At about the same time, a disastrous pesticide campaign against the fire ant of the Southeast was receiving national attention. Formerly a science writer for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson already had some acquaintance with research on pesticides, and she was ready to speak out. Originally planned as an article, Silent Spring became a book of more than two hundred pages when the only outlet she could find was the book publisher Houghton Mifflin. Though Silent Spring is without question her best-known book today, Carson was already a national literary celebrity when it came out.
As workof social criticism, Silent Spring represented a considerable departure from the natural history with which she had made a name for herself. Whether this would have been a turning point in her career or merely a detour is impossible to know because Carson succumbed to breast cancer only a year and a half after Silent Spring appeared. What is clear, however, is that her public image was irrevocably transformed. Average Americans came to see her as a noble crusader while the chemical industry would quickly spend more than a quarter of a million dollars to discredit her.
Introduction 1 Few books have had as much impact on late twentieth-century life as Carson’s Silent Spring. Though an environmental consciousness can be discerned in American culture as far back as the nineteenth century, environmentalism as it is known today has only been around for about forty years, and Carson’s book is one of its primary sources. Her tirade against humankind’s attempt to use technology to dominate nature wrenched environmentalism from its relatively narrow, conservationist groove and helped transform it into a weeping social movement that has since impacted almost every area of everyday life. Introduction 2 Author Biography Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27,1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Robert Warden Carson and Maria Frazier McLean. The family had very little money Robert Carson made only a slim living as a salesman and utility employee but thanks to their talented and well-educated mother, Rachel and her older brother and sister enjoyed a comparatively stimulating childhood.
A great reader and passionate naturalist, Maria Carson left an especially deep imprint on her youngest child. While still quite young, Rachel began writing stories about animals, and by age ten, she had published a prize-winning magazine piece. In 1925, Carson earned a scholarship for Pennsylvania Women’s College where she hoped to prepare herself for a literary career by majoring in English. As had always been her habit in school, the bright but reserved student focused on academics rather than socializing and was soon one of the college’s top scholars.
Less expected was Carson’s changing her major to biology after taking a class taught by a captivating young zoology professor named Mary Scott Skinner. In 1929, after graduating with high honors, the writer who would someday earn fame for her work on marine life got her first look at the sea as a summer intern at Woods Hole Laboratory on Cape Cod. Later that year, Carson began graduate work in zoology at Johns Hopkins University, but in 1935, when her father suddenly died, family responsibilities put an end to her formal studies.
By 1937, she was the sole provider for both her mother and the children of her now deceased sister. It was at this point that she embarked on her long career as a civil servant, an endeavor that would occupy her for the next decade and a half and the crucible out of which would come the influential nature writing of her later life. Producing publications for the Bureau of Fisheries and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson increased her already considerable expertise in biology and honed her skills s a writer. The bureaucratic elements of such work do not seem to have been at all stifling; in Notable American Women, Paul Brooks credits Carson for setting “a new Author Biography 3 standard for government publication. ” It was inevitable that such work would someday come to the notice of a wider circle of readers, as it did in 1941, when she published Under the Sea Wind, a work of natural history that originated in an article she had written for a Bureau of Fisheries publication in the late 1930s.
Though it was well received by reviewers, the book was something of a false start: the entrance of the United States into World War II led to poor sales, and Carson herself soon had to put other such projects aside to deal with growing responsibilities at Fish and Wildlife. (By 1949, she was editor of all agency publications. ) It wasn’t until 1951 that her next and most popular book, The Sea Around Us, appeared. It was among the first examples of what was to become an important late twentieth-century genre, science as literature.
On the New York Times bestseller list for eighty-six weeks, this volume earned Carson enough royalties to enable her to retire from government work and focus on the projects that most interested her. After completing the third and final volume of her “biography of the sea,” The Edge of the Sea, and a handful of smaller projects, Carson was prompted by a series of events to write the book that would make her one of the most important women of the twentieth century. Carson was recruited to help a friend from Duxbury, Massachusetts, challenge a state mosquito control program that seemedto be wiping out birds.
This and another widely publicized controversy over a similar development in the Southeast led Carson to write on the mounting scientific evidence about the risks of pesticides. Doubting that she could find a magazine that would publish an article on so gloomy a topic, Carson produced an entire book for an interested editor at Houghton Mifflin. Serialized by the New Yorker in advance of its 1962 publication, Silent Spring became the focus of intense attention, not least because the chemical industry responded with a quarter-million-dollar campaign to discredit the author.
Before the controversy cooled, a presidential commission began looking into the problem, and Congress began considering tougher restrictions on dangerous chemicals. (Carson herself testified before Congress. ) Already a prize-winning writer, Carson was now elevated to the ranks of the nation’s most important public figures. The true magnitude of her accomplishment would only become clear some months later, when Carson Author Biography 4 died on April 14, 1964, in Silver Springs, Maryland. During the four years that she worked on Silent Spring, Carson also had been battling cancer.
Author Biography 5 Plot Summary Chapter One Carson’s survey of the research on pesticides opens in a most unscientific fashion with a tale about an American town that has suffered a series of plagues. At chapter’s end, Carson acknowledges that the town is an imaginary one, but lest the tale be dismissed as mere fantasy, she hastens to add that each of the catastrophes it catalogs “has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. ” Chapters Two and Three
Not until chapter two does Carson identify the source of the ills described in chapter one: potent synthetic poisons of relatively recent design, proliferating at the rate of about five hundred a year, applied in massive quantities virtually everywhere, with disastrous short- and long-term consequences for both wildlife and humans. To convey the grave danger that these substances represent, she introduces an analogy that will resurface over and over in Silent Spring: pesticides are like atomic radiation invisible, with deadly effects that often manifest themselves only after a long delay.
Chapter three identifies a small handful of qualities that make the new pesticides so much more dangerous than their predecessors: 1) greater potency 2) slower decomposition and 3) a tendency to concentrate in fatty tissue. Carson clarifies the significance of the last two characteristics by pointing out that a toxin that might not constitute a danger in small doses will ultimately do so if it accumulates in the body, and also that substances with this propensity concentrate as one moves up the food chain. Plot Summary 6
Chapters Four, Five, and Six Chapters four, five and six form a triptych that stresses the highly interconnectedness of life in three biological systems plant systems and those centered in water or soil. Given its fluidity and interconnectedness, water is an extremely difficult place to contain a problem, Carson points out. As an unintended result of runoff from agricultural spraying and of poisons sometimes directly introduced in the water supply, groundwater nearly everywhere is tainted with one or more potent toxins.
