Earth Day Reflections

Many would argue the modern environmental movement was catapulted into fame 50 years ago by Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring. Although it is now rarely read outside of the classroom, it remains one the most highly cited works of environmental writing. However, in Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic, Roger E. Meiners and Andrew P. Morriss reanalyze Carson’s science and question its influence on environmental thought.

As Laura Huggins notes in an op-ed in The Washington Times, “[Carson’s] caution that we should be wary of misuse of pesticides is praiseworthy, but there were major oversights in her work - errors that have played a role in shaping environmental policies that have cost millions of lives and dollars.”

In Forbes, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Fellow Henry Miller remarks that Carson exploited her reputation as a popular nature writer to legitimize an unfounded scientific treatise. “Carson’s proselytizing and advocacy led to the virtual banning of DDT and to restrictions on other chemical pesticides in spite of the fact that Silent Spring was replete with gross misrepresentations and scholarship so atrocious that if Carson were an academic, she would be guilty of egregious academic misconduct.”

Soon after Silent Spring was released, Carson was accused of alarmism and ignoring the science of the day. These facets, of course, have been forgotten in the Earth Day craze. Meiners and Morriss, on the other hand, offer a clear perspective on her work and conclude that Carson’s celebrated scholarship was, at best, sloppy, and, at worst, an intentional deceit. As Huggins suggests, “Thanks to human ingenuity, we are much healthier and wealthier in 2012 than in 1962, and the birds are still singing - all real reasons to celebrate.”

As the United States celebrates another Earth Day, PERC Scholars call for science and reason, not more emotionally charged rhetoric.