Rachel Carson's Legacy Guides Today's Climate Change Battle

Read time: 4 mins

Ed. note: Happy Earth Day everyone!  Here is a reflection on Rachel Carson’s legacy from DeSmog contributor Joanna Zelman:

When I was first assigned to read a segment from Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in a college class, I skipped the homework assignment. But the next day, the other students were engaged in such a heated debate over the piece, that I went home and read it the following evening (instead of doing my next homework assignment.) I’d never seen one piece of writing spark such animated discussion in a class that met after lunch.

Rachel Carson’s work has done more for me than boost my scientific knowledge. She has taught me the rather simple, quite powerful fact that if I act irresponsibly, my actions will come back to harm me. If I embrace practices that contribute to global warming - drive a gas-guzzling car, eat beef, or leave all of my electronics plugged in, then I, my children, my grandchildren, and also my great-great-great-great-grandchildren will pay the price for my actions.

For those who do not know about Rachel Carson, she was a writer and scientist credited for helping to inspire the modern environmental movement. Her book “Silent Spring” challenged the practices of agricultural companies and the government, questioning the effects of pesticides on the environment and human health. The book was controversial and it was a game-changer. Seventy years after Carson published her first book, Open Road Media is releasing Rachel Carson’s “Under the Sea Wind,” “The Sea Around Us,” and “A Sense of Wonder” as ebooks in time for Earth Day 2011.
In the same class where I learned about Carson’s work, we read a piece by Jared Diamond, called “Easter Island’s End.” There is much speculation about the history of Easter Island, but this haunting version carries a message similar to Carson’s, revealing humans’ impact on the environment. Here’s his (very abridged) version of the history, retold in my words, which probably do not totally match his: Once upon a time, in a land far far away (unless you live near Chile) there was an island. On this island lived many people with a complex civilization. The island was lush with a specific type of palm tree. This tree was a source of food, and its trunk was used to build boats so that the islanders could go deep sea fishing. This tree was also used to transport and erect ENORMOUS statues (we’re talking 65-foot tall, 270 tons of enormousness.) These statues were a significant part of the local culture. But here’s the thing - there wasn’t an unlimited number of these trees. And so although the islanders could not survive without food and resources provided by the trees, they kept chopping them down, succumbing to deforestation for this cultural phenomenon of building statues. Ultimately, the final tree was cut down, and as the statues loomed proudly over the island, the population was decimated. An island paradise gone very wrong.

What’s the significance of this? These islanders were willing to risk death before giving up an item their culture embraced. See any parallels?

As Jared Diamond says in his article:

With passing years, the statues and platforms became larger and larger, and the statues began sporting ten-ton red crowns-probably in an escalating spiral of one-upmanship, as rival clans tried to surpass each other with shows of wealth and power. (In the same way, successive Egyptian pharaohs built ever-larger pyramids. Today Hollywood movie moguls near my home in Los Angeles are displaying their wealth and power by building ever more ostentatious mansions. Tycoon Marvin Davis topped previous moguls with plans for a 50,000-square-foot house, so now Aaron Spelling has topped Davis with a 56,000-square-foot house. All that those buildings lack to make the message explicit are ten-ton red crowns.)

We’d rather keep buying our McMansions, our cool cars, and our Big Macs instead of protecting ourselves from global warming.

Rachel Carson raised the warning flag early in the game. As she writes in her 1951 book, “The Sea Around Us”:

…the evidence that the top of the world is growing warmer is to be found on every hand. The recession of the northern glaciers is going on at such a rate that many smaller ones have already disappeared. If the present rate of melting continues others will soon follow them.

On this path, we’ll keep fracking for unconventional gas even as it threatens our drinking water and climate, we’ll keep drilling for oil despite the tar balls and oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico, and we’ll keep running coal-fired power plants even as studies reveal particle pollution kills 13,000 people per year.

Rachel Carson recognized that human actions impact our environment, which in turn impacts our health and well-being. She connected the dots for us, decades ago. The question is - when will we start paying attention to the connection?

Image Courtesy of Open Road Media.

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Comments

Thanks Joanna for this reminder of Rachel Carson’s importance. There are a couple of great books coming out soon (global literary journalists; Silent Spring at 50) which celebrate her legacy for environmental writing and how, as writers and journalists as well as humans, we’re indebted to her for, as Killingsworth and Palmer put it, ‘breaking the hold of the contemplative essay on nature writing’. Carson put words to work like never before. In fact, many writers, even Bill McKibben, have not managed to balance the right blend of elegy and hope, science and literature that was evident right from her first magazine article in Atlantic magazine (75 years ago next year).

What a perfect Earth Day piece! Thanks for the reminders about Rachel Carson and Easter Island. Your article actually inspired me to read Silent Spring again, to learn more about Easter Island, and to actually use my re-usable shopping bags. PS would love to see a piece devoted to more info about Easter Island…

How appropriate.
Since Carson’s book spawned a movement that directly killed 30 million people in Africa.

And turned out to be mythology propgated by knee jerk hippies.

history repeats with AGW hysteria.

You could not be further from the truth with your nasty denunciation of Rachel Carson.

You should be ashamed of your self for writing such easily debunked rubbish.

It is easy enough for any one to lookup. So easy that I won’t insult the intelegence of the other readers.

DDT was and still is harmless in moderate amounts and is still the most effective weapon against malaria.
But that never mattered to the knee jerk hippies of Carson’s era.
They did and still do jump on feel good band wagons that routinly do more damage than good.
Take the current fettish for dumb Cap n Trade scams.
or Carbon offset scams.
They clearly do extensive harm and have never shown any benefit.
Well except to scammers that make huge profits from them.

Carson should be rated along with Stallin, Mao and pol pot.

Her and her hippy followers I mean.

You are the one who should do some reading.

Firstly, DDT was never banned for pubic health use. You can repeat your nonsense but you should really check reliable sources.

Secondly, the reason the use of DDT in mosquito control declined was that the mosquitoes became resistant to it due to its overuse in agricultural areas.

If you really want to understand this then I suggest you go to reliable sources: http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/ddt/

Yes I could link a debunk to you debunk and on and on…..

BTW Deltoid is by no means a credible source.

But I won’t…. I will just repeat that people can easily look up the true story of the DDT scam for them selves and find out how, once again the enviro wacos have screwed up again.

nothing new here, it happens daily.

Review the Greenpeace history to see idiocy at work.

one last thought… Doesn’t it seem interesting that the WHO has finally lifted the ban on DDT use for malaria control?
Coincedentally after all the rich and famous idtiots that campaigned it have finally died.

hmmmmm…

Likely the same thing that will happen with the AGW scam.

There never was a ban on DDT use for malaria control.

If this the intellectual level of “easily look up the true story of the DDT scam” you have, you are not even worthy of a job as a cleaner. You’d probably misplace the mob and seriously believe fairies took it.

But you could prove me wrong, and actually read the Annex to the Stockholm Convention, and summarise to me what it says about DDT. Let’s see if you are
a) able to find the text of the Stockholm Convention
b) find the Annexes to that Convention
c) read those Annexes
d) understand what those Annexes actually say

I suspect step a) will already be too difficult for you, as you are unlikely to be willing to accept you have fallen for a myth that is so easy to debunk.

Desperately poor countries could not obtain foreing funding if they needed to purchase DDT and instead had to purchase vastly more expensive anti-malarial agents with money they could ill afford.

Dirt poor Uganda was warned several years ago that their exports of fresh-cut flowers to the European Union could be jeopardized if Uganda made the life-saving decision of reintroducing DDT.

Any country deciding to use DDT was punished financially or trade wise.

Still does not contradict what I noted. DDT is and has been used widespread in vector control for DECADES. Uganda had a particular problem, mostly because its own industry realised the government may not be as good in preventing abuse of DDT as it claimed it was.

No country deciding to use DDT was punished financially or trade-wise. Only if DDT made it into its agricultural products, a country may(!) have had problems not being able to sell that product.

If Paul s had taken the time to actually research what he pretends to be so knowledgeable about he would have found two things wrong with his last post.

Firstly, one of the main groups lobbying for a ban on DDT in Uganda was the tobacco company BAT. Who else finds that a bit ironic considering tobacco companies sell one of the most unhealthy products around?

Secondly, the European Union has never banned imports from Africa because of DDT contamination:

“In a letter to US Senator Tom Coburn, EU President Jose Manuel Barroso, stated explicitly: “It should be noted that there have been no findings of DDT contamination in food imports of Ugandan origin and consequently no disruption in trade. This mirrors the experience with other African exporters of food and food products to the EU.”

See:

http://www.fightingmalaria.org/pressrelease.aspx?id=331

I do not agree with everything in this article but it does prove that Paul s has not done his homework on this subject and is merely repeating right wing rhetoric.

