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Rachel Carson’s Environmental Religion

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Review of Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson. Edited by Roger Meiners, Pierre Desrochers, and Andrew Morriss (Cato, 2012)

During the 50 years following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, much has been written to discredit the science of her landmark book. Little, however, has been written on the environmentalist cult it helped spawn.

Until Silent Spring at 50, that is.

Subtitled “The False Crises of Rachel Carson,” Silent Spring at 50 is a collection of essays specially commissioned by the Cato Institute and edited by Roger Meiners, Pierre Desrochers and Andrew Morriss. Much like Roger Scruton’s recent How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism, the essays present a unified indictment not necessarily of Carson per se but of the disastrous results wrought by the policies she inspired.

In “The Lady Who Started All This,” environmentalist William Kaufman presents an admiring portrait of Carson as a scientist who unfortunately took a left-turn from her previous works — based on objective, empirical research — when she endeavored to write Silent Spring shortly after her cancer diagnosis. For this ill-conceived approach, Kaufman blames Wallace Shawn, the New Yorker editor who prompted Carson to abandon her “disinterested scientist” voice in favor of a more “adversarial” tone. Since the famous editor signed Carson’s check, the author readily complied.

Kaufman – an admitted admirer of Carson’s eventual conclusions and penchant for prose-poetry – acknowledges the approach as a misstep: “[Shawn’s] words demonstrate a serious flaw in logic and why Silent Spring is so different from Carson’s earlier books: ‘After all there are some things one doesn’t have to be objective and unbiased about – one doesn’t condone murder!’ This is classic polarization – if you’re not for us, you’re against us. Clearly, objectivity and the open mind of scientific inquiry do not condone or condemn.”

Kaufman correctly notes that Carson never advocated for a complete ban on chemical insecticides, but upbraids her for employing inflammatory language exemplified in her chapter titles: “Elixers of Death,” “Needless Havoc,” “Rivers of Death” and “Indiscriminately From the Skies.” He further notes that she resorts to unnecessary demonization of chemical companies and government agents who spray insecticides as well as infantilization of the American public at large when she wrote: “As matters stand now, we are in little better position than the guests of the Borgias.”

Perhaps most damning of all, Kaufman points out that Carson’s book includes “sentimentalized line drawings of animals where even the bugs are cute. In fact, she wrote to Dorothy Freeman, ‘I consider my contributions to scientific fact far less important than my attempts to awaken an emotional response to the world of nature.’” As Kaufman points out, this is where Carson set the stage for environmentalists to embrace Silent Spring as dogma. For her followers, he notes disapprovingly, “her contribution to the environmental movement was not a respect for science, but nourishment of a faith.”

More’s the pity, as demonstrated in Robert H. Nelson’s essay, “Silent Spring as Secular Religion.” Perhaps no other economist by training is better fit to approach the topic, as the Princeton University Ph.D. is also the author of the book-length The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America and Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond.

Nelson comments: “Much of Silent Spring … went well beyond the damaging impacts of past episodes of ill-conceived pesticide spraying. Carson did not limit herself to the failings of progressive economic religion in this one area of government action…. She devoted large parts of Silent Spring to making the case that the widespread use of chemicals of all kinds was about to precipitate a plague of cancer in American society. This was even more devastating evidence of the heretical if not altogether diabolical character of American progressive religion.”

However, Nelson writes, Carson often got it wrong by “using weakly based scientific assertions as a means of communicating what was in reality a form of religious zeal.” He adds: “In making a religious argument in the implicit form of popular science, Carson left her environmental theology exposed to the risk of scientific refutation.”

Nelson details the shortcuts Carson took on her way to formulating an environmentalist religion. He notes that what little science she employed was never serious-minded, but only a smokescreen to further her faith-based convictions. For example, the author of Silent Spring never addresses the toxicologists’ mantra that “the dose makes the poison.” Instead, Carson argues from the perspective humans would succumb to cancer based on exposure to chemicals far higher than most would ever likely experience. This, says Nelson, is more “environmental religion” than “environmental science.”

