Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rachel Carson: Still controversial after all these years

By Nancy Jane Moore

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin planned to introduce a bill to honor Rachel Carson on May 27, which would have been her 100th birthday.

But right-wing Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma put a hold on the bill, calling Carson's work "junk science."

You'd think Coburn, a doctor, would know better; surely he had to have mastered some aspects of science to get an M.D. But according to Congresspedia, he has also called global warming "just a lot of crap." I certainly wouldn't want a doctor who displayed such scientific ignorance -- I wouldn't trust him to think carefully about his diagnoses or the medicines he prescribes.

I'm sure there is more to be said on the subject of pesticides and their effect on the environment than Carson said in her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, first published in 1962 and now available in a special anniversary edition. And if Carson were still with us, I'm sure she would be saying it. But there's no "junk" in the science showing that pesticides and other chemicals put together by humans have an effect on the environment and that many times those effects are dangerous to human health, not to mention comfortable life on Earth.

Carson was the first strong voice to point out that we need to pay attention to all the effects of what we do -- not just the immediate reaction. It's depressing that 43 years after her death we have people like Coburn still arguing that humans can bully their way across the planet, doing whatever we choose, with no effect.

Instead of debating whether or not global warming exists or that certain chemicals used in pesticides create more problems than they solve (the science is pretty settled on those things), we should be bringing good science and good economics into a real discussion over the best ways to handle feeding the world and keeping both people and the environment healthy at the same time. There's plenty of material for an expansive debate on that issue.

Of course, Silent Spring was controversial when it first came out. And the attacks on Carson were predictable, as this quote from Time magazine, as published on Wikipedia, points out:
Carson was violently assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that this meticulous scientist was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid -- indeed, the whole chemical industry -- duly supported by the Agriculture Department as well as the more cautious in the media.

Rachel Carson would probably be appalled to discover that people are still raising ignorant arguments over her science. But, on the other hand, the controversy makes it clear how important her work really was. If she hadn't made an important contribution to our understanding of the environment, no one would be bothering to block an innocuous resolution honoring her life.

With luck, the controversy will provide wider recognition for Rachel Carson and her work than the resolution would have.

No comments: