The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. Mark Hamilton Lytle, 2007. Oxford Univ. Press.
Bug Rating: (with some caveats)
I have written quite a bit about Rachel Carson, mainly because I am baffled at the amount of vitriol still spewed over her book Silent Spring nearly 50 years after it’s publication. It’s turned out to be my own personal mini-crusade, since everytime I mention the name of this woman people come out of the woodwork to say…well, ill-informed wing-nutty things, frankly, including people who should know better.
I find Carson fascinating not just because she is the focus of a modern dis-information campaign, but because she was a scientist that could write. And I mean REALLY write, not just to communicate, but to bring the beauty and love of the natural world that she saw around her alive.
In all the DDT hoopla, it seems people have forgotten that Carson wrote beautiful prose about science. She wrote well enough to win a National Book Award, and to have her science book stay #1 on the New York Times best seller list for 86 weeks:
“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
I was interested this short biography of Carson, and picked it up. I’m really glad I did, because it helped me gain a better understanding of this woman and the huge challenges she faced. And there were a lot of challenges.
Carson did not come from a wealthy family, and much of her life was occupied in chasing enough money to support herself and her extended family. Carson moved her mother, her brother and sister, and her 2 nieces into one house–and became the primary financial support for all of them during the Depression. In 1929, women did not commonly apply to Johns Hopkins, or gain admission to graduate school at Woods Hole. Carson did both of those things successfully, and recieved a Masters in 1932.
She skipped pursuing a PhD in order to seek work, and was lucky enough to find a home in the Department of Fisheries. She began writing radio scripts, and progressed to writing USFW publications and magazine pieces. Carson published her first book in 1941–which was promptly eclipsed by a world at war, and did not prove to be very profitable. In 1950, she got her big break with The Sea Around Us, which did bring enough income in to allow her to purchase a home in Maine and become an independent writer. In 1950 Carson also had her first cancer tumor removed from her left breast.
Reading her story now, I can’t help but think of my many freelancing writer friends, and how they struggle to support their families and to try to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have gotten any easier in the last 50 years to be an independent writer.
Carson had a demanding family life. Her mother wanted to be connected and involved in Rachel’s life in a way that…well, I found kind of creepy. Rachel’s niece (who was, remember, living with her and diabetic) had an out of wedlock child. Carson became the primary caregiver for both her elderly mother and disabled niece, and could not afford to put either of them in a nursing home or have home help. That Carson could write well under those conditions is pretty amazing. And that doesn’t even begin to cover how much stress she must have been under when writing Silent Spring.
In 1958 Carson began work on what would become Silent Spring–her last book. She had a radical mastectomy in 1959. Early excerpts of the book attracted vitriolic criticism, and lots of gendered slurs. ”Shrill.” “Emotional.” “Unscientific.”
In 1960 Carson developed secondary tumors and blood poisoning, and was confined to a wheelchair for many months. In 1961 she developed an infection that caused her to loose her sight for several months, and was unable to read what she had written. In 1962, as Silent Spring was going to press, more tumors were found in her abdomen. She wore a wig to testify in Congress, hiding her loss of hair from radiation treatments. By late 1963 compression fractures in her spine from radiation treatments made walking difficult and painful. Carson died in Spring 1964.
This woman had ovaries of brass. I am in awe of how tenacious and determined she must have been to finish this last project. Her letters show she was hanging on by her fingertips, determined to see it through.
As for this book—how does it compare to other Carson biographies? It is short, and a quick read, and has enough footnotes you can be fairly sure of source material. I was very happy that the author chose to not speculate about the nature of Carson’s close friendships with other smart, sciency women of her time, since we don’t know for sure if they were or were not platonic or romantic.
The book itself sort of falls into two parts: things jerks said to Carson while she was alive, and things jerks say about her now that she’s dead. It’s not comprehensive, but for a quick dip into the issue and a history of what Carson endured, it’s a good read. I don’t think the author covered modern attacks on Carson very well, but much of the documentation of who paid for the “hit” on Carson came out in late 2007/2008, so that’s understandable.
At one time I was pretty actively writing about Carson and DDT, and trying to combat the misinformation campaigns put out by various astroturf groups. I eventually stopped, mostly because the people that comment on that topic scare me. I have gotten many, many threats over those posts, most of them threats of sexual assault. Those posts about DDT and Rachel Carson are the reason that comments on posts close after 40 days on this blog, since that way I don’t have to go in daily and remove nasty spittle-flecked comments.
