The book “Silent Spring” was not just an ecological alarm call, Rachel Carson exposes experts to public scrutiny and makes it clear that at best they had not done their homework and at worst they had withheld the truth. It was an assault on the paternalism of post-war science and with it came the expected furious response of US industry.
America’s chemical giants did not disappoint. They tried to sue her, the New Yorker and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin. When this approach failed, they launched a $250,000 publicity campaign to rubbish Carson and her science. She was derided for being hysterical and unscientific and for being an unmarried woman. “She was an alarmist, they claimed,” Lear states. “She kept cats and loved birds. Even a former US secretary of agriculture was known to wonder in public ‘why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics’. Her unpardonable offence was that she had overstepped her place as a woman.”
Carson was now suffering from breast cancer and the effects of her radiotherapy. Yet she fought back. At the Women’s National Press Club, she denounced the links that had been established between science and industry. “When a scientific organisation speaks,” she asked, “whose voice do we hear – that of science or of the sustaining industry?” The question remains as pertinent today as it did in 1962.
Carson’s opponents set up websites, many established by right wing institutions backed by US industry, claiming that she was a mass murderer who killed more people than the Nazis stating the DDT ban was responsible for the deaths of countless Africans from malaria that would have been controlled had the west not stopped making the pesticide. The claims are rejected. DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it. Groups still blame Carson for the current blight of malaria.
The furore had one beneficial effect for Carson. Sales of “Silent Spring” soared, reaching a million by her death in April 1964. President John F Kennedy later instructed his science advisory committee to investigate her claims. Its report vindicated Carson. Widespread use of pesticides was allowing poisons to build up in the food chain, posing a real risk to humans. Ten years and two presidents later, the production of DDT and its use in agriculture was banned in the US. Britain officially banned its use some years later.
US climate scientist Michael E Mann offers another explanation for this perverse belief. “Those who oppose the environment movement have developed a special strategy: ‘Whenever you get the chance: attack the icon.’ Then you can say the whole cause must be tainted because you have thrown so much mud at the figurehead,” says Mann, himself a victim of internet vilification over his climate research. “Rachel Carson is certainly an icon. Hence her treatment. Her story has so many resonances.”
Ref: The Guardian. Robin McKie Sun 27 May 2012 09.05 AEST