The Toxic Legacy of Rachel Carson

. . . the fraudulence of Silent Spring goes beyond mere cherry-picking or discredited data: Carson abused, twisted, and distorted many of the studies that she cited, in a brazen act of scientific dishonesty. So the real tragic irony of the millions of deaths to malaria in the past several decades is that the three central anti-DDT claims made by Carson and other activists are all false.
Robert Zubrin,
Merchants of Despair

To only a few chemicals does man owe a great debt as to DDT.
National Academy of Sciences, 1970

In a sober world, Earth Day would be stripped from the calendar. It is closer to a Day of Disrepute than the high holy day it has become. Its founder, Ira Einhorn, was a homicidal crackpot. Its patron saint, viewed in retrospect, was a muckraking technophobe who bent data to an activist mission. High intentions notwithstanding, Rachel Carson did untold damage to millions of the world’s poor.

She was a gifted writer who brought to her passionate assault on pesticides—most tragically, DDT—the moral urgency of a Puritan preacher. Robert H. Nelson, an economist formerly in the U.S. Department of the Interior, wrote of Carson’s Calvinism-without-God:

While superficially a work of popular science, Silent Spring was ultimately a religious treatise. It called on Americans to reform their ways, to renounce their false worship of the dominant secular religion of progress of 20th century America.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring came at just the right time. Through the 1950s, into the 60s, cataclysm was considered likely. Civil defense drills were a familiar routine. School children practiced crouching under their desks, arms around their heads, until the all-clear sounded. President Kennedy approved an initiative to install fallout shelters around the country. The population-destroying neutron bomb, developed in 1958, awaited testing in Nevada.

Survival under atomic attack


Nevil Shute’s convincing, post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach proved a popular triumph that lasted decades past its publication in 1957. Two years later came Stanley Kramer’s harrowing movie version. It chilled the generation that watched. Deluge was in the air. Eco-catastrophe was the next lap in the doomsday marathon of the Cold War era.

Nevil Shute book On The Beach


The Cold War waned. Apocalyptic imaginations sought intimations of calamity elsewhere. Nature writing with strong environmentalist leanings was widely read in the post-World War II era. It was a short walk from inheritors of nineteenth century nature cults—such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold—to an indictment of industrial civilization. The end of humanity was still in sight, if not from nuclear fallout, then from—in an over-heated quote that Carson threw against DDT—“diabolical means of insect control.”

In the terrible wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Carson rose to declare “the parallel between chemicals and radiation is exact and inescapable.” It was neither. Nevertheless, Silent Spring warns that genetic deterioration through chemical agents “is the menace of our time, the last and greatest danger to our civilization.”

On The Beach film poster


Carson’s zealotry tipped into mendacity with momentous consequences. Even Mark Lytle’s sympathetic biography The Gentle Subversive admits:

Carson was not always neutral in her use of sources and . . . she was sometimes driven by moral fervor more than by scientific evidence. Indeed, her use of evidence was selective.

Her vilification of DDT and other pest-control chemicals in agriculture exceeded warranted criticism of spraying methods. She aimed further: to rid the world of betrayal by chemistry so that humanity could return to an imagined state of harmony with nature. But that golden age never existed; pre-industrial peoples modified their environments throughout history. Precluding the public health benefits of DDT has had a toxic legacy, the burden of it borne on the backs of developing nations.

The best way to observe Earth Day is to inquire into Carson’s disfiguring prose, eloquent in its misuse of science. At your fingertips is Robert Zubrin’s “The Truth About DDT and Silent Spring,” (The New Atlantis, September 27, 2012). Available online, it summarizes Zubrin’s arguments, developed in detail and fastidiously documented, in Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Cult of Antihumanism (2012).

Lola Alvarez Bravo. Homenaje (1949). Center for Creative Photography, Tucson.
Lola Alvarez Bravo. Homenaje (1949). Center for Creative Photography, Tucson.

Zubrin points beyond Carson’s health scares and failed apocalyptic prophecies to the ascent of Malthusian population control agendas within the environmental movement. [Jeffrey Sachs, invited to address the Vatican workshop this week on climate change, is a key evangelist for salvation by population control.] In sum:

As a literary work, it [Silent Spring] was a masterpiece, and as such, received rave reviews everywhere. Deeply moved by Carson’s poignant depiction of a lifeless future, millions of well-meaning people rallied to her banner. Virtually at a stroke, environmentalism grew from a narrow aristocratic cult into a crusading liberal mass movement.

