And her alarmist claims about DDT cost millions of lives
by Paul Driessen
May 24, 2007
Environmental and other cultural myths often stand in the way of human progress. Even worse, they can result in devastating consequences. In fact, today millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm.
That person is Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 best selling book Silent Spring. Many have praised her for raising concerns – some legitimate, others not – about problems caused by overusing chemicals. But her shrill alarmism, extreme rhetoric and junk science generated a culture of fear, and resulted in policies that restricted access to life-saving chemicals like DDT. As a result, tens of millions of people died, painfully and needlessly, from malaria.
As we recall Ms. Carson’s 100th birthday (May 27, 2007), let us also remember these once vibrant people whose lives were cut short by radical environmentalism.
We urge you to visit www.RachelWasWrong.org to learn more about her legacy: the ecological awareness she raised, the environmental movement she helped launch, and the continuing death toll that the movement’s dominant radical elements have inflicted on countless families in poor countries.
Roger Bate’s May 23, 2007 letter to the Washington Post
One cannot blame Rachel Carson for things done in her name after her death. But she was undoubtedly wrong about DDT, and about a host of other issues. She was known to be wrong already in 1972, ten years after Silent Spring was first published, as the back cover of the 1972 Penguin Books version acknowledges. But in that year DDT was de-listed (and effectively banned) by the US Environmental Protection Agency, against the advice of the EPA’s own DDT hearing examiner, Judge Edmund Sweeney.
Manufacturing ceased in the US, and DDT became an icon of evil for the environmental movement. The eventual result was that good quality DDT became hard to acquire by malarial countries that had relied on it for disease control. In the ensuing years, aid agencies also discouraged it and all other insecticides for public health use. The consequence for hundreds of millions of poor people was painful, debilitating infection from malaria and other diseases. For tens of millions, it was permanent brain damage or death.
Carson is not to blame for environmental zealotry after she died in 1964. However, she epitomizes the movement itself – long on emotion, providing a few occasional kernels of truth, and rife with wild and usually unscientific manipulation of data.
Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn is right to block a Senate resolution eulogizing Rachel Carson. She was a progenitor of the environmental movement – and should share some of the blame for the harmful impact it has had, as well as the praise for the good it has done.
Africa Fighting Malaria
Paul Driessen’s May 22, 2007 letter to a congressional office legislative director
The desire to commemorate Rachel Carson for her achievements and her role in launching the modern environmental movement is understandable. That desire must be especially strong in the Springdale and Pittsburgh area, where she grew up. Local residents want to celebrate, focus only on positive elements, rename buildings in her honor, and keep politics and negative aspects far in the background.
Unfortunately, for those of us who have fought long and hard to bring common sense to environmental decision making – and, more importantly, eradicate malaria from communities that have too long been ravaged by this disease – that is not possible. Rachel Carson’s birthday event was conceived to be and is political. It centers around the politics of environmentalism.
To say the negative aspects of her legacy should not be mentioned is like saying a company should be praised for creating wondrous products, and no one should mention that thousands died in the process. Or lauding Robert Mugabe for eliminating vestiges of colonialism, and refusing to recognize the devastation he has brought to Zimbabwe.
Ms. Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and her congressional testimony and other public statements not only condemned and stigmatized DDT and other insecticides. They did so based in large measure on unsubstantiated, exaggerated, and even invented charges. They set a precedent that is still followed by the environmental movement: shrill, alarming allegations of impending disaster, backed by little or no responsible scientific evidence, but trumpeted skillfully in the media and other public forums, to secure passage of rigid rules, with little assessment of or regard for the likely unintended consequences.
Most importantly, they set the stage and provided the justification for countries to ban DDT, despite persuasive evidence that it was not harmful to people or the environment, when used properly and judiciously; for the World Health Organization and other healthcare institutions to remove DDT and other insecticides from their arsenal of disease control interventions; for aid agencies to deny financial support to countries that used DDT for disease prevention; and for policy makers and implementers to emphasize the alleged risks of using DDT, while ignoring the real, immediate, life-or-death risks that DDT and other chemicals would prevent.
