Who's Afraid of Rachel Carson? Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn and Countless Others

Human Rights

For the centennial of Silent Spring author Carson's birth on May 27, members of Congress from her home states of Maryland and Pennsylvania introduced a resolution honoring her birth and another to name a post office in Pennsylvania after her. Coburn promptly put a "hold" on the bills to block them from being enacted. Why?

"Dr. Coburn believes the tremendous harm Carson's junk science claims about DDT did to the developing world overshadow her other contributions. ... Millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson's junk science claims about DDT. To put it in language the Left understands, her 'intelligence' was wrong and it had deadly consequences."

Coburn is a physician, but one who reads medical data very selectively. My one encounter with him occurred during the battle over setting new health standards regarding smog and soot levels. He was on the opposite side of a League of Women Voters debate on the issue. One of my co-panelists was a women whose son had asthma. On smoggy days, she regularly got calls from her child's school and had to take him to the emergency room. So when Coburn leaned over and said, "Will you come into my office and let me show you the scientific studies proving that smog has nothing to do with your son's asthma?" she was utterly unintimidated, and fired back, "I don't have time to come into your office because I may need to take my son to the hospital."

Even the Wall Street Journal, in a recent attack on the DDT ban, pointed out that Carson had called for careful use of DDT in fighting malaria -- not a ban. But the Journal did not go on to mention that DDT has never been banned for fighting malaria, and that Carson's advice, if followed from the start, might have avoided the build-up of resistant strains of insects and the toxic overloading of the feed chain that led to its loss of effectiveness. It was overuse of DDT that brought back malaria, not environmentalists, and certainly not Carson.

But Coburn is not alone. When the bill to name the post office went through the House in April, more than 50 Representatives voted "No," an almost unprecedented number for such legislation. Indeed, there is a cottage industry on the reactionary right to blame Carson for almost all of the world's ills.

Why is her memory still so charged? Perhaps because she was one of the first to use modern science to reveal the risks of over-use and over-reliance on technology. Science -- when she wrote her book -- was seen as a Promethean tool to conquer nature. She deployed science as a moral parable to warn us that we needed to walk more humbly in the world. Indeed, in this week's New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert makes a striking comparison between the kind of mindless reliance on pesticides like MIREX, which Carson exposed, and the current disdain for science shown by the Bush Administration.

So it's remarkable, but this quiet woman, decades after she dies, still stands as a focal point in the debate over whether or not we should take seriously the warning signs that science sends us and the debate over whether our efforts to control nature in the pursuit of short-term benefits can backfire and hurt us badly instead.

(Full disclosure: The Sierra Club receives some of the royalties that flow to Carson's estate from ongoing sales of Silent Spring, so her opponents may now argue that the Club's views on her legacy are tainted.)

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