While excellent literature, however, Silent Spring was very poor science. Carson claimed that DDT was threatening many avian species with imminent extinction. Her evidence for this, however, was anecdotal and unfounded. … In terms of DDT specifically, in her chapter on cancer she reported that one expert “now gives DDT the definite rating of a ‘chemical carcinogen.’” These alarming assertions were false as well.

Zubrin examines in turn each of the false claims made by Carson herself and by the crusade launched after her death by Charles Wurster, co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund. Wurster claimed that DDT in seawater threatened all higher marine life and possibly human life as well. Paul Ehrlich, frothing prophet of eco-doom, seized the claim and predicted the end of the oceans in 1979. Zubrin concludes:

For the record, 1979 has come and gone, and life in the world’s oceans has continued to flourish gloriously. But, as a result of the mendacity and actions of Carson, Ruckelshaus, Wurster, Ehrlich, and their allies, DDT has been banned, and hundreds of millions of people who might have lived to enjoy those oceans, to sail on them, fish in them, surf in them, or swim in them, to play on their beaches or write poems about their sunsets, are dead.

At the End of the World, the Sea Will Burn. Codex of Predis (1476). Royal Library, Turin.
At the End of the World, the Sea Will Burn. Codex of Predis (1476). Royal Library, Turin.

Charles T. Rubin, in The Green Crusade (1994), compared some of Carson’s claims to the original studies she cites as sources. In analyzing the juxtapositions, he found a pattern of misrepresented studies or claims taken out of context in order to exaggerate the dangers of pesticides, making them “seem greater, more certain, or more unprecedented than the original source indicates.” Fear-mongering trumped data.

The Cato Institute published The False Crises of Rachel Carson: Silent Spring at Fifty (2012), a collection of carefully researched essays to mark the half-centennial of Carson’s parables of reckoning. It examines the science on which Silent Spring was built, together with the policy consequences of its alarms. Included is an insightful discussion of the pernicious repercussions of the “precautionary principle” spawned by Carson’s book. A strategy for coping with scientific uncertainty, the principle pushes the sensible axiom “better safe than sorry” to crippling, and illusory, zero-risk extremes.

Perhaps the kindest way to view Carson’s influence was stated by Gary Marchant, a professor of life sciences, emerging technologies, and environmental law at Arizona State University:

Environmental Justice

While Carson’s error [re: the precautionary principle] might be excused or at least understood, what cannot be forgiven or fathomed is the continued influence of her outdated zero-risk paradigm today. The unfortunate legacy of Silent Spring is the series of statutes that incorporated her premises.,,,

These statutes continue to foster an illusion that is resurgent in the rise of the precautionary principle and the growing chemophobia among consumers who flock toward “natural” and “organic” products they mistakenly believe are purer and safer than anything man-made. As Martin Lewis has written, the time has come “to recognize such thinking for the fantasy that it is. We must first relinquish our hopes for utopia if we really wish to save the earth.”

Entomologist J. Gordon Edwards, in “DDT: A Case Study in Scientific Fraud” (Journal of Physicians and Surgeons, Fall, 2004), offered this illustrative nugget:

On the first page of the book widely credited with launching the environmental movement as well as bringing about the ban on DDT, Rachel Carson wrote: “Dedicated to Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who said ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.’

She surely knew that he was referring to atomic warfare, but she implied that he meant there were deadly hazards from chemicals such as DDT. Because I had already found a great many untruths in her book, I obtained a copy of Dr. Schweitzer’s autobiography to see whether he even mentioned DDT. He wrote: “How much labor and waste of time, these wicked insects do cause, but a ray of hope, in the use of DDT, is now held out to us.”

Edwards follows other critics in rejecting her “dramatically false” conclusions and clarifying the science on which they were based. Most interesting is his discussion of the effect of the DDT ban on science itself. He viewed the ban as a watershed in which science compromised itself by sacrificing disciplined scientific methodology to advocacy.

By now, in the the climate change debate, that compromise has metastasized into a canonical imperative.


Martin W. Lewis, referred to by Marchant, is a geographer currently teaching at Stanford, and author of Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism (Duke University Press, 1992.

William Rucklehaus, mentioned by Zubrin, was head of the newly formed (1971) Environmental Protection Agency. He overruled the scientific findings of the seven-month long EPA inquest which found no valid reason to ban DDT.