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Forty-seven years since Silent Spring: what has changed?

David Ord

11th August, 2009

In 1962, Rachel Carson's famous exposé of the environmental impacts of the pesticide DDT rocked the chemical industry. Today, Carson's European legacy - the REACH legislation - ought to safeguard public health. But will it?

Deny the problem, Distort the facts, Discredit the opponent, Distract by suggesting voluntary action, Delay legislation, and Dilute its substance

The earliest origins of green consciousness can be debated at length, but many point to the publication of naturalist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as the key event which triggered public awareness and the beginning of environmental activism in its present form.

Silent Spring was first serialised in The New Yorker in June 1962, and arrived in the bookstores later the same year. Selected by the Book of the Month Club and endorsed by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, it rapidly became a bestseller.

In the book, Carson drew attention to the damage to the environment being caused by pesticides, particularly the toxic effects of dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT) on the bird population. Carson’s conclusions also suggested potential harm to humans.

The chemical industry’s reaction to Silent Spring was, predictably, explosive. The sector was enraged both by the book’s claims about its products and also by Carson’s attack on the lack of effective scrutiny of chemical companies’ activities.

More fundamentally, Carson was seen as an opponent of progress and the freedom of chemical companies to do business unencumbered by regulation. Biochemist and chemical industry spokesman Robert White-Stevens claimed that embracing Carson’s thinking could have apocalyptic results. 'If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson,' he said,  'we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.'

The sector did its utmost to savage Carson’s credentials, ignoring her long career as a naturalist and depicting her as a fanatic, a hysterical female, and, possibly worst of all in those uneasy Cold War days, a communist. The Velsicol Chemical Company of Chicago, a manufacturer of pesticides, threatened Carson’s publisher with legal action. Both The New Yorker and Audubon Magazine received demands that the serialisation be stopped. Confident in the accuracy of Carson’s science, both editors refused to comply.

The response of the Kennedy administration to the book was mixed. Although the U.S. Agriculture Department initially sided with the chemical companies – it was Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft who applied the 'hysterical' tag – Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, praised Carson’s work, organising an investigation of the industry which led ultimately to the Pesticide Control Act of 1972, which banned the use of DDT.

A measure of Carson’s success in rattling the composure of the chemical companies is that, almost 50 years on, criticism of Silent Spring still surfaces from time to time in the scientific community and the media. Opponents continue to criticise Carson for failing to include the beneficial aspects of pesticide use in the book, in particular against malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Over the years, however, they have failed consistently to discredit the science - Carson, all too aware that she would come under attack, checked her facts meticulously.

Change?


It would be encouraging to think that, almost five decades later, with every major corporation fully equipped with at least one sustainability director and mission statements printed in the brightest green, the chemical sector has seen the error of its ways. According to the Green Party’s Axel Sindhofen, the reality is less comforting.

Based in Brussels, Sindhofen is the Green’s advisor on health and environment policy. He has been following chemicals policy in Europe for 15 years. While he may regard the chemical sector with a sceptical eye, Sindhofen stresses that he is not a radical. 'I have strong positions, but I’m not a fundamentalist,' he says.

'I’m working in the European Parliament for a small group - you need to find alliances, so in that sense it’s not an extremist position that I represent. I see it as a sad reality in a way.

'It’s like two paradigms. The mindset for the NGOs is of course above all about protection of human health and the environment. Whereas for the industry it’s all about competitiveness, growth and profit.

'NGOs try to make the point that absence of evidence does not mean absence of a problem. The industry tries to do it the other way round - no evidence, no problem.

He sees little evidence of progress in the attitudes and behaviour of the chemical industry.


'Of course it is perfectly legitimate to lobby and to try to influence decisions in your interest. Where it gets dirty is the limit – that’s why I tried to summarise it with the six Ds. It’s always the same pattern over and over again, starting first by Denying there is a problem. If that doesn’t work then they try to Diminish the science or Distort the facts.

'If that doesn’t work, the next course of action is to Delay things. If it gets really nasty they try to Discredit the opponent by going after their reputation. If none of that helps they try to Dilute the substance of legislative action.

'Of course it’s unfair to speak of ‘industry’ – you have different players. There are the recalcitrant ones, and the more progressive ones, although even the progressive ones are far from being green.'

Silent Spring 2.0

In 2001 the European Commission stimulated debate within the EU with the report Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy. The result was a proposal to replace the existing chemicals control legislation, which dated back to the 1970s. REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals) was the result.

