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HUGGINS: ‘Silent Spring’ turns 50, and birds are still singing

Rachel Carson’s tome that led to Earth Day gave rise to destructive environmentalism

- - Thursday, April 19, 2012

Many Earth Day celebrations will commemorate the 50th anniversary on Sunday of the publication of the environmental classic "SilentSpring" in 1962. Indeed, author Rachel Carson has been cited more often than any other environmental writer after Henry David Thoreau. But just because a book is popular doesn't mean it's true.

Carson's passionate prose is persuasive. Unfortunately, it led many readers and policymakers to overgeneralize from isolated cases. Her caution that we should be wary of misuse of pesticides is praiseworthy, but there were major oversights in her work - errors that have played a role in shaping environmental policies that have cost millions of lives and dollars.

The book begins with a description of a town with no birds. The reader is warned of a post-pesticide world: "A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know. What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America?" This passage, plus additional anecdotes in the book, suggest that bird populations were crashing in the United States because of pesticide use.

"Her chilling vision of a birdless America is still haunting," noted Discover magazine. But why is this? U.S. bird populations in general were not actually crashing in the 1960s, and they are not crashing today. Moreover, people are much healthier today than 50 years ago.

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, has an idea: "We love the horror story. We just love it. The environmental movement has loved it. That, I think, is ... [a] strategy failure. And it's actually not supported by science."

Soon after "SilentSpring" was released, Carson was, in fact, accused of alarmism, ignoring the science of the day and overlooking the benefits of chemical pesticides. But those aspects of her work have been forgotten.

For these reasons, scholars Roger E. Meiners and Andrew P. Morriss revisited Carson's work. In "Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic," they look at the facts drawn from scientists who examine long-term trends and original-source data rather than make scary assertions about alleged problems.

The authors carefully pick apart some of Carson's most noted claims, such as the demise of birds caused by DDT, and examine her horror stories about the impending death of people being poisoned by modern technology. They conclude that Carson's celebrated scholarship was, at best, sloppy, and, at worst, an intentional deceit.

"Silent Spring is a beautifully crafted but ultimately flawed polemic," Mr. Meiners and Mr. Morriss write. "Unfortunately, its influence on modern environmental thought encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world."

"Silent Spring at 50" offers a clear perspective on one of the most misguided books of the 20th century. However noble her intentions, "Carson provided the impetus for a half-century of environmental policies that have cost hundreds of millions of lives and elicited antagonism toward many products and technologies that could have benefited the planet and its inhabitants," says Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

On the bright side, from 1900 to 1962, when "Silent Spring" was published, new technologies helped lift life expectancies in the United States by 50 percent, from 47 years to 70 years, while per capita income tripled. This same trajectory continued over the past 50 years.

Thanks to human ingenuity, we are much healthier and wealthier in 2012 than in 1962, and the birds are still singing - all real reasons to celebrate.

Laura E. Huggins is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).