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Rachel Carson: the quiet woman who ignited the environmental movement

25 Aug 2021
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Her vision laid bare corporate greed and government collusion in the poisoning of the world.

Following the publication of Rachel Carson’s damning book Silent Spring, agribusiness in the US should have immediately stopped spraying deadly poisons over fields, forests and towns.

She has conclusively proved that chemical corporations were guilty of a massive die-off of insects, birds and vital soil organisms. Even cats were being killed and farmworkers were dying as deadly chemicals rained down from repurposed World War 2 planes fitted with spray nozzles.

Instead, the chemical industry attacked the messenger, calling her hysterical and “probably a communist”. They upped marketing campaigns, paid scientists to praise the insecticides and herbicides DDT, chlordane, heptachlor, dieldrin, aldrin and endrin. Then they increased production.

Carson’s ideas would win in the end, but she would not have much time to savour her victory. Three years after her book’s publication in 1961 she died of breast cancer, quite possibly caused by what she had warned against: strontium 90 from atomic bomb tests.

Silent Spring is both scrupulously scientific and highly readable. Nobody but Carson had the literary skills to turn a 400-page book about chlorinated hydrocarbons into an international bestseller. She had spent more than six years documenting human misuse of powerful, persistent chemical pesticides that were being allowed before the full extent of their potential harm to the whole biota was known. Even today, its findings are horrifying.

A New York Times reviewer wrote that Carson “tries to scare the living daylights out of us and, in large measure, succeeds. Her work tingles with anger, outrage and protest.”

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In revisiting the impact of Silent Spring more than half a century later, two threads are interesting to pursue. The first is the context in the US at the time of its release in 1961. That’s best viewed through the lens of a single individual: Edward Bernays.

His uncle was Sigmund Freud and his cousin Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, who came to dominate Western psychology after her father’s death.

The Bernays family moved from Vienna to the US in the 1890s. Edward studied agriculture, but soon moved to journalism. During World War 1 he joined the government as a consultant on “public information”, after which he set up private practice in New York as a “public relations counsel”, a profession unheard of at the time. He was to become hugely influential in both industry and government, specialising in what he called “engineering consent” — marketing propaganda.

The masses, he said, were dangerous. Citing his uncle, he described them as irrational and subject to herd instinct. However, skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways. He described this as public relations, “the science of managing information released to the public by an organisation, in a manner most advantageous to the organisation”. He was hired by corporations and politicians and became immensely wealthy.

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Post-war American corporations were booming and needed to sell goods. Bernays showed them how to shift their marketing from needs to making consumers “slaves to their desires”. Among his many campaigns, he pioneered smoking by women and orchestrated a CIA-engineered coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala which had expropriated the US-owned United Fruit Company.

The idea that the masses were politically dangerous and needed to be controlled by “superior” men was perpetuated through the teachings of his cousin, Anna Freud, within the psychiatry movement and was reflected in immensely popular books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

The hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, is a ruthless captain of industry who struggles against stifling regulations that stand in the way of commerce and profit. To many of Rand’s readers — especially corporate executives — Galt’s supreme self-reliance devoted to the pursuit of self-interest under capitalism seemed to embody the core American beliefs.

These were the ideas that drove the chemical companies in their lucrative campaign to spread hydrocarbon poisons across America. They knew best and an upstart like Rachel Carson — a woman to boot — was to be ridiculed out of existence. She was, moreover, bad for business.

Velsicol, which manufactured chlordane, threatened to sue her publisher for libel. Pesticide advocates claimed that without chemicals, agriculture would collapse. In 1963, Monsanto published The Desolate Year which described a starving world without chemical pest control. Two scientists, later found to be paid by the chemical industry, attacked Carson’s criticisms of DDT even while studies were proving that mosquitoes everywhere were acquiring resistance to it because of its overuse in agriculture.

Allegations that Carson was just a hysterical woman appeared both in the pages of chemical and agricultural trade journals as well as in the popular press. A reviewer in Time criticised her “emotion-fanning words” and characterised her argument as “unfair, one-sided and hysterically overemphatic”. He traced her “emotional and inaccurate outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature”.

Despite this, Silent Spring became a bestseller. It caught the attention of President John F Kennedy who called for an investigation that substantiated Carson’s findings. Congressional hearings took place at which Carson testified. The Toxic Substances Control Act which followed was Silent Spring’s greatest legal vindication. It banned or severely restricted all six compounds indicated in the book and assumed responsibility for testing new chemicals.

The second thread interesting to pursue following the publication of the book was its part in corroding public faith in the trustworthiness of corporations, particularly the chemical industry. It also called into question a major item of faith in the 20th century — the authority of scientific experts.

Carson showed how experts trusted their own creations too greatly and how they themselves were implicated in a vast complex of private and public interests designed to produce profits for chemical manufacturers and the growing agribusiness sector.

Most importantly, Silent Spring launched the modern global environmental movement. The ecological interconnections between nature and human society that it described went far beyond the limited concerns of the conservation movement at the time and into the protection of soil, forests, water and other natural resources.

People could also see “engineering consent” for what it was: an attempt to dupe people for corporate profit. Scientists were no longer to be believed without question because some could be bought. There were also vested interests in government that would permit the environment to be trashed for profit, whatever the cost to ordinary people.

A new generation found their perspectives widened and their activism inspired by Carson’s powerful work. And that work is ongoing. The world today is awash in a sea of chemicals never before seen in nature.

The increase of endocrine disruptors in food and water has raised suspicions that they are responsible for a multitude of perplexing new problems: genital deformities in increasing numbers of newborn boys, earlier puberty in girls, declining sperm count in adult males, rising rates of prostate and testicular cancer, and problems in sexual development and reproduction. Other possible health effects include abnormal brain development, obesity and diabetes. Plastic poisons the seas.

The chemicals are not the same as the ones Carson indicted in Silent Spring, yet they are produced, sold and used on an unsuspecting public by the same interconnected complex of profit-driven companies and government authorities. Carson’s words still apply: No witchcraft, no enemy action produced our stricken world. People have done it to themselves.