This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, the bestseller that catalyzed the modern environmental movement and that National Review ranked at number 78 on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the last century. Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller, passionate yet mournful, takes its name from a “fable for tomorrow” that she offers in the book’s first chapter. It is the tale of a town in springtime in which livestock mysteriously fall sick, plants wither, fish disappear from rivers, and most chillingly, playing children are stricken suddenly and die. The birds in this town have lost their music:
Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
This was the future we might face, Carson warned, if we continued to widely use pesticides and herbicides. Her book inspired legions of environmental activists and led, a decade later, to the banning of the pesticide DDT by the new Environmental Protection Agency.
Although her prose was provocative — not to mention effective at persuading policymakers and the public at large — how accurate was Carson’s science? In an essay published online by The New Atlantis, Charles T. Rubin does what few of Carson’s many critics have ever done: check several of the original scientific sources that Carson cited to see how well she represented the facts. Rubin shows that she exaggerated evidence to make her case, sometimes twisting the facts beyond recognition.
In a powerful related essay, Robert Zubrin explains the history of DDT as a chemical responsible for saving perhaps hundreds of millions of lives before it was banned by the EPA. Zubrin also debunks each of the three major charges leveled against DDT: that it causes cancer in humans, that it makes likely the extinction of vast bird populations, and that it might destroy all life in the oceans. As Zubrin shows, there was insufficient evidence for any of those claims in the 1960s, and the evidence against them has mounted in the years since.
Hopefully before the sixtieth anniversary of Silent Spring arrives, the U.S. government will relax its restrictions on DDT, which effectively made it unavailable to the poor countries that need it most — resulting in perhaps a hundred million deaths in the past half century.
— Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Societyand a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.