refuses to see the bigger picture.

     Silent Spring and environmentalism played a major role in the public explosion of fear of cancer in the 1950s and 60s. Carson devotes an entire chapter to cancer, “One in Four”, and warns that we are “swimming in a sea of carcinogens”. As awful as this family of diseases is, the fear is sometimes excessive and dangerous in and of itself, a ‘Cancer Phobia’ that has led to millions of unnecessary surgeries and treatments that have done more harm than good, and policy that has concentrated more regulatory attention and fiscal resources on cancer than on some other greater threats to both human and environmental health.

     Cancer has always been, and remains, the ultimate bogeyman of environmentalism, a fixation that reflects how the environmental movement arose from our 1950s fear of nuclear weapons and the carcinogenic radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Throughout Silent Spring Carson emphasizes the dangers of industrial chemicals by likening them to radiation. “Chemicals,” she writes, “are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world – the very nature of its life.”

     So it’s no wonder that opposition to various forms of radiation has been another core belief of environmentalism. Consider the costs of that. Most environmentalists oppose food irradiation, a treatment that kills any germs living in the food but doesn’t change the food itself. Food irradiation, safe and legal in countries around the world but little used because of environmental opposition, could eliminate millions of illnesses and deaths from food poisoning, and make food production more sustainable by reducing spoilage.

     More dramatically, fear of radiation led to extraordinary safety requirements for nuclear power plants, far in excess of controls imposed on other high-risk industrial facilities, which made nuclear power less cost-competitive and led to more reliance on coal. Coal burning produced the devastating damage of acid rain. Particulate emissions from coal have killed hundreds of thousands of people since Silent Spring. And the greenhouse gas emissions from coal have contributed significantly to climate change, a risk that is unfathomably worse than the worst case dangers of nuclear power.

     Silent Spring and environmentalism have also given us Chemo Phobia. Carson uses the word ‘chemical’ like a profanity, with phrases like “…every human is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals…”,  “…poisonous chemicals…”,  and “chemical death rain”. Chemicals are bad has always been a central dogma of environmentalism. A survey in the 1970s asked people what came to mind when they heard the world ‘chemical’. The leading answers were words like toxic, hazardous, deadly, destruction, accidents, kill, harmful, bad, and….drum roll please…cancer. (The naivete of this simplistic fear is entertainingly mocked by movement to ban dihydrogen monoxide, or see.)

     But Chemo Phobia is no joke. The insecticide DDT, one of Silent Spring’s main targets, was banned for years before public health officials successfully pleaded with environmentalists to back off an accept  that DDT was saving millions of people from one of the greatest killers on the planet, malaria. Chemo Phobia fueled decades of fear of and bans on some artificial sweeteners, which could have been helping people lose weight. It frightened tens of thousands of women that silicone in their breast implants was a health hazard. It wasn’t, but many women suffered complications from having their implants removed, and more suffered from the stress of worrying. 

     The Chemo Phobia that Silent Spring helped spawn is only one version of another core assumption of environmentalism, that Natural is Good and Human-made is Bad. As Carson lamented “With the advent of man the situation began to change, for man, alone of all forms of life, can create cancer-producing substances…” and “In being man-made – by ingenious laboratory manipulation of the molecules, substituting atoms, altering their arrangement, they (industrial pesticides) differ sharply from the simpler insecticides…derived from naturally occurring minerals and plant products”.

     This “Unnatural-O-Phobia” naivete does all sorts of harm as well. Worried about human-made hazards (as we should be), we stringently regulate the production and sale of pharmaceuticals. But not worried enough about natural substances, we fail to regulate herbal remedies with the same caution, and many of these biologically active substances do serious harm that would trigger loud environmentalist protests…if those substances were human-made. Fear of anything synthetic/human-made/unnatural is the foundation of resistance to genetically modified food, which has phenomenal potential not only to feed a growing global population but to do so in a more environmentally sustainable way than agriculture can currently accomplish. What's wrong with genetic engineering (GE)?”  Greenpeace asks, then answers with “Genetic engineering enables scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally (my emphasis).”

            This leads to perhaps the most profound harm of environmentalism. In the process of protecting us from the poisonous effects of modern technology, Silent Spring and the movement it helped spawn have poisoned our ability to think open-mindedly about the benefits of modern technology - including its environmental benefits - as well as its many real risks. It is a belief that in some ways humans are a cancer in the natural world. As Carson wrote (in her chapter on cancer), “With the dawn of the industrial era the world became a place of continuous, ever-accelerating change. Instead of the natural environment there was rapidly substituted an artificial one composed of new chemical and physical agents, many of them possessing powerful capacities for inducing biologic change.” Or as Bill McKibben argued in the book that helped make him a leader in the environmental movement, the human era has meant The End of Nature. Some call that book the modern Silent Spring, and McKibben the modern Rachel Carson.

     This captures the central problem with Silent Spring, and with the more naïve and simplistic strains of environmentalism that it inspired. Carson and McKibben were/are basically right. The central case environmentalists make, that humans are mucking things up in what will almost certainly turn out to be catastrophic ways, is unquestionably true. But we are not separate from nature. Humans are a species too, part of nature, with the capacity not only for unprecedented harm but for phenomenal benefit, even the capacity to avoid some of the catastrophes we’re facing. Achieving those benefits and those solutions, however, will require a more open-minded attitude toward the products and processes of our modern world.

     The environmentalism Rachel Carson helped spawn with Silent Spring, that simplistically raises alarms about the dangers of our technological world and refuses to acknowledge its promise, impedes solutions, and progress, and may actually be harming the very human and environmental well-being it’s trying to protect.

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Astrophysicists: Gamma-ray jets exceed the speed of light

Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.

An artist's drawing of a particle jet emanating from a black hole at the center of a blazar.

Credit: DESY, Science Communication Lab (used with permission by Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is co-managed by Robert Nemiroff at Michigan Tech).
Surprising Science
  • Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
  • The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
  • The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists find the "magic number" that links forces of the universe

Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.

The Universe and the fine-structure constant.

Credit: Adobe
Surprising Science
  • A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
  • This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
  • The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
Keep reading Show less

A new system separates oxygen and hydrogen from Mars’ water

Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.

Illustration of Mars' long-gone Jezero Lake

Technology & Innovation
  • Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
  • Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
  • The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.
Keep reading Show less
Coronavirus

How officials will ensure the COVID-19 vaccine stays cold enough in transit

Pfizer's vaccine needs to be kept at -100°F until it's administered. Can caregivers deliver?

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast