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JFK Fought DDT in Rachel Carson’s Environmental Crusade

Rachel Carson
Author Rachel Carson: "The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature." Source: Silent Spring/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service via Bloomberg

The property in Silver Spring, Maryland, has changed little since Rachel Carson lived there 50 years ago when she wrote “Silent Spring,” a powerful indictment of chemical pesticides that pretty much started environmentalism as we know it.

The simple ranch-style house -- designed by Carson herself -- is flanked by oak, maple and tulip poplar trees. White-tailed deer browse the yard with impunity, and catbirds mewl about a birdhouse.

“She enjoyed bringing the outdoors in,” said Diana Post, president of the Rachel Carson Council Inc., which is headquartered in the old homestead. “That’s why she had those huge windows.” The big panes are stickered with bird silhouettes to discourage avian collisions.

The unassuming, asymmetrical brick house became a National Historic Landmark in 1991 and, although none of the original furnishings remain, the house is as Carson left it when she died in 1964. Later owners of the property have respected her wish to keep much of the small plot of land untouched.

“She wanted that to remain wild for the birds and frogs that she loved,” Post said.

Today the Rachel Carson Council is a clearinghouse of information on pesticides. This year it has advised a New York City animal shelter on the least-harmful pet-care products, supplied information to a Chinese journalist who didn’t have access to reliable data, and helped a New Mexico activist organize talks on the hazards of roadside herbicides.

The council also defends Carson’s reputation, which has been attacked relentlessly by critics since before her book even saw print.

Kennedy’s Committee

In June of 1962, The New Yorker magazine ran the first of three installments that would compose most of “Silent Spring,” published in book form by Houghton Mifflin that September. By then, President John F. Kennedy had noted the importance of “Miss Carson’s book,” and appointed a Science Advisory Committee to review the issue.

This didn’t sit well with the multibillion-dollar industry being called out by the mild-mannered lady writer. Velsicol Chemical LLC threatened to sue Houghton Mifflin for libel, hinting at the “sinister forces” (read: Commies) that must have influenced the book. In April 1963, Carson appeared on “CBS Reports” with Eric Sevareid to make her case, prompting three sponsors to yank ads from the program.

Silent Carson

In May, Kennedy’s committee agreed with every salient point made in “Silent Spring.” Sadly, Carson didn’t have long to appreciate the vindication, as she died in 1964 of breast cancer, an illness she had kept to herself.

“In her book she wrote a lot about cancer,” Post told me. “But she didn’t want to be accused of having a vendetta because of a personal problem.”

One of the criticisms of Carson’s work is that it called for a ban on DDT, which led to millions of malarial deaths worldwide. In fact all she prescribed was prudence:

“It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used,” she wrote. “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”

To this day, DDT and other pesticides are considered only a possible human carcinogen, although there is little doubt that a correlation exists between high exposures and higher rates of cancers of all kinds.

Legacy Toxics

We also know that some organic pollutants do persist, for a long time. According to the Anacostia Riverkeeper, “legacy toxics” like DDT dispersed decades ago are still found in the watershed near where Carson lived.

Fifty years on, critics haven’t gone silent. Carson has been compared to Hitler and Pol Pot on the crazier fringes of public discourse, but also unfairly roughed up by the likes of the New York Times. The libertarian Cato Institute, co-founded in 1977 by chemical merchant David Koch, is marking the anniversary of “Silent Spring” with its own contrarian publication titled “The False Crises of Rachel Carson.”

Carson anticipated such a backlash. In a 1963 speech, she said, “Above all, we must not be deceived by the enormous stream of propaganda that is issuing from the pesticide manufacturers and from industry-related -- although ostensibly independent -- organizations.”

Carson also noted that “the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ was neither the beginning nor the end” of the struggle for sane policy. Her radical suggestion for prudence is as applicable today as it was 50 years ago.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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