The full extent of the problem, she worries, cannot even be precisely measured because methods for screening the new chemicals have yet to be routinized. In some instances, the danger lies in substances formed by unexpected reactions that take place betweenindividual contaminants; in such cases, toxins might escape detection even where tests are available. Chapter five explains the life cycle within soil-based ecosystems: rich soil gives rise to hearty plant life; then the natural process of death and decay breaks down the plants, and the soil’s vitality is restored.
Pesticides threaten this fundamental dynamic fundamental not just for plants but also for the higher organisms that live on plants. An insecticide applied to control a particular crop-damaging insect depletes the microbial life within the soil that facilitates the essential enrichment cycle, hence the millions of pounds of chemical fertilizer required each year by factory-farms. In chapter six, Carson’s focus shifts from insecticides to herbicides.
The general picture that emerges is of a deceptive chemical industry and ill-informed public authorities spending large sums of taxpayers’ money undermining whole ecosystems to eradicate one or two nuisance species. Chapter Seven In “Needless Havoc,” Carson’s attention turns to the people behind pesticides, the public officials who are responsible for the widespread use of these dangerous chemicals. What has typified their behavior in her view is almost unbelievable recklessness followed by an irrational unwillingness to reckon with the catastrophes they have wrought.
Exhibit A is the infamous campaign against the Japanese beetle, a Chapters Four, Five, and Six 7 frenzy that swept the Midwest in the late fifties. In the first place, Carson argues, there was no real evidence that the beetle constituted a serious threat. Secondly, officials failed to warn the public of potential risks involved in combating the insect with pesticides. Chapter Eight Not surprisingly, at the very heart of Silent Spring lies a chapter called “And No Birds Sing,” where the author recounts the true stories from whence the book’s most unforgettable image comes.
The chemical villain in these tragedies is the notorious DDT; the principal victims are the robin, beloved herald of spring, and the eagle, revered symbol of national spirit. That the shrewd writer chose species with so much emotional resonance is hardly an accident. Both birds’ fates bring the discussion back to the problem of bio-magnification, the concentration of toxins as they pass from one organism to the next along the food chain: the robin receive fatal doses from consuming poisoned worms and other insects, the eagle from pesticide-carrying fish.
Chapter Nine Chapter nine explains how blanket pesticide spraying of forests, crop fields, and suburban lawns is wreaking havoc on aquatic life in the streams, estuaries, and coastal waters that receive runoff from treated areas. The chapter’s most frightening observation is that runoff concentrates in marshes and estuaries where freshwater meets the seas, extraordinarily fragile ecosystems and the primary feeding and spawning grounds for many species the foundation of much aquatic life. Chapter Ten
Reviewing two more disastrous eradication efforts, chapter ten sounds many of the same notes as chapter eight. What chapter ten adds to this now fairly well-developed Chapter Seven 8 picture is a clearer sense of the colossal blunder that was aerial spraying. Carson reports that pilots were paid according to how much pesticide they sprayed, and so they drenched the countryside with toxic chemicals, contaminating orchards and gardens, killing birds, bees and other wildlife, poisoning milk cows and even soaking humans who happened to get in the way. Chapter Eleven
Chapter eleven concerns the minute but repeated exposures to pesticides that every man, woman, and child suffers in all but the most isolated regions of the planet. Carson lays the blame for the breathtaking diffusion of dangerous chemicals in everyday life on the deceptive marketing campaigns of pesticide makers, which insist these products are safe, and government agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, which not only countenance such disinformation but actively promoted the use of synthetic poisons. Chapters Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen Chapters twelve, thirteen and fourteen focus on the effects of pesticides on people.
Chapter twelve stresses two key issues: first, that pesticides are absorbed by fat, a widely dispersed tissue, and so they insinuate themselves in virtually every part of the system, including the ever so crucial organs and fundamental cell structures; and second, because most people accumulate these toxins by way of repeated minute exposure of which they are rarely aware, it difficult to trace the resulting pathologies to their true cause. Chapter thirteen explains one of the book’s main refrains that pesticides are so very dangerous because they disrupt basic biological processes like xidation (cell metabolism) and mitosis (cell reproduction). The central claim here is that pesticides are probably responsible for cancer, birth defects, and a wide array of chromosomal abnormalities. Scientific research in this area was still in an early stage when Carson wrote Silent Spring, but plant and animal studies were already suggesting what had long been known about radiation, namely that pesticides had Chapter Ten 9 powerful mutagenic properties. Chapter fourteen chronicles the history of the carcinogen, a term that has become only more familiar since 1962.
It was first surmised that cancer related to environmental conditions in the eighteenth century, when a London physician noted an extremely high incidence of scrotal tumors among the city’s chimney sweeps, who were all day covered in soot. During the nineteenth century, with the rise of industry, several other suspicious relationships had been observed. But with World War II and the rise of widespread pesticide use, the risk of cancer confronted not just members of certain occupational groups but virtually everyone Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen
Chapters fifteen and sixteen discuss in a comprehensive way one of Carson’s most damning criticism of pesticides, but one she has thus far only voiced in passing: not only are pesticides expensive and extremely dangerous, but they are also terribly ineffective. The trouble is twofold. Chapter fifteen focuses on the first part of the problem; current pesticide practice, Carson argues, is like trying to repair a delicate watch with a sledgehammer. Massive applications of highly toxic substances reverberate through whole ecosystems, upsetting delicate balances and often compounding the original problem.
Chapter sixteen highlights the tendency of pesticides to lose effectiveness quickly as insects and other nuisance organisms develop resistance. The problem arises from the indefatigable reality of natural selection. Within any given pest species, some number of organisms will be less susceptible to pesticides as a function of ordinary genetic variety within the species. Pesticide kills off the weak, leaving the pesticide-resilient to thrive and establish a new generation of super bugs. Of particular concern is the loss of effective tools in the fight against isease carrying insects like the mosquito. Chapters Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen 10 Chapter Seventeen Since so many of the book’s chapters conclude with some mention of safer alternatives to current pesticide practices, it is hardly surprising that the book itself concludes with an extended discussion of what Carson calls “biotic controls. ” One of the main arguments of the chemical industry in the face of mounting evidence about the dangers of pesticides is that the risks are justified by benefits to agriculture and other areas.
By laying out in fine detail cheaper, safer, and more effective alternatives, Carson pulls the rug out from under the industry with its self-interested talk of pesticide benefits. Broken into three sections, each of which focuses on a slightly different basic strategy, chapter seventeen offers a cogent overview of the elegant science of natural pest control. Part one explains how chemicals derived from the insects themselves can be used as repellants or lures for traps that pose no risk to humans. Part two shows how repeatedly introducing sterilized males into target populations can bring about a gradual decline of pests.
And part three reports on the use of natural enemies bacterial insecticides and predator species to combat pests. Chapter Seventeen 11 Chapter 1 “A Fable for Tomorrow” Chapter 1 “A Fable for Tomorrow” Summary Carson describes a beautiful American town where townsfolk and farmers and wildlife all live in harmony with each other. Farms and orchards are interspersed with maple, birch, and pine trees. Foxes and deer live and romp in the misty woods. The roadsides are lush with trees, ferns, and wildflowers. Birds are numerous both in kind and in sheer quantity. In winter, migratory birds are so numerous that tourists come to see them.
Trout is plentiful in the streams, which have been good fishing spots since early settler times. Then a mysterious blight strikes the area, and wildlifeand farm animals die. People become ill, puzzling the doctors. The birds disappear. There are no bees to pollinate plants and trees, so there is no fruit in the orchards. The vegetation dies. The fish die. A white powder lingers on some rooftops; the people themselves have poisoned the entire environment. Carson then states that the town she described does not actually exist, but that the individual environmental disasters have all happened in real communities.
Chapter 1 “A Fable for Tomorrow” Analysis Carson sets the scene for the entire book with this “once upon a time” introduction. The description of the pre-destruction town and countryside is idyllic, full of lush detail about specific flora and fauna. The language is fairly rhapsodic in its celebration of the harmony between man and nature that once existed. She continues the fairy tale tone by describing the mysterious blight as an “evil spell” falling upon the land and its creatures, including human beings.
Again, she uses specific detail to create a vivid picture in her readers’ minds: the birds tremble violently before they die; where there had been throbbing birdsong, now there is silence; chickens and pigs stop producing young; the roadsides look scorched as if by fire. Finally, she snaps the reader out of the fairy tale by stating that the people themselves have caused the widespread destruction of life. In the final two paragraphs of the chapter, set apart from the “fairy Chapter 1 “A Fable for Tomorrow” 12 ale” by a space, Carson explains that the town does not actually exist, but that the individual examples of environmental destruction have indeed taken place in various locations. She does not yet identify the “grim specter” that has caused so much death, but says that in this book she attempts to explain why spring is now silent in so many American towns. Chapter 1 “A Fable for Tomorrow” 13 Chapter 2 “The Obligation to Endure” Chapter 2 “The Obligation to Endure” Summary Throughout earth’s history, living things have interacted with their environment but not changed it.
In fact, the environment has often played an important role in forming the different kinds of life – plants and animals specifically adapted to live in whatever their environments are. Only human beings have gained the ability to reverse the roles and actually change the environment they live in, and this power has become disturbingly great only over the past 25 years (the book was first published in 1962). Now humanity has irreversibly polluted the earth’s air, water, and animal life (including human life).
The combination of radiation (released through nuclear explosions) and toxic chemicals (purposely distributed as insecticides, herbicides, etc. ) produces chemical deposits in the earth, water, and living tissues of everything on earth. Life, which took hundreds of millions of years to develop, evolve, and diversify, is now threatened. Life is able to adapt to environmental change over millennia, but in the modern world, life does not have the luxury of time. Radiation used to be limited to that which occurred naturally, in some rocks, cosmic rays, and sunlight; now it includes fallout from atomic bombs.
Chemicals in the environment used to be limited to naturally occurring minerals; now humankind creates new chemicals in the laboratory. Nearly 500 new chemicals are introduced into the environment every year. Since the 1940s, more than 200 chemicals have been created for the purpose of “pest control. ” After DDT was released for civilian use, ever more powerful chemicals have had to be developed as the targeted insects have adapted and become resistant to the substances developed to kill them. Humanity is poisoning itself in its effort to control its environment by killing certain unwanted organisms.
Carson states that American farms are continuing to apply dangerous chemicals to their land to increase production despite the fact that overproduction is a large problem. Chapter 2 “The Obligation to Endure” 14 Carson enumerates the problems with attempting to control insects on a large scale. Massive chemical control can actually worsen the problem rather than solve it. Large-scale, single-crop farming eliminates the biodiversity that provided built-in control of pests attracted to particular plants. Suburbia also has contributed to the elimination of biodiversity, such as in the widespread planting of elm trees along neighborhood streets. Invasions” of problem insects have been helped along by humans importing non-native plants in which the insects live. Carson suggests that American science wastes the training of its scientists by insisting that they work on further chemical means of controlling plants and insects, rather than working with nature’s own built-in controls. She contends that little or no research has been done on the chemicals’ effects on life other than the targeted insects, and that it is unfair for people to bear these effects without knowing the full facts.
The chapter’s title comes from a quote from Jean Rostand: “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know. ” Chapter 2 “The Obligation to Endure” Analysis Here Carson builds on her opening statement by explaining how life works: that all forms of life require many thousands of years to adapt to a changing environment. She provides a time frame for her reader to consider – from World War II to the present (1962) – and points out how terribly short this scant 17 years is, compared with the millennia all life has had to adapt to changes in the past.
She introduces ideas she will build on in future chapters, especially the idea that more and more chemical escalation is necessary to stay ahead of the insects’ adaptations to each successive chemical attack and the fact that insecticides remain in the environment and inevitably make their way into the body tissues of every living thing, including people. She points out the unregulated way DDT and other dangerous chemicals have been used, not only by people who know their dangerous power, but also by consumers who lack scientific knowledge but believe the marketing slogans that promise them “safe” pest control.
She insists that the chemical assaults must stop, and that we all must be given full access to all the facts. Chapter 2 “The Obligation to Endure” 15 Chapter 3 “Elixirs of Death” Chapter 3 “Elixirs of Death” Summary Here, Carson provides minute details about the synthetic pesticides, which in less than twenty years have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the world that they are truly everywhere. Every human being now has contact with dangerous chemicals every moment of his life – even from conception.