I can’t be intimidated into believing their lies about a brave woman and a wonderful writer, but I was intimidated enough that I stopped writing about Carson to stay under their radar. I think I need to take a lesson from Ms. Carson herself. In the face of terrible pain and opposition, she WON with good writing and truth.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carson
I wonder if sometimes I feel driven to defend Carson because I see so much of my sister in her. Both women are talented, had breast cancer much too young–and neither one seems able to catch a fucking break. Anything that could go wrong does seem to go wrong.
And by God, if you mess with my sister, you mess with ME.
I got your back, Rachel. I got your back.
- If you haven’t read Carson’s “The Sense of Wonder” you should.
- How well have claims in Carson’s 1962 book held up? Pretty well, actually!
- A collection of things I and others have written to try to set the record straight about Carson and DDT
- PBS Carson Documentary
- Audio Interview with the Biography Author
- Interview with the Biography Author at Oxford Press Blog
I was interviewed by Drunken Skeptics (Michigan Skeptics Association) about DDT, bed bugs, and my criticism of Brian Dunning for not doing proper research and posting a lot of incorrect stuff about DDT.
I’m actually rather pleased with how it turned out, although you can clearly tell I had a cold. I’m interested in feedback from some of my fellow bloggy entomologists about whether you think I represented the larger entomological community’s views on DDT correctly.
The biggest complaint I have about the whole manufactured controversy surrounding DDT is that it’s a waste of time and energy, and distracts from the real work we need to be doing. DDT boosters like to frame the argument as: “Which is worse, Malaria or DDT?”
They have framed that question so that there is only one possible choice. A forced choice between Malaria and DDT is the WRONG QUESTION. I completely reject that false dichotomy as oversimplification. There are more than two choices.
The real discussion that needs to happen is about the best way to control malaria and improve human health in a particular situation. Over 99 countries have a malaria problem. It is patently absurd to think that one chemical can solve a problem that is global in scope. DDT is part of current WHO treatment guidelines. But it is only one piece of a huge, huge complicated problem.
What is the political, environmental, and socio-economic situation of a particular community struggling with malaria control? What, if any, data do we have on the resistance of the parasite and mosquito vectors to drugs and insecticides? It is not a one-size-fits-all problem with one solution.
Because of the vitriol that is spewed, people like me (and probably a few politicians) are hesitant to talk about Malaria at all. It makes aid to the WHO and Africa a political football that is used to score points. It’s not, really, about DDT at all. It’s about tarring and feathering the environmental movement, and keeping people distrustful of science.
And that is sad.
I’d really like to type up a transcript for the podcast, but I still am under the weather health wise–hopefully I can do that next week.
A few weeks ago, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid posted a podcast that made a variety of claims about DDT and Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring that were poorly researched and factually incorrect. For a while Dunning refused to admit his error; the podcast page as of 11/23/10 now has a box at the bottom in which he distances himself from the DDT claims he made by saying “Skeptoid is not here to tell you what to think.”
I and a few other people have been writing for several years about the way in which right-wing groups have been promoting DDT and attacking Rachel Carson. I could easily do a point-by-point fisking of Dunning’s mistakes (which others have done ably; see links at the bottom of this post), but I think the most useful thing to do would be to examine why a prominent skeptic fell so hard for a bogus manufactroversy.
“Manufactroversy (măn’yə-făk’-trə-vûr’sē). A manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute.”
You see manufactroversies all the time in the media– “Teach the Controversy!” “Global Warming is a hoax!” “Vaccines are poison!” The common thread is creating a controversy even though a clear consensus exists within the scientific community.
Media likes to frame issues as a debate: if you can get two talking heads to argue, that’s great TV. The problem is, presenting both sides of an argument is silly when there is no actual lack of consensus.
Dissent is manufactured by using information out of context and/or finding a scientist that opposes the prevailing view. That lone scientist’s opinions are then given equal weight to the majority of scientists who don’t think using DDT indiscriminately is a good idea. Or that Global Climate Change is a real and major threat to ecosystems. You get the idea.
Manufactroversies also exploit the way in which scientists are constrained to speak in probabilities, not absolutes. It’s part of the language of science to say that something may be true, almost surely IS true, but there are caveats on the conditions under which something is true. Scientists also have to make statements open to revision based on new information.
