Industry Attacks on Dissent: From Rachel Carson to Oprah

Forty years after the publication of Silent Spring, corporations are still producing poisons—and still trying to keep critics from fighting back.


This article is from the March/April 2002 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the March/April 2002 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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In March 1996, the British government announced that ten people had died after eating beef from cattle sick with "mad cow disease." A month later, financier, movie actress, and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey discussed the topic on national television. While interviewing guest Howard Lyman of the Humane Society about his belief that American cattle might be at risk for the disease, Winfrey told her audience, "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger." A group of Texas cattle ranchers sued Winfrey and Lyman for libeling cattle. Four years and over $1 million later, the two were vindicated in court.

Winfrey and Lyman were sued under the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act. Food disparagement laws are a new tool in an old bag of tricks used by corporations to protect their own economic interests at the expense of public discussion. Silencing public debate with frivolous, time-consuming, and costly lawsuits has become so commonplace that the technique has its own name: strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits.

Winfrey and Lyman won in lower federal court because the judge ruled that cattle were not "perishable food products." The cattlemen pursued the matter in appellate court. A three-judge panel eventually ruled against the Texas ranchers. But the SLAPP suit achieved its objective by forcing Winfrey and Lyman to spend an enormous amount of time and money defending themselves—and by serving as a warning to the rest of us that saying what we believe to be true may cost us more than we can bear.

Lawsuits, and the threat of lawsuits, are not the only means industry uses to stifle dissent. Industry routinely buys the science that suits its needs (tobacco is a good example) and according to Sheldon Rampton, editor of the newsletter PR Watch, spends at least $10 billion every year on "public relations."

Industry's use of half-truths and intimidation to defend its toxic assault on life is nothing new. But until 40 years ago, when Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was published, one could argue that we—the people—didn't know what was going on. Silent Spring woke up the nation, creating a national consciousness about the health and environmental consequences of pesticide use. Industry woke up too. Bruce Johnson, a Seattle lawyer, told the New York Times in 1999, "If [food disparagement laws] had been in place in the 1960s, Rachel Carson might not have found a publisher willing to print Silent Spring."

Trying to Silence Silent Spring

Before World War I, about half of the industrial products in the United States were made from renewable resources, such as plant-, wood-, and animal-based materials. In the 1920s and 1930s, oil and chemical companies like Union Carbide, Shell, and Dow expanded their interest in petrochemical manufacturing. The petrochemical industry, strengthened immensely by World War II, replaced renewable materials with synthetic organic compounds made from the by-products of oil and natural gas: for instance, synthetic rubber replaced natural rubber, chemical detergents replaced animal-based soaps, and polyester replaced cotton. In the 1950s and 1960s, the thriving plastics industry accelerated the shift even more. Today, 92% of the materials used for U.S. products and production processes are nonrenewable.

In many cases, the processes used to manufacture synthetic products created toxic wastes, and often the products themselves—either intact or when dissipated into the environment—were harmful to life. Among the most lethal of these products were synthetic pesticides. Before 1940, most pesticides were made from plants; a few were made from toxic metals like arsenic and mercury. But the synthetic chemicals created for chemical warfare during World War II were found to be highly effective weed and insect killers. So in 1945, with strong government backing, these poisons entered commercial markets. Within ten years, synthetic pesticides had captured 90% of the agricultural pest-control market. Pesticides such as dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), dieldrin, and aldrin were dropped from planes like bombs over Dresden. State and federal government agencies blanketed neighborhoods with poisons in an attempt to eradicate pests like gypsy moths and Japanese beetles. Farmers used DDT and other synthetic insecticides on a variety of crops, including cotton, peanuts, and soybeans. Suburbanites embraced the new chemicals in their war against perceived nuisances like crab grass and dandelions.

Few people understood the dangers to life that these new chemicals presented. Sickness and death among chemical manufacturing workers were sometimes the first indication that the materials they worked with were toxic. But most people believed that you had to be an industrial worker to get sick. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was the first widely read publication to say that everybody was being poisoned.

Silent Spring was serialized by The New Yorker in June 1962 and came out in book form that same year. The book was—and still is—a devastating testament to the mortal dangers of synthetic chemical poisons. Carson, a wildlife biologist with two best sellers and a National Book Award under her belt, wrote, "We allow the chemical death rain to fall as though there were no alternative, whereas in fact there are many, and our ingenuity could soon discover many more if given opportunity."