These chemicals have made their way deep into the groundwater; they stay in the soil to which they are applied, remaining detectable even 12 years later; they collect in the fatty tissues of wild and domestic animals. Animals are so widely affected that scientists have a hard time finding uncontaminated animals to serve as controls in experiments. For almost every human being on the planet, synthetic pesticides are present in mother’s milk and probably in bodily tissues from the beginning.
Chemical warfare in World War II led to the discovery of substances that were lethal to insects. Whereas pre-war insecticides were simple compounds of naturally occurring minerals, the new synthetic pesticides are organic substances that have been carefully created by manipulation of molecules and atoms. Because they are organic, they can easily poison intended and unintended targets and become part of the bodily processes of numerous creatures. These substances work to stop the body’s natural functions; some of them may cause cancer cells to begin growing.
The use of these chemicals is now nearly worldwide. In 1947 less than 300,000 pounds were produced in the U. S. ; in 1960, over 600 million pounds were produced. Carson lists and describes in detail the pesticides that are poisoning the planet, explaining their chemical development. Arsenic, a naturally occurring mineral that is toxic to humans and most creatures, is widely used as a pesticide in various forms, despite the fact that it generally kills everything in its path. The chlorinated hydrocarbons include DDT as well as other deadly substances.
The organic phosphorus insecticides such as malathion and parathion are another group of deadly Chapter 3 “Elixirs of Death” 16 substances that are in wide use (in 1962). The history of DDT is related, including its increasing appearance in stored body fat and organs rich in fatty substances, and its ability to produce drastic and devastating changes in the body even when present in extremely small quantities. There is disagreement among scientists about how much DDT may be safely stored in the body. Even people with no known exposure to DDT have been found to have it in their bodies.
DDT is passed along through the food chain, so that feed contaminated with DDT passes it on to chickens; the eggs laid by those chickens are contaminated; and people eating the eggs are likewise contaminated. The even more readily absorbed and deadly poisons Carson details are chlordane, heptachlor, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, parathion, malathion, and several herbicides that will be explored further in a later chapter. The ways these chemicals act upon creatures (including humans) are explained in detail.
Chapter 3 “Elixirs of Death” Analysis Here Carson uses a detailed history of the specified deadly poisons, as well as a thorough explanation of how these chemicals are developed and work upon life forms, to build her case against their use. She again emphasizes the carelessness with which these deadly chemicals have been used, and gives gruesome examples of deaths that have occurred despite safety precautions that were thought to be sufficient but were clearly not. She ends by pointing out that many of these chemicals have been proven to be “mutagens,” that is, substances that are capable of modifying the genes of organisms.
Following the lessons of World War II and the now-understood horrific effects of radiation not only on those directly exposed but upon their progeny, she poses the question of how can we tolerate the same effect created by the deadly chemicals we willingly and widely apply to the land? Chapter 3 “Elixirs of Death” 17 Chapter 4 “Surface Waters and Underground Seas” Chapter 4 “Surface Waters and Underground Seas” Summary The majority of the earth’s surface is covered with water, but most of it is seawater, which is not usable for drinking, irrigation, or industry. There is widespread, critical shortage of fresh water across the globe.
Much of the world’s water is polluted by waste from many sources. Chemical insecticides and herbicides are a relatively new source of water pollution, and they bring unique challenges because they are difficult to detect and remove from water. They combine with other pollutants and substances in water to form new, unidentifiable substances that in some cases are known only as “gunk. ” Some water pollutants come from chemicals used on land, traveling down watersheds or in underground aquifers to the bodies of water, while others are applied directly to the bodies of water to control unwanted plants, insects, or fishes.
There have been instances of extremely high levels of contamination in particular water sources. In other cases, DDT and other dangerous chemicals have been found in water bodies and in the creatures living in those water bodies despite the fact that the chemicals had not been used anywhere near them; this is evidence that chemicals travel via groundwater. All the earth’s water systems are connected, so that contamination of any part is contamination of the whole.
One example of chemical pollution traveling via groundwater occurred in Colorado in the 1950s; in that case, the chemical that appeared in the water had actually been created spontaneously by the interaction of other chemicals present. Another example given is the Klamath/Tule Lake region in 1960, where agricultural pesticides are collecting in the water bodies of a wildlife refuge. Another example is Clear Lake, California, where attempts in the 1940s and 1950s to control a particular kind of gnat resulted in massive bird kills; the birds ate the fish, which ate the poisoned gnats.
Further instances of direct poisoning of water sources continue to collect. Chapter 4 “Surface Waters and Underground Seas” 18 Chapter 4 “Surface Waters and Underground Seas” Analysis Carson continues building her case as in this chapter she concentrates on the sometimes accidental, but often disturbingly deliberate, contamination of bodies of water. Again, she uses specific examples, citing studies and scientific measurements, to pile facts upon facts.
Early in the chapter, she quotes an expert who says no one really knows the effect of the water contaminants on human beings; through successive citations of specific incidences of sickness due to pollution, she inductively disproves that statement; and by the end of the chapter, she points to studies that provide compelling evidence that many chemical contaminants may cause cancer. She returns to her theme of the interdependency of all nature, reminding the reader that water is connected to the land and air – “in nature nothing exists alone. ” Chapter 4 “Surface Waters and Underground Seas” 19 Chapter 5 “Realms of the Soil”
Chapter 5 “Realms of the Soil” Summary Without the earth’s soil, there could be no plants; and without plants, there could be no animals of any kind. Life depends on the soil, and the soil depends on animal life to be replenished and nourished. Soil is constantly changing in the continuous cycle of life and death in which all materials and living things participate. The smallest organisms on earth live in the soil: bacteria, fungi, and algae. These organisms facilitate the process of decay, so that as living things die, they become part of the soil, providing habitat and food for more plants and thus, for more animals.
Specific chemical processes are involved in this cycle of life and death. Other creatures dependent upon the soil – and upon which the soil is dependent as well – are tiny insects and mites. Larger creatures, such as worms and insects and mammals, also live in the soil and do their part to keep it healthy and functioning. The earthworm is probably the most important soil-dwelling creature. The earth’s soil is a community of living creatures, all interdependent, and the earth itself is healthy only as long as these creatures are.
The effects on the soil of widespread chemical use have not been studied or even considered to any significant degree. Chemicals used to combat “pests” inevitably have an effect on the soil-dwelling organisms. Studies are beginning to take place that show how the use of chemicals in the environment is harming the soil. Carson describes in detail some of the biological and chemical processes that are negatively affected by the introduction of pesticides and herbicides into the environment. Not only do these chemicals harm the soil, they remain in the soil for many years after application and can be converted to other, also harmful, substances.
