We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
As we marked Earth Day last month, there are disturbing trends of anti-environmentalism running through the political landscape. I distinctly remember the first Earth Day in 1970, and the ensuing decade when the country was very environmentally conscious. But lately, the powerful special interests who oppose environmentalism (especially the oil and coal industries and their lobbyists and politicians) have been fighting hard through the right-wing think tanks that they fund, and through right-wing oil-state politicians like Sarah Palin and James Inhofe, to gut the EPA (created by a Republican president, Richard Nixon) and create doubt and confusion about global climate change (see the discussion in my book Catastrophes!). I shuddered to hear them chant “Drill, baby, drill” at GOP rallies—never mind the fact that the remaining oil reserves in and around the U.S. (including Alaska) are at best enough to last us 2–3 years at our current rate of consumption (ignoring the environmental costs). I never thought I would see the day when people were happy to defend oil spills (like BP’s disaster last summer) and air pollution and strip mining whole mountains for coal as no big deal. But the strangest case of all has to be the weird attempt by right-wing zealots to demonize Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson has long been considered to be one of the pioneers and a heroine of the environmental movement. Her book Silent Spring (1962) was an environmental classic, and helped galvanize the early environmental movement in the U.S. It popularized the research that showed that DDT sprayed indiscriminately to kill mosquitoes was also killing a wide variety of other harmless wildlife. In particular, DDT was destroying bird populations because of the increasing concentrations of the poison as it went up the food chain, so that apex predators like hawks, falcons and eagles were dying off at alarming rates. Historians regard the banning of DDT as an early environmental success story. At the time, the ban had widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and DDT was finally made illegal under Nixon’s Republican administration. Carson herself died in 1964, too soon to see how her efforts led to the banning of DDT and the birth of the EPA and Environmental Defense Fund and many other environmental movement organizations.
Most of us consider Carson’s legacy settled. But one can never underestimate the anti-environmentalists and their ability to write revisionist history, and to create villains out of heroines. In a modern world with openly partisan networks like Fox, and industry-funded conservative think tanks generating their own propaganda, and with the crazy garbage that flies across the internet, even environmental saints like Rachel Carson cannot escape the abuse.
As Oreskes and Conway (2010, Chapter 7) document in detail, since 2007 the right-wing and libertarian organizations are calling Rachel Carson a mass-murderer. What? Did they even read about her life? This shy, humble scientist a mass murderer? Their “reasoning”: because her work led to the banning of DDT, thousands of Africans died of malaria, which might not have happened if DDT were available to them. I won’t rehash the entire ill-informed and crazy, convoluted thinking of these people, since Oreskes and Conway (2010) have done it already. The reality of the whole argument is that even if DDT had not been banned, its use would have stopped anyway because insects had evolved resistance to it. DDT was already being phased out at the time of the ban, and other pesticides that worked better and didn’t damage too many harmless animals were being used instead—because DDT didn’t work! If, as these people propose, DDT had been sprayed across the waterways of Africa, it would not have saved any lives whatsoever because of the evolution of resistance. In fact, many other pesticides that have since been used over the years are now useless because insect pests (especially mosquitoes) evolve resistance so quickly. Yet these people manage to distort history as badly as any Holocaust-denier—except instead of trying to exonerate the Nazis of genocide, they turn Rachel Carson into a mass murderer.
Such strange revisionist thinking wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it were not so common in the public discourse these days. Especially on the internet, where there is no peer review or fact checking, crazy is the norm. Just look at the huge number of sites that support demonstrably false ideas, from Holocaust denialism to creationism to the “9/11 truth” movement, or the idea that Obama is a Kenyan citizen and a Muslim. As many people have pointed out, the universality and democratization of the internet means that anyone can post anything and anyone can believe a crazy, false idea on the internet (such as the anti-vaxxers). It is less and less likely that they will get their information from moderate, fact-checked media (like the old evening news with Walter Cronkite or the New York Times) whose judgment the entire American public used to accept. And so, we have a polarized America, with a significant number of people who only get their information from the conservative “echo-chamber” and no longer have a reality check from more moderate media sources. In a worldview like this, the polluters can be made into saints, and Rachel Carson into a demon. It’s fortunate she died 47 years ago, and never had to suffer through the besmirching of her reputation that many living scientists have endured.