Earth Day, the free market way

The first celebration of Earth Day, which was founded by former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, was held in 1970 as a “symbol of environmental responsibility and stewardship.” In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising, New Age experience, and most activities were organized at the grassroots level.

A driving force of environmentalism in that era was Rachel Carson’s best-selling book, Silent Spring, an emotionally charged but deeply flawed excoriation of the widespread spraying of chemical pesticides on crops and wetlands for the control of crop-devouring and disease-causing insects.

As described by Roger Meiners and Andy Morriss in their scholarly yet very readable analysis, “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” recently published by the Property and Environment Research Center, Carson exploited her reputation as a well-known nature writer to advocate and legitimatize “positions linked to a darker tradition in American environmental thinking: neo-Malthusian population control and anti-technology efforts.”

Carson’s proselytizing and advocacy led to the virtual banning of DDT and to restrictions on other chemical pesticides. These policies were based on gross misrepresentations and scholarship so atrocious that were Carson a scholar, she would be guilty of egregious academic misconduct. Years later, Carson’s observations about DDT were rebutted point by point by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, Professor of Entomology at San Jose State University, long-time member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. In his stunning 1992 essay, “The Lies of Rachel Carson,” Edwards demolished her arguments and assertions by calling attention to the critical omissions, faulty assumptions, and outright fabrications in her book:

This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse effects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1965 that “in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million [human] deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable.” The World Health Organization stated that DDT had “killed more insects and saved more people than any other substance.”

Meiners and Morriss conclude correctly that the influence of Silent Spring on modern environmentalism “encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world.”

In recent years, Earth Day has provided an opportunity for environmental Cassandras to prophesy apocalypse, dish anti-technology dirt, and proselytize. Passion and zeal trump science. A perennial target at these events is biotechnology applied to agriculture, which one anti-technology activist characterized as threatening “a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust.” Greenpeace seeks no less than the “complete elimination [from] the food supply and the environment” of biotech products.

Who could tell from such apocalyptic language that what is at issue are products like pro-vitamin-A-fortified “Golden Rice,” which promises to ameliorate the ravages of vitamin A deficiency in many poor countries; cassava with enhanced protein levels and lower endogenous cyanide; papaya, corn, and cotton plants genetically improved to give higher yields, resist pests, grow under adverse climatic conditions, and with less agricultural chemicals; and a fast-maturing, farmed salmon that offers an eco-friendly source of high-quality, inexpensive protein.