The period before REACH, which came into force in 2007, saw acrimonious debate between the chemical sector and environmental campaigners, with the industry lobbying the European Parliament, claiming unworkably high implementation costs, issues with confidentiality, a disastrous impact on the European economy and, harking back to the Silent Spring era, flawed science.

The Greenpeace report, Toxic Lobby – How the chemicals industry is trying to kill REACH says, 'The European chemicals industry has systematically aimed to postpone and undermine REACH, ever since the first talks about a new chemical regulation began in 1998.'

The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) told MEPs 'there is little direct evidence of widespread ill health or ecosystem damage being caused by the use of man-made chemicals.' CEFIC later dropped the argument when confronted with the mass of unsinkable data proving otherwise.

Unable to claim bad science, the lobbyists turned to bad economics. The German Industry Confederation (BDI) funded a study by consultancy firm Arthur D. Little. Published in 2002, the most alarming of the report’s scenarios estimated that REACH would cause up to 2.35 million job losses in Germany alone.

The report, like later studies funded by the industry, was widely criticised for its poor methodology and doom-laden conclusions. Nonetheless, the publicity it received succeeded in raising concern on the economic impact of legislation.

'From a piece of legislation which was required to better protect human health and the environment against hazardous chemicals, [REACH] became a threat to the competitiveness of the chemical industry,' says Sindhofen. 'That’s how it was perceived.'

'Scientific and economic experts looked at the study in detail and found that it was completely flawed', he says. 'But nobody [in the media] covered that. Industry had it their way – they got the headlines and it really changed the mood.'

Greenpeace’s report quotes Chris Davies, member of the Liberals group (ALDE) in the run-up to the vote on legislation in 2005. 'Too many in the chemicals industry - and particularly its German lobbying arm - seem to believe that if you are going to tell a lie, then lie big; the costs of REACH have been grossly exaggerated from beginning to end.'

Sindhofen believes that chemical companies are unembarrassed by consistently making claims which are subsequently proven wrong, and for a simple reason. 'They don’t really care,' he says. 'You would think it would harm their reputation, but the reputation of the chemical industry is not good – there’s not much to lose.'

A silver lining?

The news is not all bad, however, says Sindhofen. 'Of course things have changed,' he says. 'We don’t have, at least in Europe, crude environmental pollution as we had in the past – thick black smoke coming out of the stacks. Industry has taken action.'

But, he says, every bit of progress has been a struggle. 'They fight it to the end. When it’s over, and they’ve lost, they will of course pretend that nothing has happened and they fully agree with it and supported it.

'It’s frustrating when you see people who have fought [against change] again and again, presenting themselves as environmentalists.'

Nadia Haiama, Greenpeace’s EU chemicals policy director, concedes that the chemical lobby to some degree succeeded in its attempts to water down REACH, but still sees the result as a major step forward.

'The whole issue with Rachel Carson and the environmental movement of the 70s was that the burden was on public authorities, society and government to prove a chemical was not safe before they were able to act. That has been the game for the past decades.'

'That’s one of the things that have changed with REACH. For the first time the sector will finally have to prove that all those thousands of chemicals we’ve been using for half a century are safe.'

'What we really want is to make sure that the chemical industry is walking the talk. They’re saying that chemicals are safe, so show us the data. Not only us, but make it public.'

Haiama also sees the beginnings of dialogue between the opposing sides.

'Both sides are more open and believe that we can discuss things and find compromises,' she says.

Sindhofen agrees, but is not convinced that the sector as a whole has had a change of heart. 'While there are certainly people in the industry who are very open, it very much comes down to individuals who are willing to share information.'

'Informally I probably have better contacts than I had before, but it’s not because of a change of philosophy or approach in the industry – it’s just certain individuals who are more interested in talking.'

Sindhofen’s position is clear. 'For myself, when it comes to chemicals, voluntary action just doesn’t work. The only instrument that works is legislation. It’s the only language that they understand.'

In 1962, wrong-footed by the unexpected success of Silent Spring, the chemical sector’s aggressive and clumsy approach did little to help its cause, drew unwelcome attention to its activities and may well have increased support for Carson and for subsequent environmental campaigning.

The industry has learnt new tactics over the years, and while the ill-temper and threatened litigation of the 1960s appears to be changing, if slowly, to a measure of reluctant cooperation, the battle goes on.

Sindhofen returns to the tactics employed time and time again in that battle, the ‘Six Ds’. 'Deny the problem, Distort the facts, Discredit the opponent, Distract by suggesting voluntary action, Delay legislation, and Dilute its substance.'

'I think it’s the same old fight,' he says. 'It’s still a good old trench war.'

David Ord is a freelance journalist

 

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