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Fifty years after Silent Spring

Conservationism or environmentalism as an ideology has its roots in Nazi Germany and one could probably go even further.

But the Western environmentalism in the form we are familiar with today was born exactly 50 years when Rachel Carson began to release her book Silent Spring. It's such an inconvenient anniversary that most of the articles about the anniversary listed by Google News have been written by the critics of environmentalism.


Some good articles were penned by Ronald Bailey, Roger Meiners, Matt Ridley, John Tierney, and Charlie Stenholm with John Block. Links via Benny Peiser.

Let me add a few words. Centuries ago, people were living in Nature and they understood it was cruel. So they had no romantic feelings about Nature: they had to hunt if they didn't want to starve to death (or become vegetarians), they had to be ready for other predators, cruel weather, and so on, and so on.

Sometime in the 19th century, the industrial Western civilization became advanced enough so that most people were "stronger" than the usual natural foes. With great power comes great responsibility, Voltaire wrote in a different context. It makes sense that people started to be looking at themselves – whether they weren't doing something that was wrong or harmful. We could find examples in which the answer was Yes. Examples in which people changed their behavior because they just didn't want to destroy Nature, they just didn't want to destroy their own environment or health.

In the 19th century, our cities were already industrialized and the pollution was probably much higher than in recent decades. For example, the picture below shows what Emil Škoda's major factory in my hometown of Pilsen looked like in the 1880s:

There were already lots of chimneys and there were probably lots of pollutants. People didn't care much. We may be shocked what they found tolerable because various emissions over there wouldn't be considered tolerable today. However, those 19th century people could have actually been more reasonable than we are. Our worries and policies inspired by these worries may actually be causing more harm than improvement – they harm our psychology, optimism, creativity, and through the bad policies, they harm our industries and prosperity in general.

Nevertheless, I said that it is right for humans to look critically at themselves, to have feedback mechanisms. But what Rachel Carson did was something else and almost entirely negative. She introduced all the basic pernicious features of environmentalism as an ideology that we're still witnessing and struggling against today. I would summarize these features by the following list. She has introduced the following bad habits and beliefs:

  1. A small effect, usually a hypothetical one, may be taken out of the context and inflated.
  2. The industrial activity (and human activity in general) may always be assumed to be bad for Nature.
  3. Claims that are compatible with the previous point may be claimed to be scientific even though there is no actual scientific evidence supporting such claims or if there is even evidence showing that these claims are wrong.
  4. When a particular threat is no longer fashionable or powerful enough, when it "loses steam", the main problem with the human activity must be "continuously redefined" even though nothing has actually changed about the human activity or the scientific evidence.
Her particular book claimed that pesticides and DDT in particular would cause many diseases you may imagine, including cancer, and they would also lead to extinction of many bird species. Some of her claims – not those about cancer – may have had a true core but the vast majority of her statements were rubbish, as we can easily see with the hindsight of 50 years we have acquired by today.

As some of the articles mention, we are using 2 times greater an amount of pesticides than people were using 50 years ago. Still, the cancer rates went down in the last 20 years and the reason is that the actual main contributors to cancer – which are not really pesticides – went down. (Carson herself had breast cancer, had to be treated, got weaker, caught a respiratory virus, but she died of heart attack aged 56: so she's no recipe for longevity according to the best rules of Nature.)

Her particular concerns about the pesticides were mostly wrong and they are no longer relevant. No one talks about them anymore. Compare this irrelevance of all the details she wrote with the relevance of other texts written in the early 1960s, e.g. the papers about the Higgs boson. All the papers still matter and we (and a committee in Stockholm) still care about their details. While she has contributed to the death of tens of millions of people in Africa that resulted from the ban of DDT, everyone knows that pesticides as a principle couldn't have been abandoned. The planet today only feeds 7 billion people because the agriculture largely relies on genetically modified crops, pesticides, and other things. Without those modern technologies, billions of people would have to starve to death.

So I don't want to talk about the particular topics she was hyping: they don't deserve it.

Instead, I want to say that she was a pioneer of an ideologically driven pseudoscience pretending to be science. When she talked about the life of birds and their interactions with the environment, it sounded like a science – ecology. When she talked about pesticides, it sounded like a science, too – some kind of biochemistry. So by the choice of words, she could have pretended she was speaking as a scientist. A problem is that the claims she was making were actually never scientifically justified, at least not with good enough standards. They were ideological slogans. And she was one of the first people in the West who intensely insisted that the compatibility of a proposition with her ideology may replace the scientific rigor that was normally needed to establish scientific claims.

To prove her predetermined conclusion that the industrial activity was wrong, she picked a random technicality – some possible yet mostly hypothetical bad side effects of pesticides – and she inflated them out of proportion and added lots of accusations that weren't really true. At some moment, it became obvious that her scaremongering was indefensible (well, the population of birds was actually growing even when her very book was published) so the particular pesticide hysteria ended. However, what didn't end was her copyrighted dishonesty. It's been recycled many times.