Silent Spring was written before big business politics and sophistry were so well versed at setting the terms of discourse about environmental issues. Still, during the four years that Carson spent writing the book, she was well aware that it would unleash the wrath of the chemical industry. Deeply concerned about potential industry attacks and lawsuits, she did what she could to protect herself. Carson and her literary agent Marie Rodell asked lawyers from Houghton Mifflin, her publisher, to review the manuscript. Carson made sure Houghton Mifflin had libel insurance and she renegotiated a contract with them that put a monetary limit on her personal liability. And building the best defense of all, she meticulously checked her facts and diligently worked on a list of principal sources to document her conclusions.

Carson's concerns were well founded. After The New Yorker serialized parts of the book, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, " 'Silent Spring' Is Now Noisy Summer: Pesticide Industry Up In Arms Over a New Book." The story began, "The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author whose previous works on science have been praised for the beauty and precision of the writing." It quoted the president of the Montrose Chemical Corporation—a major manufacturer of DDT, a pesticide that Carson discussed at length—as saying that Carson wrote not "as a scientist but rather as a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature."

Some of the criticism seems laughable now. After the second installment from Silent Spring appeared in The New Yorker, a man from California wrote to the magazine:

Miss Rachel Carson's reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn't it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K. P.S. She's probably a peace-nut too.

But industry's attack on Rachel Carson was swift and vicious. The chemical companies banded together and hired a public relations firm to malign the book and attack Carson's credibility. The pesticide industry trade group, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, spent over $250,000 (equivalent to $1.4 million today) to denigrate the book and its author. The company that manufactured and sold the pesticides chlordane and heptachlor, the Velsicol Chemical Company of Chicago, threatened to sue Houghton Mifflin.

Milton Greenstein, legal counsel and vice president of The New Yorker, was called by at least one chemical company and told that the magazine would be sued if it didn't pull the last installment it planned to run of Carson's book. Greenstein responded, "Everything in those articles has been checked and is true. Go ahead and sue." John Vosburgh, editor of Audubon Magazine, which published excerpts from Silent Spring, said pretty much the same thing when Audubon was threatened. According to Carson biographer Linda Lear, Velsicol's lawyers suggested to Vosburgh that printing "a muckraking article containing unwarranted assertions about Velsicol pesticides" might "jeopardize [the] financial security" of magazine employees and their families. Vosburgh was so incensed that he wrote an editorial that appeared with the book excerpts, criticizing the chemical industry's response.

Industry threats did not stop the publication of Silent Spring, nor did the attacks prevent the book from becoming wildly successful. Carson was a popular writer who had the support of her editors, her publisher, and even President Kennedy, who cited Silent Spring as a reason to examine the health effects of pesticides. After the book was published, Carson was interviewed by Eric Severeid on national television and she testified before Congress about chemical poisons. She was profiled in Life magazine and featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post. In a review for the Book-of-the-Month Club, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that Silent Spring "is a call for immediate action and for effective control of all merchants of poison," and called the book "the most important chronicle of this century for the human race."

Carson effectively got her message across in part because what she had to say was radically new to the public, because her facts were unassailable, and because industry, though quite capable of attacking her and the publications that featured her work, had not yet learned how to overload the media—and by extension the people—with its own point of view.

Today's Targets

Rachel Carson understood the forces at work in government and industry. Having served on the staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 16 years, she was well aware of government's role in promoting and defending chemical poisons. "The crusade to create a chemically sterile, insect-free world," Carson wrote, "seems to have engendered a fanatic zeal on the part of many specialists and most of the so-called control agencies." We were living, she said, in an era "dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results of pesticide applications, it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth. We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts."

This language is too mild to describe what is happening today. Not only has the production of chemical poisons continued, but the chemical industry has become much more skillful at manipulating the media for its own ends. Now we are fed big pills of outright lies, prevarication, and deception. We do not need to see industry's press releases; we hear the corporate viewpoint every day, all the time. Forty years after Rachel Carson tripped the alarm bell, we have been largely conditioned by industry to accept that which is harmful to us and to reject the warning signs of environmental devastation. We have been made ready to believe that a conservation ethic is incompatible with prosperity and that with creature comforts come sacrifices. Many of us want the sugar coating because, to a great extent, we are consumer junkies who believe that, if we demand that industry change its behavior, we will have to change our own.