It should be noted in closing that Silent Spring at 50 isn’t a capitalist manifesto against environmentalism. Rather, the collection’s essays present clearly written arguments for why preserving the environment as well as protecting the health of humans and animals is as important to free marketers as it is to everyone else—provided sound science is considered. The Earth is God’s gift to us all, but the idolatry of nature advanced by Rachel Carson and perpetuated by many who followed her down the ill-considered path of environmental theology runs contrary to the real science that allows humanity to overcome pestilence and famine.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.


  • It used to be that the chemical companies could jam peer-reviewed science on the damages of chemical agriculture. This is no longer working as it used to. Even though TEDX, the endocrine-exchange clearing house has to compete with TED and TEDx, it still generally shows up on the first page of a search. Syngenta’s attempts to “discipline” Tyrone Hayes, when his independent work, after resigning from working for them, is replication of other work from disparate locations. I do not whatsoever agree with your conclusions here. Do you have footnotes for them?

  • roberta4343

    everything in life is a chemical oxygen is a chemical, carbon is also so is gold, silver and copper, all these things are chemicals just look at a periodic table all chemcials this whole planet and us are chemicals. plants produce their own pesticides, we call them essential oils like lavender, tea tree oil, or wintergreen, some are called phytochemcals and have been shown to give health benefits which is why we are encouraged to eat our veggies and fruits. polyphenosl, flavonoids etc are chemicals with benefits, used to be chemical companies made more natural pesticides until the enviromentilist cult got hold of gov and used lawsuits to get them banned so they were forced to make syntheitic which is probably not as safe, not sure, and lets not forget that many use these chemicals wrong, many use way more than package directions, like some around here dumping all those chemicals on their lawns watering them too much (which allows the chemicals to go furthur towards the water table before being broken down enough) and farmers using way to much, and of course the plants produced have less chemicals in them to make them more palatiable, those bitter chemicals protect the plants from pests and fungus. so the farmer has to use more surface chemicals, ever wonder why collards greens and kale need less pesticide? they have their own pesticides in their leaves which is why they are bitter and have to e cooked, but take leafy greens they are a magnet for pests and rabbits and ground hogs will eat them down to the nub. leafies are more palatable, I do notice that my green beans, peppers, and tomatoes need no pesticides, internal chemicals? the rabbits deer and others do not eat them, but I love them. they don’t mess with our garlic either, I believe it is the sulfer componds in these veggies (I never had problem growing brocculi without pesticides either) that make them unpalatable to pest/animals but delicious to us. many farmers fields have low sulfer which plants canuse to make themselves unpalatable to pests and animals, sulfter makes food takes good to us especially if your used to garlic, mustard, and onions (love these foods myself). what farmers need is a big huge barrel of magenesium sulfate to put on their fields before planting so the plants can absorb it and become resistant to pests and at the same time epsom salts make plants grow faster and greener, well they do my plants. many americans do little to educate themselves on things so they become very vunerable to phoney enviromental scares that are designed to destroy the wealth of this country by the weathy elites who want to monopolize all wealth and power for themselves and foster envy in those less fortunant countries ot hate the us when the prosperity here is something they themselves should strive for. I just dont fall for many of these scares because I have learned the motives of many who advocate these scares and because I love the science of chemistry, tried to learn alot about them on my own can’t afford to go to school for it..

  • marysaunders

    Many organic practices do not rely on tilling. Masanobu Fukuoka got better or the same yields as neighbors without expensive outside inputs and without tilling. The dose curves for hormones and drugs can veer around because of feedback loops. There are people alive today who know that bass in the Potomac have not always had the deformities, particularly for males, which have been found more recently. Peer-reviewed research in agroecology paid for by the UN but not publicized by the UN backs up what I say. The research can be found by those looking for it nonetheless. You can sing for your choir, but your assertions will not win converts if they are not backed up with world-wide, independent research. This research has been done, but it did not come out the way you appear to believe.