That’s part of what Skepticism is all about, too–forming opinions based on the available evidence. New Evidence? Re-assess your conclusions. This is not, alas, how many major media outlets–or politicians–operate.
The primary source Dunning seems to have used for his DDT fiasco is a website called Junkscience.com. Junkscience has an amazing history, and a little follow the money helps to connect cigarettes, lobbyists, anti-environmentalism, and an astroturf group called Africa Fighting Malaria. Why didn’t Dunning pick up on those red flags? I don’t know.
The reality of DDT and malaria is that it is an incredibly complex problem. There isn’t only ONE species of malarial parasite (Plasmodium). There isn’t only ONE species of malaria mosquito. There is not just ONE kind of ecosystem in which birds, mammals (including people) and malaria interact. There is not just ONE political and health care system in areas where malaria occurs that is optimal for managing treatment. In fact, in some areas where malaria occurs, there is no effective political or health care system!
Each system is different, and that is why blanket statements that portray DDT as a panacea for solving malaria problems are false and, frankly, stupid. The issue of insecticide resistance is not trivial. We have many tools in our insect control toolbox; we need to choose each chemical carefully based on the best chance of control within a particular context. Making the wrong choice can have serious consequences if resistance occurs, and we loose the use of a pesticide.
When people espousing careful examination of data before making an insecticide choice are attacked for promoting “genocide”, you have to know something else is going on. There is a political agenda at work.
I can guarantee you that within 24 hours of this post, there will be at least one, probably more, commenters that will accuse me of racism (“you want to kill brown people in Africa!”) or of lying about DDT. They have shown up all over my blog whenever I bring up the topic of DDT and Rachel Carson. Their primary methodology is copy/paste of the same old tired arguments over and over.
These are not people interested in nuance or conditionality of conclusions. They are people that find information that fits with their already existing world view, and then adopt it. Because it supports what they already believe.
Carson’s principal thesis was that broadly biocidal chemicals should not be carelessly introduced into the ecosystem. She also said this: “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used.” I don’t think many here would disagree with those statements.
Had Dunning actually READ Silent Spring, he might have realized his own words were wildly incorrect: “Silent Spring’s principal thesis was that DDT harms bird populations through eggshell thinning.” In fact, the evidence for eggshell thinning was not published until after Carson’s death from breast cancer in 1964. (Also, when writing a critique of a book, it helps if you actually read the fucking book. But I digress.)
Dunning clearly got his information second-hand. And it was bad information. This should be a lesson to all of us to check our sources carefully, and ask questions about “Who Profits?” and “What’s the Motivation?” about everything we read. And to be willing to own it when we screw up.
- Dunning DDT Fact Check (part 1)
- Dunning DDT Fact Check (part 2)
- Did Rachel Carson kill people by DDT whistle blowing?
- Mosquito resistance to DDT and other insecticides
- DDT primed bedbug populations to be resistant to insecticides (video)
- Bedbug insecticide resistance
- How well have claims in Carson’s 1962 book held up? Pretty well, actually!
- Who put the hit on Rachel Carson?
- Follow the money
- Bate and Switch: how a free market magician manipulated two decades of environmental science
- Rehabilitating Rachel Carson
- Africa Fighting Malaria 2007 Tax return (PDF)–all their money seems to go to salaries, rather than actual…..malaria fighting. Huh.
FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), one of the most interesting magazines out there, has a new article on the “Rachel Carson is evil/DDT will save the planet” insanity in the media.
I think they pretty much sum up why an idea that is unsupported by facts has such staying power:
“At one level, these articles send a comforting message to the developed world: Saving African children is easy. We don’t need to build large aid programs or fund major health initiatives, let alone develop Third-World infrastructure or think about larger issues of fairness. No, to save African lives from malaria, we just need to put our wallets away and work to stop the evil environmentalists”
BTW, this month’s FAIR issue also has stats for the frequency with which think-tanks are used as sources in the media. Given that astroturf groups like AFM are fronted by conservative think tanks, and used as means to spread the lies about Carson, thought that would be of interest.
(thanks to Deltoid for pointing me to the FAIR article.)
For those of you following the attempts to resurrect DDT as the saviour of mankind, Ed at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub has a great new post in which he links an old TV drama to DDT and it’s apologists. Check it out!
I have been AWOL lately in my writings on DDT–it’s just been the semester from hell. I hope soon that I’ll have a chance to pick up on this again.
Of course, as long as Ed keeps doing such great work……