Rachel Carson's Mixed Legacy

Roger Bate | 26 May 2007
Washington Post

David A. Fahrenthold quoted me in his May 23 Metro article "Rachel Carson Bill From Cardin on Hold" but misunderstood my point. While one cannot blame Rachel Carson for things done in her name after her death, she was undoubtedly wrong about DDT and a host of other issues. She was known to be wrong in 1972, 10 years after "Silent Spring" was published, as the back cover of the 1972 Penguin version acknowledged.

But that year DDT was taken off the list of approved pesticides for agricultural uses in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency, against the advice of the agency's own DDT hearing examiner. Manufacturing of the pesticide ceased in the United States, and DDT became a symbol of evil to the environmental movement. The result was that countries combating malaria found good-quality DDT hard to get. Aid agencies discouraged public health use of DDT and other insecticides, contributing to millions of infections and deaths from malaria and other diseases.

Carson is not to blame for environmental zeal that emerged after she died in 1964, but she epitomizes the movement itself: long on emotion, occasional kernels of truth, but with wild and usually unscientific manipulation of data. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is right to block a resolution eulogizing Rachel Carson. She was a progenitor of the environmental movement, and she should share some of the blame, as well as the praise, for the impact it has had.


Resident Fellow

American Enterprise Institute


The writer is on the board of Africa Fighting Malaria, a nonprofit health advocacy group.