“DDT Was So Safe You Could Eat It” — And Other Killer Myths Of Modern Technology
By Gordon WeissSeptember 20, 2012
Rachel Carson’s brave, science-based book — the beginning of the environmental movement — turns 50. Have we learned anything from giant blunders in the name of progress?
You couldn't have missed the signs. One moment a bi-plane swooped overhead, dousing fields, trees, fishponds, merry-go-rounds, chicken coops, vegetable patches, football grounds, swimming pools, schoolyards, hayricks, and flower beds. Toddlers gazed up, drawn by the beautiful white liquid sheet that unfurled as the plane dived, their faces, hair and clothes becoming saturated by an oily film as the canopy of dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, enveloped them.
The next moment, the smothered earth began to sicken. Moths, ants, and other targets of the aerial spraying fell dead from twigs like pebbles. So too did birds, spiraling from the sky in mid-flight to fall twitching at the feet of housewives hanging out the laundry. Flowers and vegetables wilted across the laced soil. Lethal droplets doomed caterpillars, squirrels clawed their bellies in death convulsions, and whole forests of insects, and animals were affected. The poison infiltrated the food chain from loam to loaf, accumulating as it went. This was the silencing of spring, and the poisoning of America.
DDT, a miracle of chemical engineering, had saved the lives of millions of Allied troops and concentration camp inmates during World War II because it had been used to kill typhus-carrying lice and mosquitoes. From the end of the war, surplus military bi-planes and plenty of pilots generated mass spraying throughout the United States. Dr Paul Müller, the scientist who had championed DDT, won a Nobel Prize in 1948. Synthetic chemicals promised a new ordering of life, from cabbage patch to kitchen. The brand names and wares of Monsanto and DuPont were parsed into iconic must-have 'products' by Madison Avenue's slick Mad Men. As progenitors of post-war prosperity, these companies were entrusted with ensuring the future wealth, power, and status of the US. That DDT was good for you, healthful even, was an article of faith.
But in 1962, one book changed everything when, its author Rachel Carson, having joined the many sinister dots, explained the deaths of farm animals, pets and children, and the presence of DDT in breast milk and virtually every restaurant dish sold in the US. A few years earlier, Carson, a biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, had written to her publisher, "People, especially men, are uncomfortable about coming out against something, especially if they haven't absolute proof the 'something' is wrong. So they will go along with a program about which they privately have acute misgivings."
When Silent Spring was published in September 1962, it proved to Americans that their disparate, unvoiced suspicions were true — they were being poisoned by their own corporate priests — and thereby smashed the idols of the era.
"It just rang true," says Bob Brown, former leader of Australia's Greens Party. "It slowly led to the formation of green politics globally; the establishment of departments of the environment and ministers, the US's Environmental Protection Agency and eventually their Clean Air Act. Then the formation of the world's first green party in Tasmania in 1972. It was the watershed in modern eco-history."
When President Kennedy praised Carson's work, he echoed Abraham Lincoln's praise for Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom's Cabin had helped inspire the abolition of slavery a century before. He ordered the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to review the use of DDT. In May 1963, despite some uncertainties because of the untestable effects of long-term chronic DDT consumption, the PSAC accepted the empirical evidence described by Silent Spring, and concluded that there were reasonable grounds for immediate action to restrain the pesticide industry and government pest-control programs.
Within a couple of years of publication, Carson and Kennedy were both dead, she after a long struggle with cancer, the malaise of the modern world. But first she was excoriated by the chemical industry, which unleashed a public relations campaign that echoes today's tribal political confrontations over global warming. Monsanto commissioned a parody of Silent Spring, called Desolate Year, evoking a hungry world overrun by bugs. With the recent Bay of Pigs debacle and a fear of Soviet missiles ringing in the ears of the US public, the chemical company Velsicol suggested that Carson was part of a Communist plot to ruin the US food supply chain.
As a writer, she was attacked for using anecdotes of ordinary American encounters with the effects of DDT; as a scientist, she was maligned as unprofessional; as an American, she was smeared as "anti-progress"; and as a woman, she was painted as an hysteric.