Repeated applications of chemicals to combat weeds or insects can build up enormous levels of chemicals in the soil. Arsenic, for instance, harms the soil on a virtually permanent basis. Plants growing in contaminated soil may carry the contaminants into their tissues. Carrots, for instance, absorb an enormous amount of Chapter 5 “Realms of the Soil” 20 insecticide. Some crops have had to be destroyed because they were found to carry huge levels of poisons, which would have harmed humans if they had eaten the produce. Other crops show signs of damage or stunted growth when planted in contaminated soil.
Continued use of pesticides could very well damage our soil beyond repair. Chapter 5 “Realms of the Soil” Analysis Carson continues to build her case with scientific evidence. Here, she first explains how soil works to provide background understanding of the drastic effects of pesticides on such a vital element of the planet’s health. Armed with an understanding of how microscopic organisms, earthworms, and other creatures work in harmony to create and maintain the earth’s healthy soil, the reader can even better appreciate the strong evidence Carson lays out in this chapter that the use of chemicals is not-so-slowly destroying our planet.
Again, she uses specific examples, giving dates and locations and particular crops, to support her contention that chemicals should not be used in the widespread and careless way they are being used. She concludes the chapter with a strong quote from a 1960 gathering of specialists who stated that the continuing use and misuse of chemicals and radiation could very well result in destruction of the soil’s ability to produce and a massive takeover by the insects. Chapter 5 “Realms of the Soil” 21 Chapter 6 “Earth’s Green Mantle”
Chapter 6 “Earth’s Green Mantle” Summary Water, soil, and plants create the world that sustains humans and all other animal life. Without plants, no animal life could exist – including humans, but humans hold a narrow view of plants, using them when they are immediately useful but destroying them if an immediate use for them is not obvious. Weeds are simply plants that are in the wrong place at the wrong time, as far as humans are concerned. The business of chemical weed killers is booming because people approach plant life without thinking about any perspective but their own immediate desires.
One example of man’s arrogant approach to plants is the campaign in the American West to replace vast expanses of sagebrush with grasslands. There is an extensive explanation of the function of sagebrush within its ecosystem, and of its absolutely vital role in sustaining such creatures as the sage grouse, the pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and winter-grazing livestock. The program of sage eradication in favor of extended grasslands ignores the ecology of the region and threatens all the species that rely on the sagebrush to survive. Millions of acres of land covered with sagebrush are sprayed with chemicals yearly.
The livestock that are intended to benefit from the replacement of sagebrush with grasslands will actually suffer and possibly die since vast expanses of grasslands will not sustain the same variety of life as the sagebrush. The spraying will also kill many other plants that are not intended targets. An example of this kind of disastrous scenario is the unintended decimation of willows in Wyoming, which along with the sage brush intended to be killed and the meandering streams sheltered by the willows, supported moose, beaver, trout, and waterfowl. All the animals that depended on the willows were destroyed.
Numerous other examples are given of widespread chemical spraying to control unwanted plants. In many cases, the spraying is killing wildflowers and other plant life that attract tourists, thus reducing or eliminating some regions’ income from seasonal Chapter 6 “Earth’s Green Mantle” 22 tourist trade. Roadsides once lush with wildflowers are brown and withered. In some cases, leftover chemicals have been discharged in unauthorized areas, rather than properly disposed of, and large areas of natural beauty have been destroyed. Farm animals have sickened and died.
Flocks of birds have disappeared, no longer having habitat to rest in during their migrations. Pollinating insects have nowhere to live and eat, and nothing to pollinate. Despite strong evidence that the best way to control unwanted plants is with other plants, widespread and indiscriminate spraying continues. “Selective spraying” can eliminate only the unwanted plants and give the beneficial plants a chance to thrive, but this method has been largely ignored. The selective method is also much less costly than the method of blanket spraying, and it minimizes the amount of chemical residue that remains in the land.
The widely-used herbicides 2,4-D, 2,4,5-T, and their relatives are extremely poisonous. People exposed to them even briefly have become very ill. These chemicals can change the metabolism of plants, making toxic plants suddenly more appealing to animals, resulting in severe illness or death for the animals. A number of examples are given of this unintended effect on livestock and wild animals, as well as a technical explanation of the effects of these chemicals on the physical processes of animals. Essentially, the chemicals alter the blood so that oxygen is not carried to the lungs; the animals die from lack of oxygen.
Gases released by stored grains that were treated with these chemicals have killed humans. Rather than using chemicals, Carson advocates using the existing relationships and interactions among different kinds of plants to control the plants we do not want. Marigolds can be used to combat nematodes, for instance. Wild habitats are needed as barometers of our larger environment. Chemical spraying can, in some cases, produce the result we want initially but later result in a takeover by the desired plant, which then itself becomes a “weed. Blanket spraying against a particular plant can actually result in an increased growth of that plant, defeating the purpose of the spraying. Battles against crabgrass provide an example of this situation, for crabgrass can grow Chapter 6 “Earth’s Green Mantle” 23 only in an unhealthy lawn, and repeated spraying will make the lawn unhealthy. An example of controlling unwanted plants intelligently is the case of the Klamath weed, or goatweed, which was unintentionally imported from Europe to the U. S.
In the 1940s, efforts to control this unwanted plant with its natural beetle enemies began; by 1959, a survey showed that these efforts had been hugely successful. No chemicals were used. Likewise, an imported variety of cactus was controlled in Australia by introducing a moth that is its natural enemy. This non-chemical control of the cactus was thorough and extremely inexpensive. Further use of such natural controls is warranted, not only because it eliminates the need to put dangerous chemicals on the land, but because it is so much cheaper an alternative.
Chapter 6 “Earth’s Green Mantle” Analysis Carson continues to build her case with example after example of the havoc wreaked by indiscriminate application of chemicals to the environment. In this chapter, she also ventures further into her overall argument by beginning to relate examples of natural control of unwanted plants by means of insects that are the plants’ natural and exclusive enemies. The positive note of this chapter is a welcome change from the barrage of negative, horrific examples given earlier in the chapter and in previous chapters.
Carson is effectively using stark comparisons between the horrible effects of chemicals and the beneficent use of existing relationships between certain organisms. She continues building her case that the use of chemicals is out of control and unnecessary, while the use of naturally occurring and highly effective control mechanisms is largely ignored. Chapter 6 “Earth’s Green Mantle” 24 Chapter 7 “Needless Havoc” Chapter 7 “Needless Havoc” Summary Carson lists some of the ways humans have done great damage to other life forms: the slaughter of buffalo, the massacre of shorebirds, and the near-decimation of egrets for their feathers.
