Amy Kaleita and Gregory R. Forbes: Environmental Alarmism in Context

Roundup: Media's Take

[Environmental Studies Fellow Amy Kaleita is an assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University. Gregory R. Forbes holds a B.S. in forestry, with an emphasis on natural resources and environmental science, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Masters of Public Administration, including emphasis in policy analysis and environmental politics and policies, from the Iowa State University.]

Most people will recognize the name of biologist-turned-author Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, is credited with launching modern environmentalism. But Carson was simply the most successful in a long line of environmental activists convinced that human beings were on the cusp of eliminating various animal species altogether. In 1887, the Audubon Society claimed, “There will soon not be a bird of paradise on earth, and the ostrich has only been saved by private breeders. Man will not wait for the cooling of the world to consume everything in it, from teak trees to humming-birds, and a century or two hence will find himself perplexed by a planet in which there is nothing except what he makes.”1 In 1898, a headline in the New York Times proclaimed, “THE DESTRUCTION OF BIRDS; New York Zoological Society to Publish the Results of an Extensive Investigation. LARGE DECREASE REPORTED… Many Species Are Becoming Extinct. Decrease in Bird Life in 30 States.” In 1907, a story in the New York Tribune mourned the “Passing of the Chihuahua Dog,” which it characterized as “a curious little creature, popularly supposed to be a cross between the prairie dog and the jack rabbit.”

All of this came to a head with the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring. The book was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, endorsed by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and was on the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks. It sparked widespread outcry over the impact on the environment of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals. Carson specifically noted the effect of the insecticide DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) and warned of a “silent spring” in which “no birds sing.” Some have theorized that the public was ripe for her arguments by the time Silent Spring was published. Carson made pesticides sound like a looming threat very similar to another threat of which people were already aware, and terrified. Ralph Lutts, reflecting on the success of Silent Spring, noted:

She was sounding an alarm about a kind of pollution that was invisible to the senses; could be transported great distances, perhaps globally; could accumulate over time in body tissues; could produce chronic as well as acute poisoning; and could result in cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations that may not become evident until years or decades after exposure. Government officials, she also argued, were not taking the steps necessary to control this pollution and protect the public. Chemical pesticides were not the only form of pollution fitting this description. Another form, far better known to the public at the time, was radioactive fallout.”2

Lutts went on to point out that the radioactive isotope Strontium-90, a long-lasting component of nuclear fallout, was the first pollutant Carson mentioned in Silent Spring. Mentions of that and other radioactive substances are sprinkled throughout the book. There was an element of truth to Carson’s warnings about the effect of DDT on bird populations. In the late 1960s, some researchers concluded that exposure to DDT (or rather, its breakdown byproducts) caused the thinning of eggshells in some bird species, especially raptors such as eagles and peregrine falcons. The thinner eggshells were more delicate and less able to protect the chicks; thus many did not survive.

Even so, these findings remain an item of some controversy. A number of studies have shown little, if any, relationship between DDT consumption and eggshell thickness in many bird species.3 Some analysts contend that most of the evidence Carson gives for the deleterious effects of DDT on bird populations is anecdotal or from uncontrolled observational studies.

And Carson’s work undeniably contains elements of unbridled alarmism. For example, Carson notes that, “like the robin, another American bird, [the bald eagle] seems to be on the verge of extinction.” In fact, the robin population has never seriously been considered to be in any sort of jeopardy. At the same time Carson’s book was published, a noted ornithologist was reporting robins to be the most abundant bird in North America.4

Silent Spring launched a whole series of hysterical claims about DDT and other chemicals. Some said that birds were dropping dead right out of the sky5 or falling “out of the trees in by the thousands.”6 In fact, DDT is not known to be directly toxic to any species outside of some insects. Some people still believe DDT is carcinogenic, or harmful to humans in some other way. Although most chemicals can be carcinogenic in extremely large doses, no study has ever specifically found a link between DDT exposure and cancer incidence in humans, not even when volunteers were fed, on a daily basis, three times the quantity of DDT the average American ingested annually.7

The public pressure created by the popularity of Carson’s book took its toll. The use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, despite a general lack of evidence of its effect. Following the ban, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) threatened to stop foreign aid to any country using the chemical. When the World Bank sent aid to fight malaria, it stipulated that DDT could not be used.

Those decisions halted lifesaving efforts to combat malaria in many parts of the world. With the use of DDT in Venezuela, cases of malaria had dropped from more than eight million in 1943 to 800 in 1958. In India, cases had dropped from more than 10 million in 1935 to under 300,000 in 1969. In Italy, cases had dropped from more than 400,000 in 1945 to only 37 in 1968.8 Today, malaria infects an estimated 350—500 million people annually, killing approximately one million every year. Most of the victims are young children in sub-Saharan Africa.9...

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    Stephen David Shenfield - 2/8/2011

    Now that you have put environmental alarmism in context, how about a twin article putting environmental complacency in context? For the sake of balance.