But with Kennedy's support, the message punched through. "Its success had a lot to do with the way it was written," says Clive Hamilton, board member of the federal government's Climate Change Authority, and author of Requiem for a Species. "I read it again just a year ago. She mastered a vast amount of science, and converted it into superb prose."
He also sees a parallel between the reaction to Silent Spring, and the reaction to the crisis of global warming. "But global warming is two orders of magnitude greater. And particularly with the advent of cyber bullying, scientists pointing to the dangers are being subjected to campaigns of intimidation. The big difference is that Silent Spring was attacked by an unholy alliance of business, politics, and allied bureaucrats, while the global warming backlash is a broad cultural movement whose worldview is destabilised by climate science. They see it as a conspiracy."
Critics of Silent Spring, such as business academic Bjørn Lomborg, believe Carson's book was a dangerous distraction from far greater problems, such as air pollution. In 2001 the conservative blogger Thomas Sowell likened her to a mass murderer, while others have been more specific, comparing her to Hitler and Stalin.
In his 2004 novel State of Fear, Michael Crichton wrote, "Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler … It was so safe you could eat it." (In the video in this story, watch Crichton actually repeat this as his personal point of view.) The website of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Rachelwaswrong.org, details the supposed role Carson's book played in the deaths of millions of African children who, they say, subsequent to its arguments being accepted, were unable to access their ration of DDT (even though DDT is still widely used across the world today). The right-wing radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh (who accuses Carson of causing 50 million deaths) has broadcast the "Rachel was wrong" mantra to million of his listeners. The narrative of this conspiracy is that the banning of DDT was nothing less than one of the great crimes of the 20th century.
But, as early as the 1940s, it was recognised that the mass spraying of DDT in agriculture for the production of cheap food was already leading to insect resistance in the US, and by the late 1950s sales of the pesticide were in decline. Even after its use had been banned in the US, American companies continued to export DDT to countries where it was used as part of anti-malaria campaigns.
Malaria and insect eradication succeeded in Australia, Italy, and Latin America because of a combination of education, good nutrition, judicious use of DDT, and the draining of malarial waters.
DDT ultimately failed to eradicate malaria in Africa because of multiple factors related to poverty and development, and the capacity of insects to rapidly develop resistance.
All of which is quite aside from evidence collected over the past decade, which shows that exposing humans to DDT affects childhood development and leads to a five-fold increased incidence of breast cancer. Carson's collated observations that the impact on birdlife, and the plummeting population of the iconic American Bald Eagle, was a bellwether of DDT's impact on reproductive systems and childhood development, seem borne out by the resurgence of the eagle population from around 400 pairs in the early 1960s to more than 9,000 pairs today.
Australia, sensibly, banned the use of DDT in 1987. It was difficult to miss the causal link between those springtime aeronautically-borne chemical soakings, and the starlings that fell at the feet of women in their gardens.
It should also be acknowledged that Carson never advocated a zero-chemicals policy. Not even close. As a scientist, she acknowledged the role of pesticides in food production, where crop losses due to insects can be as high as 40 per cent, and wrote that as little spray should be used as possible, rather than spraying as much as possible. Silent Spring was a call for the accountable use of pesticides by a proven-to-be-reckless chemical-industrial complex that took wartime equipment, personnel, and tactics and applied them to poorly understood biological processes. So why the extreme accusations of "genocide" levelled at Carson?
The answer lies in the aversion of entrenched interests to regulation. As described in the 2010 book, The Merchants of Doubt, it was precisely the call for regulation that has — similar to the vitriolic fight over DDT use — fuelled backlashes against lobbies that have fought the tobacco industry, the use of ozone-depleting CFCs, the thalidomide birth-defect drug, industrial acid rain, the mass dumping of toxic waste, and those who have articulated the notion that in the face of global warming, the modern model of human production and consumption cannot work in perpetuity. It is no coincidence that Silent Spring has been a favourite target of a range of neo-conservative big tobacco-funded organisations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, which argue for a free market untrammelled by pesky regulation. Carson and her book opened the floodgates to five decades of activists who are still getting in the way of progress.