Now the chemical killings join this litany of destruction. Chemical insecticides applied to the land and water are killing every conceivable kind of creature. Birds, fish, and mammals of all sizes are dying, along with the targeted insects. Citizens must discern for themselves who is telling the truth: the wildlife biologists and forestry experts who decry the mass killing of so much life or the chemical-wielding entomologists who overlook the terrible flaws in their programs of blanket spraying.
Carson encourages her readers to examine the evidence for themselves. Wildlife is unlikely to bounce back after sprayings that kill large numbers of their kind. Spraying tends to be repeated, resulting in completely poisoned environments, where not only resident creatures are killed, but also those that migrate into the environments. This contamination spreads to areas outside the sprayed regions, resulting in more destruction of life. Numerous examples of drastic chemical applications are given.
Large areas of Michigan were sprayed in 1959, purportedly to control the Japanese beetle. Widespread devastation of life resulted; numerous birds died, house pets sickened and sometimes died, and many people became ill as well. Nevertheless, spraying of aldrin and other deadly chemicals has continued, despite the fact that the population of Japanese beetles remains largely unchanged – and unthreatening to other species. Dieldrin was applied to a large area of Illinois over an 8-year period, resulting in huge losses of numerous kinds of animals, including pets.
Meanwhile, in the East, the Japanese beetle was fought by the introduction of its natural insect predators and bacterial diseases. These predators and diseases affect only beetles of that family and so are not dangerous to any other living thing. In the eastern states, the beetles are under control, and nothing else had to die. Carson reports Chapter 7 “Needless Havoc” 25 that research on these natural beetle controls have just begun in Illinois; perhaps this will result in eliminating unnecessary chemical spraying.
Carson ends this chapter by posing the question: How can we as moral beings continue to allow such rampant and unjustified killing of so many innocent and beneficial creatures? Chapter 7 “Needless Havoc” Analysis In this chapter, Carson continues in the vein she began in Chapter 6. She provides further evidence that chemical spraying results in widespread death and destruction and presents numerous examples of heartbreaking environmental devastation. She concludes with a vivid and disturbing word picture of the agonizing death suffered by a poisoned animal, and moves from the mode of layering scientific evidence into morality.
Her moral question is not simply a matter of whether man has the right to destroy other creatures in his environment, but whether silently acquiescing to such destruction diminishes each of us as a human being. Chapter 7 “Needless Havoc” 26 Chapter 8 “And No Birds Sing” Chapter 8 “And No Birds Sing” Summary In more and more areas of the U. S. , spring begins without the once-familiar sound of birdsong. Birds are disappearing from communities that once enjoyed seeing multitudes of migrating birds. Spraying against such things as Dutch elm disease and fire ants has destroyed birds by the thousands.
Spraying for Dutch elm disease began in the 1950’s, with the immediate and devastating result of the death of the robins and other birds that lived and nested in the elms. The birds were eating their usual diet of earthworms. The earthworms had, as usual, dined on the mulch of elm leaves that fell each autumn and the DDT used against the elm disease that would not wash off of the leaves. The DDT collected in the earthworms in high concentrations, so that when the robins ate the worms, the birds were killed. Robins that escaped death became sterile, so that they could not produce healthy young.
Large numbers of deaths have occurred for 90 species of birds as a result of DDT spraying of elm trees. Mammals also feed on earthworms and may be affected, and thus also the owls which feed on the mammals. Owls and hawks have been found in convulsions or dead. Treetop birds have also died as a result of the elm spraying. The loss of so many kinds of birds is devastating, not only for people who love to see them, but for the more practical reason that the birds had previously provided natural insect control.
The insects come back from the spray attacks, but the birds do not – and then the insects are more numerous than before. Meanwhile, in areas of the country where natural controls of the elm disease have been undertaken, many more elms have been saved, without any destruction of bird and insect life. Another bird that has suffered extensive population reduction is the eagle. Several studies suggest that this is largely due to pollution of the eagles’ environment by DDT and other chemicals, which causes sterility and other devastating consequences.
Studies on robins in areas previously sprayed with DDT have confirmed that DDT remains in the birds at least one generation after the spraying. Studies on the eagles Chapter 8 “And No Birds Sing” 27 suggest that contamination of fish, their main food, is killing them and preventing them from successfully reproducing healthy young. In England, the treatment of seeds with chemicals has resulted in widespread bird deaths. The seed-eating birds, which survived long enough to be eaten by foxes, then became poison to their predators, which also died terrible deaths.
In the U. S. , the same problem has occurred with chemically treated rice; pheasants and waterfowl have been killed by eating the DDT-treated rice. In some cases, birds deemed “pests” are being targeted with chemicals directly, so that the bird losses because of chemicals include both accidental and intentional killings. Workers applying malathion have barely escaped death after becoming extremely ill. All these examples have resulted from the inattention of millions of people on whose behalf those in power have authorized these mass killings and poisonings.
Chapter 8 “And No Birds Sing” Analysis Carson continues to raise the stakes as she piles on the evidence against the use of chemicals. Here she returns to the theme suggested by the book’s title, emphasizing the sudden silencing of so many birds. She introduces the idea that biodiversity is not only more interesting to look at but truly vital to life; part of the problem with the elm trees is that entire communities have been filled with nothing but elms, leading to mass devastation when a disease specific to those trees has invaded.
She also briefly touches on some examples she will return to later in the book, such as fire ants. The theme of individual culpability by silent assent is underscored again at both the beginning and end of this chapter. Chapter 8 “And No Birds Sing” 28 Chapter 9 “Rivers of Death” Chapter 9 “Rivers of Death” Summary For many thousands of years, salmon have returned from the Atlantic each year and traveled up the rivers in which they were born to spawn and perpetuate their kind. In 1953 in the Miramichi River of New Brunswick, the salmon migration happened as usual.
By spring 1954, these tiny fish, along with their older relatives of the previous year’s hatchings, were suddenly besieged by the Canadian government’s widespread spraying program, which was meant to combat the spruce budworm. Along with all the insects and most of the birds in the millions of sprayed acres, the entire 1954 hatch of salmon died; five-sixths of the 1953 hatch died; and one-third of the 1952 hatch died. The budworm populations, on the other hand, continued to thrive. Repeated sprayings took place, despite evidence that spraying does not effectively combat budworm.
