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Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ 50 years later

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published her now famous book “Silent Spring,” a widely acclaimed diatribe on pesticides credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

In an article in the Huffington Post, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., describes how the book was received at the time. “Rachel Carson was attacked by the chemical industry using a playbook that the tobacco industry first developed: discredit the messenger, foster doubt and denial about the science and call for additional research.”

As we’ve learned since, environmental radicalism employs its own playbook, if you will: link an adverse effect with a chemical or technology, dig up data that supports your conclusion and back it up with a media blitz before anybody has a chance to debunk your study.

Ronald Bailey, writing about the 50 years since “Silent Spring,” in Reason.com, acknowledges that Carson’s book was right on some counts, including the development of insect resistance to pesticides and the effect of DDT on some raptor populations.

(For more, see: Agriculture makes giant strides since Silent Spring [3])

But to make the book a best seller, Carson needed something much more sinister. So she hinted strongly at potential links between pesticides and cancer, and warned humanity, “The full maturing of whatever seeds of malignancy have been sown by these chemicals is yet to come.”

Fortunately, it didn’t. Rather, the passage of time revealed that the link between cancer and chemicals was insignificant compared to factors such as smoking, drinking too much and eating too much food.

Bailey contends that Carson’s book was not really about cancer and chemicals anyway. He wrote, “In “Silent Spring,” Carson crafted a passionate denunciation of modern technology that drives environmentalist ideology today. At its heart is this belief: Nature is beneficent, stable and even a source of moral good; humanity is arrogant, heedless, and often the source of moral evil. Rachel Carson, more than any other person, is responsible for the politicized science that afflicts our public policy debates today.”

A recent study, the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, provides some interesting clues on how this debate unfolds.

It concludes that people on the political left “tend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, to which they attribute social inequity. They therefore find it congenial to believe those forms of behavior are dangerous and worthy of restriction.”

Those on the right are concerned about “collective interference with the decisions of individuals” and “tend to be skeptical of environmental risks. Such people intuitively perceive that widespread acceptance of such risks would license restrictions on commerce and industry.”

Fifty years later, Carson’s message about pesticide use still polarizes people and politics.