Farm Press Blog

Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ 50 years later

RSS
  • To make Silent Spring a best seller, Rachel Carson needed something 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.”

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)

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.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Glenn Scriven (not verified)
on Nov 30, 2012

Your article casting Rachel Carson and her book in a very negative light is, I believe unfair and one sided. I was working in agricultural research starting in the 1950s. In those days, the use of pesticides was unregulated and chaotic resulting in pesticide resistance and poisoning of workers including my father. DDT, chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates seemed like miracles, at first, until resistance and secondary pest outbreaks occurred. The establishment of the EPA and subsequently the development of Integrated Pest Management brought order and responsibility to the use of pesticides. We have Rachel Carson to thank for getting the ball rolling bringing responsibility and careful use of pesticides to agriculture.

on Nov 30, 2012

Your article casting Rachel Carson and her book in a very negative light is, I believe unfair and one sided. I was working in agricultural research starting in the 1950s. In those days, the use of pesticides was unregulated and chaotic resulting in pesticide resistance and poisoning of workers including my father. DDT, chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates seemed like miracles, at first, until resistance and secondary pest outbreaks occurred. The establishment of the EPA and subsequently the development of Integrated Pest Management brought order and responsibility to the use of pesticides. We have Rachel Carson to thank for getting the ball rolling bringing responsibility and careful use of pesticides to agriculture.

14th Monkey (not verified)
on Dec 2, 2012

The Western Farm Press is a bit of a joke. The only think I can trust on this site is an update on crops and industry data. But all the articles here are so one sided and mostly BS. Rachael Carson's book was ground breaking and desperately needed to try to claw back some regulation in the industry. I have seen first-hand how pesticides have affected agricultural workers including family members of mine who never even directly handled the stuff. Sure maybe Cancer is not clinically the number 1 side effect but there have been many other conditions and birth defects linked to pesticide use. It’s the over exposure that alters and weakens peoples immune responses and makes you a target for any number of issues from cancers to genetic disorders that may only manifest in your children. We in the USA are still well behind the rest of the world in terms of proper approvals and regulations - but I guess the guys who make the rules are not the ones working and living near the fields.

Glenn Scriven (not verified)
on Dec 3, 2012

Hey, glad to see your comments. When I posted on here, I wasn't sure what kind of response I would get.

Post new comment
or to use your Western Farm Press ID
What's Farm Press Blog?

The Farm Press Daily Blog

Connect With Us

Blog Archive
Continuing Education Courses
New Course
California is becoming the first state in the nation to invoke regulations to reduce Volatile...
New Course
Ant control is an important element of harvesting a high quality almond crop. It starts with...
This accredited CE course focuses on choosing the correct variety alfalfa based on a number of...

Sponsored Introduction Continue on to (or wait seconds) ×