“Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of the insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her communist sympathies […] We can live without birds and animals but […] we can’t live without business. As for insects, wouldn’t it be like a woman to be scared to death of a few of them?
These sentences are part of a letter from a reader published in the magazine The New Yorkercommented on “Silent Spring”, the book that the biologist and popularizer Rachel Carson published in September 1962in which he denounced the environmental impact of pesticides, especially DDT.
The book shot the environmental movement. A decade after its publication, the United States banned DDT and created the first environmental protection agency. But it also raised a blatant smear campaign.
The same techniques that were used to cast doubt on Carson’s work have surfaced again and again in the years since, to deny the scientific evidence or delay painful actions for businesses and like-minded experts.
From communicator to activist
When she began to conceive “Silent Spring”, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was a Marine biology at the US Bureau of Fisheries. But she was best known for her well-read popular books on underwater life.
“Her love of nature made her especially sensitive to what threatened her. The use of insecticides began to alarm her,” she says. David Hecht, historian of science at Bowdoin College (USA). In those years, there was a case of contaminated blueberries and citizen petitions against pesticide spraying. At the same time, scientific evidence on the harm of some of these substances was accumulating.
A scientifically sound book
“The harm done by DDT has been proven without a doubt. But Carson also already talks about an aspect that was little known at the time: bioaccumulation,” he explains. Joandomènec Ros, professor of ecology at the University of Barcelona and author of the most recent translation of the book into Spanish. Ros refers to the fact that the small amounts of toxic substances in plants accumulate in the animals that eat them until they reach high concentrations.
The impact of the book was a kind of slow-motion explosion. In June 1962 Carson published three lengthy excerpts in The New Yorker. The volume came out in September. In April 1963, CBS television aired a long documentary about pesticides, featuring Carson and one of his critics. “Unlike him, she sounds calm and rational,” observes Hecht. In addition to this, Carson used all his literary talentwith authentically poetic passages.
“It was a turning point. Before there were groups of bird enthusiasts, without an activist component. Then, coinciding with the social movements of the 60s and 70s, environmental groups emerged,” he explains. Michael Carandellof the Institut d’Història de la Ciencia of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
But there were also angry responses. “Carson was branded a hysterical, communist, incompetent woman obsessed with animals,” describes Carandell. A review in Time magazine criticized hers “mystical attachment to the balance of nature”. “Many scientists, especially chemists, considered the idea of using science to develop products that allow nature to be controlled to be threatening,” observes Hecht.
The chemical industry threw their cavalry over him. His representatives wrote to the book’s publisher in August 1962, asking that it not be published. The company Monsanto published the pamphlet, “The Bleak Year,” in which he parodied Carson’s book, painting a world starving for lack of pesticides.
The Carson debate died down after the DDT ban, but resurfaced again in the mid-1990s. “The same people attacking Carson are the ones attacking the consensus on climate changeHecht observes. For example, the ultraliberal Competitive Enterprise Institute published ‘Why Rachel Was Wrong’, in which it attributed the growth of malaria to the ban on DDT, among other innuendos. “They intend to discredit “Silent Spring” to argue that we do not need regulations [ambientales]”, explains the historian.
“Today lobbies continue to use the same strategies [que en la época de Carson] for capture the regulators“, it states Andrea Saltelli, researcher at the Center for the Study of Sciences and Humanities at the University of Bergen (Norway), also affiliated with the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. “They question the tests, the methods and the institutions that generate them; minimize risks; you discredit your critics, you accuse them of being against progress; they pose as defenders of science….” he explains. The biggest difference, this researcher points out, is that the attacks no longer come only from the media columns, but also from armies of “trolls” on the Internet.
“Carson’s book still raises important questions about how we think of ourselves in our relationship with nature, how we balance progress with a degree of humility about what we don’t know”, concludes Hecht.
The echoes of Carson in Spain
Outside the US, the echoes of Silent Spring came later and indirectly. According to Hecht, the problem of pesticides was sometimes perceived as an issue in the US, where their use had been widespread since the end of World War II. In Spain, the correspondent for ABC and the Diario de Barcelona in Washington, Josep Maria Massip, gave an extensive account of the DDT controversy between 1963 and 1964, with details from Carson’s book. This was discovered a decade ago by environmental journalist Joaquim Elcacho, who found Massip’s articles. In 1964, a Spanish translation of the book was published – with errors in the technical language, according to Ros. But the articles and the translation generated little debate. Until the ’90s, there is no trace of reference to Carson in the Spanish environmental movement or in the debate on pesticides, according to Elcacho’s research.