This is the second article in a series about the intellectual history of the modern environmental movement.
Eugenics died out by the end of World War II owing to its obvious proximity to Nazism, but its misanthropic spirit lived on in its successor: the environmentalist movement of the 1960s. And the environmental Left owes much to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which inaugurated its first major campaign: eliminating pesticides.
In the book, Carson revealed the supposedly grave danger posed to humanity by agricultural pesticides, most notably the anti-malaria chemical DDT. The book was fraught with scientific inaccuracies—she based much of her work on DDT’s health hazards on animal experimentation, when studies at the time showed no ill effects on humans—but it is credited with the 1972 ban on DDT.
From there, a broader war on pesticides was launched. Calling pesticides “[a]s crude a weapon as the cave man’s club” in a chapter called “The Other Road,” Carson denounced in high-minded tones the phrase “‘control of nature’ [as] conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”
But whatever the book’s reception, its facts left something to be desired. In 2012, a letter published in Nature magazine by scientists at universities in Great Britain and America wrote that:
At the time of the DDT ban in 1972, 1 billion people were almost malaria-free. Within a few years, malaria cases had risen 10–100-fold. Over 40 years, estimates suggest that there have been 60 million to 80 million premature and unnecessary deaths, mainly children, as a result of misguided fears based on poorly understood evidence.
That Carson set back decades of disease mitigation, largely in the developing world, hasn’t stopped liberals from hailing her as an environmental hero.
“A great woman has awakened the Nation by her forceful account of the dangers around us,” wrote Kennedy and Johnson administration Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall in a review of Silent Spring. “We owe much to Rachel Carson.”
“It is high time for people to know about these rapid changes in their environment,” added a review by the ever-prescient New York Times, “and to take an effective part in the battle that may shape the future of all life on earth.”
In 2006, Discover magazine even named Carson’s book one of the top 25 greatest science books of all time, crediting her work with leading to the 1973 ban on DDT and “the birth of the modern environmental movement.”
The biggest direct descendant from Silent Spring is the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a group formed in 1967 by environmentalists and lawyers who championed a DDT ban based on Carson’s findings. Today, the EDF is a $150 million advocacy machine for global warming policy, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and restrictions on fishing and chemical use.
Still more groups trace their activist roots to the campaign against DDT. The Pesticide Action Network attributes Carson’s work to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), too, credits Silent Spring for making “the need to regulate industry in order to protect the environment . . . widely accepted” and birthing environmentalism.
It’s worth noting that the NRDC—itself a project of the left-wing incubator the Tides Foundation—was responsible for the “Great Apple Scare” of 1989, when the NRDC falsely claimed that apples sprayed with the plant growth regulator Alar could give children cancer.
As it turns out, the group’s claims were incredibly exaggerated; children would have to drink nearly 5,000 gallons of Alar-laced apple juice per day to reach the NRDC’s cancer risk claims.
The conclusions (and presumptions) shared in the book may have been resoundingly discredited, but still, Silent Spring was the catalyst which transformed environmentalists from a fringe group to a powerful and organized part of the Left. Soon, Big Green would set its sights to a far grander scheme: controlling the world’s population.
In the next installment of “A Darker Shade of Green,” we reveal how the environmental Left pushed for global population control schemes in the 1970s—and still does.