But of course not everyone wants the sugar coating, and some people are writing and talking about environmental issues in ways that are as compelling as Silent Spring. It is just harder to hear them now, harder to unpeel the layers of deception created by corporations and regulators. And when dissenting voices are heard, industry is quick to strike back.

For example, two recent books, Living Downstream and Our Stolen Future, are filled with the kind of critical thinking and meticulous research found in Carson's Silent Spring. Both deal with the chemical causes and consequences of health and environmental degradation. Both take industry to task. Both were attacked.

Sandra Steingraber's 1997 book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, is the Silent Spring of the post-baby boom generation. Viewing cancer through several lenses—as biologist, cancer survivor, poet, and activist—Steingraber shows the links between cancer and environmental degradation. The book is beautifully written and powerfully frank. Reviewer Nancy Evans wrote: "The author describes the many kinds of silence that surround cancer issues, personal and political, individual and collective. The silence of scientists who fear loss of funding, the silence that fear imposes on people with cancer and those at risk. She suggests that Silent Spring shows us 'how one kind of silence breeds another, how the secrecies of government beget a weirdly quiet and lifeless world.' "

Living Downstream was also reviewed in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 1998. The negative review was signed "Jerry H. Berke, M.D., M.P.H." Trouble is, the journal failed to note Berke's affiliation with the W.R. Grace Company, a notorious environmental polluter.

Berke, director of toxicology for W.R. Grace, began his review with an attack on all environmentalists: "An older colleague of mine once suggested that the work product of an environmentalist is controversy. Fear and the threat of unseen, unchosen hazards enhance fund-raising for environmental political organizations and fund environmental research, he suggested." Berke called Steingraber's book "biased" and "obsessed with environmental pollution." And like a loyal industry toxicologist, he wrote, "The focus on environmental pollution and agricultural chemicals to explain human cancer has simply not been fruitful nor given rise to useful preventive strategies."

The mainstream media essentially ignored Living Downstream. No one can say exactly why, but one can guess that the book didn't win any points in the corporate-controlled media by eloquently pressing for prevention and suggesting that people change the way they think about chemicals. The book calls for a "human rights approach," which would recognize that the "current system of regulating the use, release, and disposal of known and suspected carcinogens—rather than preventing their generation in the first place—is intolerable."

Like Living Downstream, Our Stolen Future—a book about endocrine disrupters (synthetic chemicals that disrupt hormones)—has also come under fire. When it was published in 1996, Our Stolen Future caused an immediate stir. Using a new way to examine the effects of chemical contamination, authors Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers provide evidence that endocrine disruptors are widespread in the environment and are making people sick. A staggering list of synthetic chemicals, they tell us, interferes with hormones in humans and wildlife. These chemicals are common in the manufacture of pesticides, herbicides, and petrochemicals: they are found in soaps and detergents, flame retardants, and the dioxins produced in pulp and paper mills. In humans, the presence of endocrine disruptors can result in, among other things, severe reproductive tract deformities, declines in sperm count, elevated risk of cancer, and even behavioral changes. Our Stolen Future makes a powerful case for caution when using these chemicals.

But industry was having none of it. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber point out in Trust Us, We're Experts!, industry's attack on the book was "instant and vicious." The industry-funded Advancement of Sound Science Coalition held a press conference at which no fewer than ten scientists labeled the book as "fiction." And another industry-financed group, the American Council on Science and Health, "obtained a copy of the book in galley form months before publication and prepared an 11-page attack on it before it even hit the bookstores." Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal referred to Our Stolen Future as an "environmental 'hype machine.' "

One chemical industry leader, the Monsanto Company, has a long record of going after its critics. Monsanto manufactured DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) before they were banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. It still makes a long list of synthetic chemicals and aggressively markets genetically engineered products like bovine growth hormone (Posilac) and genetically modified seeds. A billion-dollar company when Silent Spring first appeared, it published a parody of Carson's work, called "The Desolate Year," in the October 1962 issue of Monsanto Magazine. Since then, Monsanto has become a corporate role model in sugar-coating unpalatable facts and silencing dissent.