Nice try guys, but poor countries were too often coerced to eliminate certain pesticides, especially DDT, from their disease control programs, and to rely on anti-malaria products that were far more expensive and vastly less effective.

Organizations like the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF) used to tell countries that funding was conditional on not using DDT, and groups like Greenpeace and the WWF endorsed those policies.

Nice try, Paul, but DDT is not the most effective vector control agent. In fact, there are many that are vastly MORE effective. The only thing that is ‘good’ about DDT is that it is cheaper than other compounds. In Uganda, the industry asked the government to use an alternative that was twice the price of DDT. It was also more effective, but as usual, that is not taken into account in the equation.

Regarding the GEF: First of all, it is NOT the Worldbank. Second, please provide evidence that it told countries funding (for what?) was conditional on not using DDT (*).

(Note also that the GEF was tasked with implementing the Stockholm Convention, and not to eradicate malaria.)

(*) Funnily enough, I found on the GEF site an approved funding for Uganda in which DDT for vector control is explicitely mentioned…

And another delusional poster.

DDT the most effective? It’s the cheapest method to have some limited control over malaria. Effective it is by no means.

Of course, no one ever banned DDT for vector control, so there’s another myth that comes crashing down whenever someone actually bothers to check the facts. It’s also another myth that shows how easily people get fooled, and how easily some people are willing to ignore the facts and let ideology rule their life.

Look it up for yourselves people.
This site has no credible experts on anything.

They do like to pretend„, but you are not stupid.
Do you own research.

DDT continues to be the most produced and used persistent organic pollutant pesticide listed in the Stockholm Convention. The Conference of the Parties (COP) continues to allow the use of DDT for use in public health for disease vector control as recommended by and under the guidance of the World Health Organization (WHO). Parties are required to notify the Secretariat of the production or use of DDT or the intention to use DDT for disease vector control. The Secretariat maintains a DDT Register listing Parties producing and/or using DDT or intending to produce or use it.”

No mention of a lifting of a ban (since it was never banned for malaria control). You are as nasty and ignorant of scientific information as those at Junk Science. You wouldn’t be related to Steve Milloy would you? You certainly are as anti-science as he is.

At least i am not a member of a faith based cult that denies reality and real science.

Have a great Easter…

like AGW it is another popular cult movement.

Google “WHO lifts ban on ddt” and read to your hearts content.

and ignore the chatter from denier sites like this and Deltoid and Climateprogress and above all the dolts at Realclimate who are clearly paid shills for the multi Billion dollar AGW industry.

I prefer to get my information from the WHO itself, and it has informed me that the WHO has never banned the use of DDT in vector control.

Whos the denier now, eh?

Happy Earth Day - Behold the Plastiki! David de Rothschild sails from San Francisco to Sydney in boat made of plastic bottles: http://f4a.tv/eUqAMC

Blah blah f*cking blah blah blah.

There exist real thermometer records going back 350 god damned years. They show NO SIGN WHATSOEVER OF A TREND CHANGE IN THE MODERN ERA.

Stick than in our cap and call it macaroni!

http://i49.tinypic.com/rc93fa.jpg

WAKE *UP*. You are sleeping. Day dreaming.

There are PSYCHOPATHS controlling your thoughts: http://oi52.tinypic.com/rt10rd.jpg

More evidence that having a PhD does not mean you are able to come up with an actual factual argument, and that you can easily find people amongst them who are deluding themselves, and others.

Nic, showing a few temperature records (with notably all an upward trend) is not evidence against AGW. In fact, anyone knowing more than just a little bit about climate science would know that these temperature records do not show the forcings and are thus not very meaningful. If one takes the forcings into account, it shouldn’t be warming, unless you take the enhanced greenhouse effect into the equation.

Your attempt at guilty-by-association is duly noted.

Dear Ms Zelman,

A fine piece on Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring. One small suggestion: modern electronics have gotten very good at using only trivial amounts of electricity when they‘re off or sleeping. The user‘s manual of the device might even say how much power it uses when in standby. If not, the manufacturer‘s web site may even have the details of the device in question. Ivan.

Thanks for posting this. I found “Under a Sea Wind” by Rachel Carson in a secondhand bookshop last month. I have never been anywhere near to the Atlantic Ocean, but I fear the life-cycles she described so vividly of birds and fish and the complex oceanic chain of predation would have been be unrecognisably perturbed since her time.