ne sultry June day in 2006, Valerie Fellows, press officer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, took an unexpected phone call from the manager of the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge in Maine. “I don’t know if you care,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “but next May 27th is the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth.” No kidding? Fellows most certainly did care. She had grown up adoring Rachel Carson, who is known as the godmother of American environmentalism. What’s more, Carson happened to have been employed by the predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Fisheries, where she worked as a biologist in the 1930s and ’40s. One of Carson’s roles had been to edit all agency publications, making the science comprehensible to the layman, a skill she later put to memorable use. Carson wrote several books, but the most famous, her last, was Silent Spring, published in 1962. A lyrical and devastating look at indiscriminate pesticide use, Silent Spring is often credited with spurring on the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and, with it, the modern environmental movement.
Fellows, who saw “a huge opportunity” for good publicity, spent the next year rummaging through neglected agency archives, trekking to Carson’s former homes, dusting off historical artifacts, and scheduling “centennial activities” to take place from May through October this year. After all, she notes, “how often does your most famous employee turn 100?”
At first, Washington seemed happy to join in the festivities. The National Archives held an exhibit of Carson memorabilia, and several environmental groups cosponsored a commemorative reception on Capitol Hill. In Congress, members vied to outdo each other with odes to Carson’s legacy. Representative Tom Udall penned a resolution to honor “the patron saint of the modern environmental movement.” Pennsylvania representatives of both parties introduced a bill to rename Rachel Carson’s hometown post office in Springdale in her honor. Even Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett, who often spars with conservationists over public-lands policies, extolled Carson’s work at the Capitol Hill reception.
But the Capitol Dome weathervane swiveled quickly. Democrats may be in charge of Congress now, but Valerie Fellows was about to see how furious a twister conservative Washington can still unleash when it’s feeling provoked. And, for the right, Rachel Carson is decidedly provocative. The allegations of her critics can be summed up simply: in recent years, many scientists have concluded that DDT, used sparingly, could help eradicate malaria in Africa by targeting the mosquitoes that spread it. But the pesticide remains controversial, largely because of Carson’s work publicizing the damage wrought by DDT in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was used indiscriminately to dust fields in the United States. Since malaria kills millions, goes the argument, Carson is responsible for millions of deaths.
The chorus quickly sounded off. “A Centennial We Could Do Without,” complained the National Review. “Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science,” objected John Tierney’s New York Times column. “Rachel Carson’s Deadly Legacy,” lamented the title of a piece in the Washington Times.
Carson’s defenders protested the onslaught, which they rightly viewed as absurd, since neither Rachel Carson nor the EPA ever had the authority to ban DDT use in Africa. (Indeed, Carson had never lobbied to ban DDT in America, but simply focused attention on its haphazard use.) But the detractors were already on a roll. Republicans on Capitol Hill eagerly took their turn. “The fact is, no matter how much some might want to ignore the suffering, brain damage, and death caused by rampant malaria,” opined Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, to a colleague in the House, such unfortunate events are “a part of [Carson’s] legacy.” Even as Coburn vowed to block any Senate bill to honor Carson, Minority Leader John Boehner pledged similar resistance in the House.
To lend scientific polish to the anti-Carson forces, sympathetic experts would need to be summoned. Those would come from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank best known for “debunking” global warming science and celebrating carbon dioxide emissions (a recent ad slogan ran, “Some Call It Pollution. We Call It Life.”) CEI, which is generously funded by the petroleum and chemical industries, has recently turned its attention to Carson. Among other things, it operates a Web site called www.rachelwaswrong.org, the homepage of which features photos of Ugandan malaria victims, all hollow cheeks and big eyes. But why, precisely, is CEI stirred by their plight? The institute, which opposes most environmental regulation and blames Carson for extreme anti-chemical policies, hopes that tarring an icon will help diminish support for future green laws. Or, as the Web site explains, perhaps new interpretations of Carson’s legacy will help in “revers[ing] misguided public policies and preventing the implementation of new ones.”
For Fellows, caught unsuspecting by the hullabaloo, seeing Rachel Carson maligned so unfairly was painful. Worse yet, she had to remain tight-lipped in public. While Washington buzzes with lobbyists who are free to be talkative, employees of any federal agency are forbidden from volunteering their opinions concerning congressional debates. (The logic of the law, enacted during the reign of Newt Gingrich, is that the executive branch should in no way be allowed to “interfere” with the legislative process.) “Nobody called us so we could defend the science,” says Fellows. “The agency is restricted. It was really hardwe weren’t allowed to say anything in opposition.”
In the Senate, Coburn stonewalled all Carson bills. In the House, when the Springdale post office proposal came to a vote, fifty-three Republicans, including John Boehner, cast ballots to keep Carson’s name off the wall. “It’s very strange,” observed one Democratic staffer. “I’ve never seen a controversy over a post office.”
In the end, the bills all died, one by one. There would be no Rachel Carson post office, no official Rachel Carson day, no annual reminder, and no anniversary on the calendar. Republicans on the Hill toasted their symbolic victory. CEI focused on its next target: seeing that strict chemical legislation recently enacted in the European Union doesn’t jumpstart support for similar laws on these shores. The EU law is “the start of something much bigger,” warns CEI’s Angela Logomasini, who has penned a number of op-eds about Silent Spring and malaria. “It’s the first step in trying to come up with some sort of global chemicals management.”
Fellows, for her part, will still participate in local centennial events. She now also has a new field-research topic, the ecology of Washington. The last time we spoke, she told me about the Reason Foundation, a regulation-phobic think tank assailing the Endangered Species Act as the “bald eagle’s worst enemy.” Looking back at the Rachel Carson uproar, Fellows is still incredulous. “I had no idea,” she says. “We thought this would just be a big celebration.”