Outside editorial: Rachel Carson was a visionary with critics

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

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On her ceremonial 100th birthday celebration, Rachel Carson, mother of modern environmentalism, stands accused of genocide.

Incited, in part, by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., conservative and libertarian think tanks are blaming the renowned "Silent Spring" author for millions of malaria deaths in the developing world. They say her 1962 book led to overzealous bans of the pesticide DDT, which can be used to eradicate disease-carrying mosquitoes. Human blood is on her hands.

That's a radically different narrative from the one Time magazine offered in 1999 when it named Carson one of America's "Most Important People of the Century" or the one included with her posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

Those awards rightly honored Carson for her legacy in environmental consciousness-raising. The Pennsylvania-born biologist/writer questioned toxic pollution when few others would. She awoke humans to their interconnectedness with the natural world.

Her fear, outlined in her most famous book, was that America was poisoning its wildlife - indeed, its own citizens - with pesticides and other chemicals, particularly DDT. It would eventually suffer a "silent spring" without bird song.

Her words inspired grassroots activism, congressional hearings and worldwide pesticide bans. But Carson didn't live to see it. She died of cancer two years after the book was published.

Today's critics, who benefit from 40 years of more sophisticated research, unfairly dissect Carson's science. They hold her responsible for every decision made in her name, good and bad. That's absurd.

It's true that science now offers a mixed review of DDT: It's neither the ultimate pesticide that earned inventor Paul Muller the Nobel Prize in 1948 nor the demon poison unmasked by Carson. According to the World Health Organization, it could help reduce intractable malaria, at least until mosquitoes develop resistance; but in doing so, it could endanger the environment.

Carson wanted humans to weigh those risks. She demanded that people think before spraying, and take responsibility for the consequences.

She opposed genocide - of any species.

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