While pesticides are pretty important to feed the whole mankind today, as I have mentioned, they're not really an essential and omnipresent part of the civilization. If we banned all pesticides, a fraction of the humanity would die but the rest could continue their lives in pretty much the same way. Unlimited fear of pesticides was replaced by fear of population bomb, ozone hole everywhere, acid rains, radioactivity from nuclear power plants killing all life on Earth, new ice age, and – finally – global warming. Some of the worries had a justifiable core; most of them didn't.

What the newest fearmongering wants to ban – carbon dioxide emissions – is much more universal and crucial for the civilization than pesticides (and vastly more omnipresent than e.g. freons that may have been genuinely harming the ozone layer – and even than the sulfur oxides that were certainly causing acid rains). We couldn't do most things if carbon dioxide emissions were "illegal".

Fifty years ago, the tiny "scientific" effect that was inflated out of proportion was some hypothetical lethal effect of pesticides on birds. These days, it's the greenhouse effect – an effect that is said to destroy the very climate, and therefore everything else with it. In both cases, they are rank-and-file, weak enough effects among millions of other effects that science may study and does study. But in both cases (and many other cases), the environmental movement promoted these phenomena to the most important processes that are taking place on Earth. Everything (at least in the modern agriculture) was about the lethal impact of the evil pesticides 50 years ago; everything is about global warming, Carson's posthumous children claim today.

The environmental movement loves to "worship" something as the "Devil" – sometimes it's the pesticides, sometimes it's the carbon dioxide. In reality, these "Devils" may sometimes cause a negative thing but most of the things they're causing are positive and it's surely scientifically indefensible to consider them "purely bad".

So the "principles" coined by Rachel Carson – which include the ability to mutate, see the last one – may be viewed as a dangerous infection that started to plague the mankind. An increasing number of people have been affected by this infection; and ever larger and more important technologies and industries were becoming potential victims of the proposed policies. These things have been happening – and are still happening – not because science would demonstrate some actual fatal threat but because it has become normal to promote exaggerations, pseudoscience, and downright lies as long as they are compatible with the ideology that the environmental movement holds dear.

As Carson's infection grew and started to threaten all industries that emit carbon dioxide – and most of the crucial ones do – we are in trouble. Aside from tens of millions of people that Carson helped to kill, this threat for the industrial civilization as we have known it – and the accompanying threat for the scientific method that was increasingly squeezed by something that only pretends to be science – may be, to a rather large extent, blamed on Rachel Carson herself. That's why you shouldn't forget to spit on her grave if you ever visit Maryland.

And that's the memo.

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snail feedback (6) :

reader John F. Hultquist said...

A difference between her time and now is that many countries
had growing populations and economies that could afford such views. Now many countries are less robust. The USA has a lot of in-migration and a still
growing population but massive and growing debt. Papers, magazines, and the internet are
filled with stories related to these problems.
However, people that hold these views have been inserted into government
agencies and political office throughout the developed world. I don’t think they can un-learn what they
have long held to be true. The
combination of faltering economies and guilt of environmentalism will not end

Murphy was an optimist!

reader Honza said...

Nice article, Lumo.
Just to the pesticide problem: You cannot really ban pesticides, as many of them are natural compounds or extracts, like pyrethroids, nicotine (used in past on hundreds tons per year scale), strychnine, rhubarb, garlic...I always found it funny, that people have problem with DDT. It is nowhere close to other compounds used instead of it as pesticides in past. [Somehow everybody thinks that natural stuff is harmless. On the contrary. You will have hard time to get your hands on something more toxic than nicotine, and if you succeed, it will probably be all natural botulotoxin. ;-)]

reader SteveBrooklineMA said...

"ooh, so Mother Nature needs a favor?! Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys! Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she's losing. Well I say, hard cheese." -Monty Burns

reader Robert Sykes said...

While it is infamously true that environmentalism and Naziism had strong resonances and mutual sympathies, environmentalism does not have its roots in Naziism. Rather the resonances and sympathies occurred because both movements are rooted in Romanticism, which itself is a rejection of the science and rationality of the Enlightenment.

Of course the NSDAP was the most successful Green Party in history, and much of it lives on in today's various Green Parties--including the antisemitism.

reader a said...

I don't think Rachel Carson ever advocated a blanket ban on pesticides (including DDT).

reader Pat Frank said...

Bruce Ames (UC Berkeley) published a paper in PNAS 23 years ago titled: "Dietary Pesticides -- 99.99% All Natural." There, Ames discussed natural pesticides made by plants in their billion year evolutionary war against predatory insects; and later herbivores.

These natural pesticides proved to be very bit as toxic as human-made artificial pesticides. Our food contains these pesticides, and we eat about 1.5 gm of natural pesticides every day; thousands of times more than we eat of artificial pesticide residues.

The reason these natural pesticides don't make us sick is that we benefit from a long evolutionary history of learning how to detoxify them in our liver. We have layers of detoxification enzymes that have wide chemical effectiveness. They work just as well against artificial pesticides.

So long as farmers and industry meet the standards of pesticide use and manufacture, artificial pesticides will cause us no problem.

By the way, I once had cause to examine Rachel Carson's work as part of an on-line debate. The first claim I investigated turned up a misrepresentation of the science -- having to do with ducks, as I recall.