Other places have also killed fish in their attempts to control forest insects. DDT may cause blindness in fish. Even if the fish survive the spraying, the virtual elimination of the insects that they feed on may kill them, or the fish may die some time after the spraying when they draw upon their fat stores for energy and release the DDT stored in their bodies. Efforts to coordinate sprayings to reduce fish mortality have been largely ineffective. Natural parasites can be much more effective at controlling budworm, and fish will not be killed.
It is impossible that with such widespread application of chemicals to the land, no chemicals will make their way into waterways. Destruction of fish and fish habitats are great losses in themselves, but they are also a loss to the millions of Americans who enjoy sport fishing. Commercial fisheries will also be affected because poisoned fish are not a source of food, and reduced numbers of fish reduce the fishermen’s income and the amount of fish available as food. Numerous examples of fish kills across the U. S. are given. Many attempts to control fire ants have resulted in massive fish kills.
Insecticides used against insects that feed on cotton have killed many fish in the South because of heavy rains following heavy application of Chapter 9 “Rivers of Death” 29 chemicals to the cotton fields. Farm ponds are particularly susceptible to poisoning because of their proximity to chemically treated fields. In some parts of the world, fish from farm ponds are a vital source of food for humans. Where large spills of chemicals have migrated into streams and rivers, the deadly effects have occurred hundreds of miles away because the water has carried the chemicals downstream and into the sea.
Creatures other than fish have been killed in devastating numbers; one example is the fiddler crab, which plays a vital role as a source of food to numerous other creatures, as well as a scavenger, mud aerator, and source of bait for fishermen. Some chemicals can kill animals such as shrimp at nearly undetectable levels, even half of one part per billion. The ultimate effects of the pollution of virtually all of our waterways with chemicals, some of which are unknown because they are formed by the interaction of different substances, are unknown and unpredictable.
If even a small fraction of the money spent developing increasingly toxic chemicals would be diverted to research on natural methods of environmental control, perhaps our waterways could be saved. Chapter 9 “Rivers of Death” Analysis As she did with the birds in the previous chapter, Carson uses numerous examples of fishery devastation to build her case. The examples are shocking and convincing. The reader is left to wonder how his drinking water and favorite swimming or boating location can possibly be safe, considering the havoc wreaked on the poor fish.
Carson is piling on the devastating facts as she mounts a thorough attack against any further use of deadly chemicals upon the environment. Once again, she calls on her readers, the public, to educate themselves and demand action and conscience from the authorities who are poisoning the environment. She repeats her theme of alternatives to deadly chemicals. Chapter 9 “Rivers of Death” 30 Chapter 10 “Indiscriminately from the Skies” Chapter 10 “Indiscriminately from the Skies” Summary Carson recalls the World War II origin of widespread spraying of chemicals as a result of the new organic insecticides and a surplus of airplanes.
Before the war, such chemicals had been handled with extreme caution, and now they were dropped from the sky, in many cases without warning to the people living below. This chapter details two examples of spraying campaigns that had widespread and devastating consequences. The first example is that of the gypsy moth. Despite successful natural controls of the moth in the northeast, a program of “eradication” of the moth by chemical spraying was begun in 1956. The program began with the spraying of nearly 1,000,000 acres. Despite complaints and strong opposition, the next year’s praying included 3,000,000 acres. Many of the areas sprayed were residential, despite the fact that the gypsy moth is strictly a forest insect. People and animals were sprayed directly. Milk from cows in and near sprayed areas was contaminated. Garden produce was ruined. Many lawsuits were pursued, and some were won by those whose produce, land, and livestock had been contaminated. The number of acres sprayed was severely reduced by 1961, but evidence showed that the gypsy moth had not been affected at all. In the South, a program was launched against fire ants.
Despite the fact that the fire ant posed no real problem to anyone, other than as a minor annoyance, a massive program of “eradication” was begun, preceded by a program of government-disseminated information about the “killer” fire ant. Some 20 million acres were to be sprayed. The claims made by the U. S. government about the fire ant were later entirely discredited. The fire ant does not destroy crops; in fact, it is known to eat insects that do destroy crops. The fire ants’ mounds actually serve to aerate soil, Chapter 10 “Indiscriminately from the Skies” 31 nd despite government claims at the time, fire ants do not kill people or birds. Despite numerous protests from environmental experts, conservationists, and entomologists, the spraying program was begun in 1958. In many areas sprayed, almost every form of life was killed. Carson gives numerous specific examples from different areas where the spraying was done. Farm animals stopped producing healthy young. The prescribed precautions issued by the government are by no means adequate to protect people and animals from contamination by the deadly chemicals.
The government ignored existing findings which showed the chemical used to be deadly. Heptachlor, one of the chemicals used, changes form once it enters the environment or an animal to become heptachlor epoxide, which is even more deadly than its original form. The states in the sprayed area began protesting the continuation of the program. In many areas, there are more fire ants than before the spraying began. Florida has abandoned broad eradication in favor of local control. Local control, which is 90 to 95 percent effective, costs $. 23 to $1. 00 per acre; the mass spraying costs about $3. 0 per acre, is terribly destructive, and does little to combat the fire ants. Chapter 10 “Indiscriminately from the Skies” Analysis Here Carson uses two of the most egregious examples of out-of-control government spraying to show the far-reaching consequences of such programs. In both cases, the pest in question was not controlled even after massive chemical attacks, whereas countless other creatures were killed or sickened. This chapter concentrates on building up highly specific evidence and ends with a reminder that methods other than spraying millions of acres at a time are more effective and much more cost-effective.
Carson leaves the moral conclusions to her readers this time instead letting the gruesome and appalling facts speak for themselves. Chapter 10 “Indiscriminately from the Skies” 32 Chapter 11 “Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias” Chapter 11 “Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias” Summary This chapter is titled Mass spraying is not the only source of chemical contamination of our world. Indeed, most people’s chemical exposure comes little by little, day by day, rather than all at once as a result of mass spraying. Most people have no idea what dangerous chemicals they are encountering in their daily lives.
The insecticide aisle at the store is presented as innocuously as the rows of pickles and laundry detergents, and many poisons are even sold in glass containers which, if dropped, could expose people to highly toxic levels of deadly chemicals. Package warnings are printed in tiny type and have been found to be largely ignored by consumers. Household poisons include products such as insect sprays, insecticide-impregnated shelf paper, insect-repelling body lotions, insect-killing floor wax, bug-killing clothing applications, and electronic devices that emit odorless poisons into the air.
