Rachel Carson and the media’s conundrum

Environmentalism is a difficult theme for the media today. The think tanks of the Right are letting loose their loudest critics to deny everything from climate change to carninogens in the air, water and land.

The centenary today (May 27) of the birth of Rachel Carson whose book Silent Spring shook the Establishment of the 1960s is another occasion for the embattled Right to deny the effects of unbridled commerce. There are Op-Eds in some newspapers from obscure critics who attribute the persistence of malaria solely to the banning of DDT. It is a tribute to the persuasive nature of Rachel Carson’s writing, and others like her, that the ban on DDT for all except specialist purposes is in force.

A pioneer

The Baltimore Sun carried an Op-Ed piece today that seeks to attribute the thousands of malaria deaths in countries like Sri Lanka to the banning of DDT as a consequence of Silent Spring’s publication. Apparently, Africa is not in the consciousness of the American Right, because that’s where the most people die of cerebral malaria! Blame it on Fox News.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, however, pays an intellectually honest tribute to someone who called attention to a long-term catastrophe in the making.

India’s media is worse off, compared to its American counterparts. On the one hand journalists must reckon with political panjandrums who have little evidence to cite, but are very prescriptive about how this country must pursue economic development, as evidenced from the debate on the Tribal Rights Bill. The media must convince itself, on the other hand, that it must, in dealing with environmental issues, not be intimidated by immediate concerns of revenues from polluting industries and unscrupulous politicians in government. Inevitably, loss of environmental capital will force industry to reverse its polluting course, but that may be too late for the media to retract with its credibility intact.

The state of the environment is of great concern for India and China. Without the necessary diligence, they are likely to subject their vast populations to precisely those travails that the West went through, before setting their house in order – loss of biodiversity, water sources, quality of land and harmful health effects on humans. As Kenneth Arrow, Gretchen Daily and Partha Dasgupta propose in their paper on consumption, growth and environmental concerns (“Are we consuming too much?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 147-172, Summer 2004), many underdeveloped economies may be throwing away their natural capital, without reinvesting even a part of the profits gained from it to build human resource capital through education, nutrition and other accepted social development indicators.

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