"That intellectual explosion still echoes," says Bill McKibben, an American environmental journalist and author. "She was the first person to really knock some of the shine off modernity, to make us wonder whether progress was all it was cracked up to be." Writing in Rolling Stone magazine this August as the US endures a crushing drought, McKibben issued a stark warning derived from recent financial analysis. He wrote that: The uppermost limit of carbon that humankind can afford to tip into the biosphere before triggering certain catastrophic climate change is one fifth of the "proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies". Yet all the signs are that now more than ever, energy-producing nations and oil companies will continue to dig and drill. We're hooked on the stuff.
Over the past year it has become apparent that new technologies in oil and gas extraction, when applied to enormous North American shale oil deposits — the processing of which seemed unlikely just a short while ago — may well alter balance-of-power calculations which have, for a century, guided the interference of western powers in the Middle East (although some oil analysts say not). At the same time, oil companies are readying themselves to drill in Arctic oil deposits that are, ironically, being freed up by ice sheets melting as a result of global warming.
Australia's rush to exploit its coal deposits, and its first steps to introduce a fracking industry, dismay many Australians who — just like the American housewives and farmers who observed the effects of aerial spraying of DDT — doubt the assurances of the experts. How can frackers guarantee the protection of the only ground-water reservoirs we will ever have? And even as Australia maintains one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world, we continue to dig and suck the stuff up, while our instincts tell us that this can't be good for us.
"The natural systems upon which we are totally reliant have their limits," says Stephen Boyden, emeritus professor and founding professor in 1965 of the human ecology program at the Australian National University in Canberra. After working for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Pasteur Institute, he realised that academic specialisation had led to the neglect of the full and integrated spectrum of the impact of what he calls the "dominant", or human, culture on the environment. At 87, and despite his reputation as a leading scientist and inventor (he invented a research device called the Boyden Chamber), Boyden regards his almost half a century of efforts to convincingly bring this impact home to the wider public as "a failure".
Global warming is upon us, and yet there is no real sign that our carbon output will be limited substantively enough to arrest the rise of global temperatures. "Tobacco, or thalidomide, or CFCs are examples of cultural maladaptation," says Boyden, "initially defended by vested interests until reversed by a decisive cultural shift by first-order reformers like Carson." He believes that the current backlash against the clear scientific evidence that humans are accelerating global warming, and the accompanying belief that we can produce a mechanical "fix" to adapt to an earth with an altered biological cycle, are examples of, "the folly of our minds".
Despite the impact Silent Spring made in the US, and subsequent rising public indignation and insistence that people be protected from corporate and bureaucratic depredations, it took a decade for the newly established Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT in the US, and for the passage of the 1972 Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. But unlike DDT, or CFCs, or tobacco, global warming is a non-linear threat to human health and life; it's difficult to pin down, and thus open to the doubt and confusion sown by climate 'skeptics'.
Even believers ask themselves: Which spigot should we turn off to stop the melting of the ice-caps? Who will turn off their air-conditioner first? How do we compromise the self-evident need to reduce energy consumption with the impending increase of the world's population by a third — and that those people will need to be clothed, housed, fed, transported and entertained to a level equivalent to that of our own cosy way of life? Sadly, as the flaccid outcomes of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference illustrated in 2009, humans are willing to run to the very edge of Mutually Assured Destruction.
In the absence of any real sign of the changes required to address global warming, we citizen mortals, confused by the counter-arguments and bedazzled by experts and policy honchos, can only hope to avoid MAD.
In 1971, almost a decade after the publication of Silent Spring, another piece of great environmental literature was published. It's worth a read, and especially suits those pressed for time. Written by Theodor Seuss Geiselt, better known as Dr. Seuss, the children's story The Lorax is a fable of unrestrained human greed; not ill-intentioned greed, not wicked greed, but foolishly self-destructive greed in pursuit of a fetish — in this case the voracious Once-ler's decimation of Truffula trees in order to manufacture Thneeds. The Once-ler notes of the last Truffula seed that where there is life, there is hope, and life must be preserved:
"Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air."
Rachel Carson would have liked that.