For example, Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, a book by Dr. Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey, was originally supposed to be published by Vital Health. But the company cancelled publication after receiving a threatening letter from a Monsanto lawyer, who said he believed the manuscript contained false statements about Monsanto's biggest money maker, the herbicide RoundUp. Common Courage Press picked up the book and published it in 1998.

That same year, The Ecologist magazine published a special issue, "The Monsanto Files," which took a critical look at the chemical/biotechnology giant. But The Ecologist's printer, Penwells of Saltash Cornwall (with whom The Ecologist had worked for 29 years), destroyed the 14,000 copy print run without even notifying the magazine. Penwells refused to comment on its decision and Monsanto denied any responsibility for the action, prompting The Ecologist's editor, Zac Goldsmith, to say, "The fact that Monsanto had nothing to do with the decision to pulp is, if anything, more scary than if they had made some kind of legal threat. It goes to show what a powerful force a reputation can be." The magazine was able to line up another printer for the Monsanto issue.

In both cases, Monsanto's critics managed to find other venues for getting their information out to the public. But, like the SLAPP suit waged against Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman, the chemical company's actions—or maybe only its reputation for doing damage—caused serious disruption along the way. It's all part of a sophisticated set of techniques that industry uses to take the legs out from under dissent.

Projected Growth in Chemicals Production ($), World Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and World Population

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Projected Growth in Chemicals Production, World GDP, and World Population

The Obligation to Act

Forty years ago, Rachel Carson wrote, "We have fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?" (Perhaps the question mark expresses Carson's wish to be hopeful.) Today, we are up against an immensely more organized, coordinated, and powerful corporate PR machine than Carson or the early environmentalists faced. Although some people have woken up, it is hard not to feel numb when faced with yet another story about environmental degradation and chemical poisoning.

The facts about chemical production today are sobering. The world uses five billion pounds of pesticides every year, with almost half used in the United States. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as many as 500,000 U.S. products pose physical or health hazards and can be defined as "hazardous chemicals." U.S. industry uses 70,000 different chemical substances, but there is little or no attempt to assess their health or environmental impacts. Each year, over 1,000 new synthetic chemicals are introduced in the United States. But only a small fraction of these are tested for carcinogenity or endocrine disruption, and there is little understanding of how they interact with each other. The list of known poisons is long and troubling. It is as if we have forgotten, or have never known, "that which is good."

It is hard to be hopeful. In a chapter entitled "To the Ends of the Earth," Our Stolen Future follows a PCB molecule from its creation in a Monsanto chemical plant near Anniston, Alabama, to its entry into a polar bear in the Arctic. That chemical has now made its way to court, in the blood of thousands of Anniston residents who are suing Monsanto for knowingly dumping PCBs in their community. In January 2002, during opening arguments, a Monsanto lawyer carried on the company's long tradition of denial and deceit: "We would all rather live in a pristine world. We are all going to be exposed to things on a daily basis. Our bodies can deal with it."

We can't address the environmental crisis without going right to industry's door. A good first step is to hold industries accountable for the pollution they generate and the harm they cause. In places like Anniston, people are trying. But the greatest impact will come from fundamentally changing what corporations produce and how. This could be done by making laws based on, for example, the Precautionary Principle, which says that if there is reasonable suspicion that a technology, process, or chemical could be harmful, its application should be altered or it should be stopped altogether—even if some cause-and-effect relationships have not been fully established scientifically. Moreover, the burden of proof lies with the activity's proponents and not with the general public. This is not a "fringe" idea. The European Commission (the executive body of the European Union responsible for implementing and managing policy) and some nations, such as Sweden and Germany, have adopted the Precautionary Principle as part of a structured approach to risk analysis. In 1997, the state of Massachusetts enacted a law that uses the Precautionary Principle as a guide for preventing toxic pollution.

Carson wrote, "The obligation to endure gives us the right to know." We know much more now than we did 40 years ago. If we are to endure, then we are also obligated to act. Human ingenuity has in it immense resources for good: by making good choices, we can live well without destroying life.

Laura Orlando is executive director of the ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.

Resources: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962); Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future (Dutton, 1996); Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Henry Holt, 1997); Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001); Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (Addison-Wesley, 1997)