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Rachel Carson: Worse than Hitler?

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Close up photograph of an anopheles quadrimaculatus mosquito on

“A pandemic is slaughtering millions, mostly children and pregnant women — one child every 15 seconds; 3 million people annually; and over 100 million people since 1972 –but there are no protestors clogging the streets or media stories about this tragedy. These deaths can be laid at the doorstep of author Rachel Carson.” – Lisa Makson, Front Page Magazine 31 July 2003.

This accusation, in one form or another, has been repeated in such august fora as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

Can this be true? Could this mild-mannered author and naturalist from Baltimore really be responsible for more deaths that Hitler?

Image Aaron Schwarz of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and John Quiggen of Prospect trace the genesis of the Rachel Carson = Hitler trope, which is largely the brainchild of two men: Roger Bate and Steve Milloy. Their thesis, briefly summarized, is as follows: hysteria whipped up by Rachel Carson’s book led the US Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT. Mosquitoes subsequently multiplied out of control and as a result malaria resulted in the deaths of millions of impoverished Africans.

Bate is the founder of Africa Fighting Malaria. He originally pitched his idea for AFM to tobacco giant Phillip Morris, Inc. In a memo he wrote: “The environmental movement has been successful in most of its campaigns as it has been ‘politically correct’, if not always ethical.” At the time there was enormous controversy regarding the possible health hazards of second-hand smoke, and Bate touted DDT as a way to discredit preoccupation with what he called “Virtual risks.”

“Malaria kills 2 million a year and infects 500m[illion] – of whom 90% are in Africa – more than any other disease,” he wrote, then added “[S]praying DDT was banned under pressure from US greens.” He proposed recruiting journalists to draw attention to the “contrast of western indifference to death in LDC’s (regardless of rhetoric) and preoccupation with virtual risks in [the] west.”


Phillip Morris wasn’t interested, but Bate went on to found Africa Fighting Malaria anyway.

Milloy has worked as the executive director of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which was established with seed money from Phillip Morris. TASSC sponsored the website, featuring “The Malaria Clock: A Green Eco-Imperialist Legacy of Death” which informs readers “Since [EPA Head William] Ruckelshaus arbitrarily and capriciously banned DDT, an estimated 16,000,000,000 cases of malaria have caused immense suffering and poverty in the developing world. Of these largely avoidable cases, 100,000,000 people have died.” The numbers continue to mount as the reader peruses the page. Prominently displayed next to the “Malaria Clock” is a photograph of Rachel Carson.

The effort of these two men bore fruit, in the form of a spate of news stories in the mainstream media casting environmentalists in general and Rachel Carson in particular as baby-killers. In 2005, the editors of the magazine Human Events assembled a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to name the most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries. Silent Spring made the cut, placing Rachel Carson right alongside the author of Mein Kampf.

Image Where do I even begin with all this? Have Carson’s critics even read her book? I have, and I can tell you that nowhere does she call for the DDT or any other pesticide to be banned. In fact, she writes:

“Disease-carrying insects become important where human beings are crowded together, especially under conditions where sanitation are poor, in times of natural disaster or war or in situations of extreme poverty or deprivation. Then control of some sort becomes necessary.”

Most of her book was not about the chemical control of insect vectors of human diseases at all, but rather the reckless broadcasting of toxins across agroecosystems, forests, and even suburban neighborhoods, all of which was standard operating procedure in 1962. She quotes approvingly the advice of Doctor C.J. Briejér, Director of the Plant Protection Service in the Netherlands:

“Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can,’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity.’”

There never was any worldwide ban of DDT. The EPA did ban DDT in 1972, but the ban did not apply outside the United States, and even there an exception was made for insect vectors of human diseases. American companies continued to manufacture DDT for export well into the 1980’s. The 2001 Stockholm Convention outlawed the use of DDT, but likewise an exception was made for control of insect vectors of human disease. The US no longer manufactures DDT, but the Chinese and the Indians still do, and presumably they are happy to sell it to anyone who wants to buy it.