Yes, DDT was overused, and it no doubt had some negative environmental effects. But those effects have repeatedly been exaggerated, and in many cases were simply alleged with no evidence to back them up.
Far worse, the impact of these anti-DDT policies was nothing short of devastating for billions of people who have been stricken by acute malaria over the past 30 years … tens of millions who have suffered permanent brain damage because of this disease … and tens of millions more who died excruciating deaths from it. Countless millions more suffered from dengue fever, yellow fever, trypanosomiasis and other diseases that could also have been prevented through the use of DDT and other insecticides.
Even today – despite numerous refutations of Ms. Carson’s claims, despite growing awareness of the horrors of malaria and the role of DDT in preventing it – Silent Spring is still recommended or required reading in countless schools. The book’s errors have never been corrected in the text or in any foreword, annotations or appendix. They continue to mislead people, perpetuate myths, and justify policies that have been devastating and even lethal for tens of millions of people. That is not just tragic. It is wrong.
On the www.RachelWasWrong.org website, you will find the photographs of 50 young children. All were students at a school for orphans in Kampala, Uganda. All died from malaria in 2005 – out of a student body of 500 children.
Their lives might have been spared, if their nation had been encouraged and helped to use DDT. And their story is repeated every year all over Africa, and in other regions where nearly half of the world’s entire population still faces the threat of being struck down by malaria.
As I have pointed out numerous times, just a small amount of DDT, sprayed once or twice a year on the walls of dwellings, keeps up to 90% of mosquitoes from entering, irritates the few that do come in so they don’t bite, kills any that land, and reduces malaria rates by 75% or more. No other chemical in existence, at any price, can do all this.
But because of forces that Rachel Carson unleashed, the option of using DDT was not available. Even today, tunnel-visioned environmental groups and healthcare practitioners continue to oppose its use. And now the commemoration of her birth is being used to resurrect and reinvigorate opposition to DDT.
For those of us who have battled for years to end the tragedy of malaria, our jobs have been made more difficult, our successes imperiled, by efforts to praise and honor Rachel Carson, without regard to these grim realities – which are also part of her legacy.
Unproven, unsubstantiated allegations of bald eagles endangered, bird eggshells thinned, lactation reduced in nursing mothers – all supposedly because of DDT – have been continued and revived by the attention devoted to Rachel Carson’s May 27 birthday.
Even if all these claims were true – and I have read numerous studies that cast them in serious doubt – one has to ask: How many babies, children, mothers and fathers can anyone “justify” sacrificing in pursuit of the anti-insecticide policies that Rachel Carson advocated so passionately, with so little evidence, and apparently with so little consideration or concern for what her actions might cause?
I can understand that environmentalists and other fans of Rachel Carson do not want these issues to intrude on the planned festivities and dedications. But many of us feel just as strongly that Rachel Carson’s other legacy, and the harmful forces she set in motion, must also be brought into prominence at this time. Otherwise, too many are likely to ignore (or never learn) the real lessons of this DDT debacle:
we too often pursue (and impose) environmental goals that make sense to us, at our level of health and economic development – but constrain progress in poor countries, with the result that millions are kept mired in poverty, disease and premature death.
It is ironic too that so many who claim to be deeply concerned about human lives and welfare – especially in the environmental movement and other political organizations – have been so silent about this.
Perhaps if commemoration speakers would clearly recognize these horrible unintended consequences – in their dedication speeches and other public statements commemorating Ms. Carson’s birthday – many of us would be more restrained in our own efforts to set the record straight. But I have seen little evidence that this is likely to happen.
With so many lives at stake, we believe it is vital that this occasion be used to underscore the harmful consequences of poorly informed environmental decisions. And that we will do.