Silent Silver Spring
We challenge real environmentalists to find a better icon than Rachel Carson. The centennial of the late “Silent Spring” author’s birthday is May 27. A celebration by the Rachel Carson Council happened May 19 at her former Silver Spring, Md. home, as well as nature hikes through the Rachel Carson Conservation Park in Montgomery County, Md. The Rachel Carson Greenway in northern and eastern Montgomery County, Md. will soon be a reality. The Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md. already is. There is lots to admire about Carson, but there is also a dark side to her legacy that the movement will need to reckon with sooner or later. When it does, a better environmentalism will emerge.
We’re talking about the campaign against the pesticide DDT and its effect upon the Developing World, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. However well intentioned, it was catastrophic. There, whatever danger DDT may pose to humans is outweighed by the millions and millions of malaria victims who suffer and perish from the disease. Their best hope is DDT, but in many countries, they cannot get it. “Silent Spring” changed public opinion in ways which ensured that.
Don’t take it from this conservative editorial page. Here’s Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times in the April 2004 article, “What the World Needs Now Is DDT.” As she explains: “No one concerned about the environmental damage of DDT set out to kill African children. But various factors, chiefly the persistence of DDT’s toxic image in the West and the disproportionate weight that American decisions carry worldwide, have conspired to make it essentially unavailable to most malarial nations.” Western aid officials find it hypocritical to fund DDT in Africa but not at home. Meanwhile, children die. As the NYT put it starkly: “ ‘Silent Spring’ is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.”
This is blindness to practical consequences, and it continues to afflict modern environmentalism. We see it in Al Gore. His “Earth in the Balance” called modern society “deeply dysfunctional” and advocates a “wrenching transformation.” Meanwhile, Mr. Gore “offsets” his owns energy sins. We see it in the gut-level “there oughta be a law” instincts of Sheryl Crow and Laurie David. We see it in the unfortunate persistence of political enthusiasm for ethanol, which is now driving up corn prices to the point that possible food shortages among the poor in Mexico are discussed with regularity.
Disregard of consequences must be exorcised in order for a true environmentalism to emerge.
Amid the events to celebrate Rachel Carson’s life, you won’t hear all this very much. But that makes it no less true. Rachel Carson is the epitome of the tragedy of good intentions in politics. It’s not enough to mean well.