Writing in the New York Times, columnist Nicolas Kristof reports that he called the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, “thinking I would get a fight.” Experts at both organizations assured him they had no problems with the use of DDT to control malaria. Since that time, the Sierra Club has expressed guarded support for the use of DDT, while the Endangered Wildlife Trust has helped train workers to apply DDT safely in Kruger National Park in the safest manner possible.

Milloy’s figure of 100 million + malaria deaths since 1972 is a preposterous fiction. How do I know this? Because he admits as much, in footnotes in small print at the bottom of the page. He adds, ”[C]ertain in the knowledge that even one human sacrificed on the altar of green misanthropy is infinitely too many, I let stand the linear extrapolation of numbers from an instant start on the 1st of the month following this murderous ban.” This is on a website purportedly devoted to debunking “junk science.”

Milloy may not be stickler for accuracy, but he’s hardly alone there. In a diatribe against Carson in the Sydney Morning Herald, columnist Miranda Devine cites State of Fear, a work of science fiction by novelist Michael Crichton.

Every movement has its excesses, and the environmental movement is no exception. It is possible that somewhere in the world, sometime in the last forty years, a government decided to forego the use of DDT when it really was the best tool at hand for fighting malaria. It would be enormously helpful if Carson’s detractors would give us names, dates, and places, instead of simply railing against “Carson and her crew.” Wildly inflating the number of malaria deaths in the last forty years and attributing every single one of them to Rachel Carson gets us no closer to the truth, and spewing out invective at a long-dead woman and her unnamed “crew” is not an enterprise that takes a lot of guts – or brains.

In his reply to Quiggen, Bate does not provide us with any specific examples, but he assures us that the number of people who have died as a result of the DDT “ban” “must be in the millions.” The article by Lisa Makson I linked to above does mention an incident in which environmentalists tried to block the government of South Africa from using DDT, although they went ahead and sprayed anyway. Milloy does not give us even that much.

Indeed, one example after another cited by Carson’s detractors breaks down upon closer examination. In 1963 authorities in Sri Lanka stopped using DDT for mosquito control, on the eminently reasonable grounds that malaria appeared to have been virtually eliminated (they continued using DDT to control pests of farm crops). In 1968 there was a resurgence of malaria and they resumed using DDT to control mosquitoes, but by then the evolution of resistance had rendered DDT ineffective (just as Rachel Carson had warned us) so they had to switch to the more expensive malathion.

More recently, the European Union threatened import sanctions against Uganda if they used DDT to control mosquitoes, but they went ahead and sprayed anyway. In Zimbabwe tobacco farmers complained that DDT residues were contaminating their crop (!) but again they went ahead and sprayed anyway.

Malaria continue to be a scourge, but great strides have been made in controlling it using a multi-pronged approach including insecticide-treated bednets and artemisinin-combination therapy drugs. (I can attest to the efficacy of these medicines. While I was teaching in Ghana I was stricken with malaria. I came into the hospital wondering if I was going to die, I took eight pills, I rested for thirty-six hours, and I was as good as new.)

This multi-pronged approach also entails the judicious use of insecticides, including, yes, DDT. But this sort of integrated pest management is a world away from the “More-is-better” paradigm that reigned in 1962, and in fact is precisely the approach Rachel Carson advocated in her book.

Quiggen states:

“The most striking feature of the claim against Carson is the ease with which it can be refuted. It takes only a few minutes with Google to discover that DDT has never been banned for anti-malarial uses, and that it is in use in at least 11 countries.”

This is true, but it’s also true that it takes only a few minutes with Google to discover that the Rachel Carson = Hitler myth is alive and well.

Milloy remains unrepentant, but now that the Rachel Carson = Hitler myth has taken on a life of its own, Bate has found it expedient to back away from some of his more inflammatory positions. No big surprise there. As a famous politician once said:

 “[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”

 Bate and his crew seem to have taken that lesson to heart.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

1 Comment

  1. […] Not everyone has such a sanguine view of Rachel Carson’s life and work. This is a matter we will take up in Part Two. […]

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