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Industry Attacks on Dissent: From Rachel Carson to Oprah

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.


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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.

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