Gardening poisons are available for every imaginable purpose, with increasingly easy-to-use devices available to apply the poisons to lawn and garden. One survey indicated that fewer than 15 percent of consumers were aware of the warnings printed on chemical packaging. Most consumers see only the pictures on the packages, which portray happy families romping on their chemically treated lawns. Chemical residues in food are another source of gradual buildup of lethal chemicals in human body tissues.
Only the most remote locations (such as near the Arctic Circle) remain immune to chemical contamination. Because almost all foods contain some level of such chemicals as DDT, human exposure is enormous in the aggregate. Meats and foods derived from animal fats contain the largest amounts of these chemicals because the substances are fat-soluble. Fruits and vegetables are also contaminated, and washing does not remove the chemicals. Cooking does not destroy them. Chapter 11 “Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias” 33
The government establishes legal limits for chemical contamination, but these limits are meaningless; the “safe” residues in or on all the foods we eat quickly add up to unsafe levels as we eat the foods and the chemicals are stored in our bodies. Also, there is little enforcement, so the allowable levels are frequently exceeded, either intentionally, ignorantly, or accidentally. Only interstate commerce is regulated, and most states’ laws about chemical contamination are grossly inadequate – so food grown and sold within a state may be highly contaminated.
The total exposure of each person to the most dangerous chemicals cannot be measured, so “safe” levels in individual foods are truly meaningless. Also, some chemicals are released for general use before their effects are known. With government oversight severely limited, even going to a “zero tolerance” policy is meaningless because the force of inspectors is far too small. Public education and awareness must be increased, and less-toxic chemicals must be used in place of the highly toxic and deadly chemicals. Non-chemical methods of insect and weed control must be explored and put into wide use.
Until that time, human beings live as if guests of the Borgias. Chapter 11 “Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias” Analysis Carson’s two references to the Borgias – a medieval Italian family whose members were known for their murdering, poisoning ways – serve as thematic bookends for this chapter. Carson extends her previous call to action to consumers by providing evidence of the extreme ignorance with which most people use deadly chemicals. Having accumulated the disturbing facts about chemical contamination of the environment in previous chapters, here Carson oncentrates on the most basic human need – food – and the enormous and largely unknown threat chemicals pose to our food supply. As if the silencing of birds and the widespread destruction of wildlife and ecosystems has not served as enough of a wakeup call, here Carson begins to build her case by concentrating on the direct effects of the deadliest chemicals on human beings. She again concludes by reiterating the need to eliminate the use of deadly chemicals altogether in favor of more natural controls. Chapter 11 “Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias” 34
Chapter 12 “The Human Price” Chapter 12 “The Human Price” Summary This chapter is titled Public health problems used to be caused by diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and plague. Infectious disease has been largely controlled through improved living conditions, better sanitation, and miraculous drugs, but now we have caused a new kind of public health crisis by introducing dangerous radiation and chemicals into our environment in huge quantities. The results of our actions in bombarding our planet with these unpredictable substances are equally unpredictable.
Previous chapters have shown how pesticides have already drastically affected the water, soil, and food, as well as many species of wildlife and livestock – and how pesticides affect people in both the short term and long term. Long-term effects are easy to ignore as long as they are invisible, but they are there nonetheless. Our individual bodies have a kind of ecology, just as the larger environment does. The effects of tiny amounts of chemicals on this minute ecology can be enormous.
One changed molecule can affect the entire body system. It may be impossible to tell what is “cause” and what is “effect” because there may be years between the two. Chemicals that store themselves in fat may affect many processes in the body, right down to cellular function. The human liver filters many of the poisons to which we are exposed; over time, the liver may become damaged by these poisons from which it protects the body and thus become less capable of performing its function. Hepatitis and cirrhosis are increasingly common.
The nervous system is highly susceptible to damage by the chlorinated hydrocarbons and the organic phosphates. Individual sensitivity to the various toxic chemicals is extremely variable, making the establishment of “safe” levels meaningless. Human beings are exposed to many different substances, some of which interact with each other in unpredictable ways, sometimes increasing their toxicity enormously. Carson gives a number of specific examples of drastic effects of chemicals on individuals’ nervous systems.
The temporary elimination of some insects will continue to result in horrific and permanent Chapter 12 “The Human Price” 35 physical trauma, as long as we choose to use chemicals that directly affect the human nervous system. Chapter 12 “The Human Price” Analysis Once again Carson uses the technique of accumulating greatly detailed examples to make her point. Here she cites a number of instances of the severe effects of chemical poisoning on individuals, many of whom were permanently disabled by their exposure to allegedly “safe” substances.
She begins by drawing the comparison between the ecology of the outside world and that of our individual bodies and pointing out that the intricacy of the planet’s ecosystems is at least matched and likely exceeded by the minute and largely mysterious intricacy of our bodies. In previous chapters she has convincingly portrayed the eventual doom of the earth’s various environments as a result of widespread chemical use; here she extends the reach of destruction to our very selves, and again points the finger back at humans for being the agents of that doom. Chapter 12 “The Human Price” 36
Chapter 13 “Through a Narrow Window” Chapter 13 “Through a Narrow Window” Summary The narrow window referred to in the chapter title is the tiniest structure in the human body. Seen from far away, it reveals only a sliver of light – nothing more, but viewed at extremely close range, the smallest molecule reveals a whole universe of relationships and understanding of the incredibly intricate structure of the entire world – not merely the organism that houses that molecule. Only recently has research revealed the indispensable function of cells in producing the energy required for life to continue.
Without functioning cells, even our organs are useless, for cellular oxidation is the basis of all life function. Many of the chemicals we apply indiscriminately to our environment act to disrupt the vital cellular function that keeps us alive. This field of study is so new that those who were medically trained prior to 1950 may not be able to realize its extreme importance and the terrible hazards involved with widespread use of chemicals. Every cell in the body is involved in producing energy.
Our cells are tiny chemical factories, taking in carbohydrate fuel and converting it in a complex process of many tiny steps into energy. Only since the 1950s have mitochondria, the minute structures within cells that do so much of the work, been understood and appreciated for their extreme importance. Mitochondria contain enzymes that accomplish the work of energy production. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the form of energy produced at each stage of the mitochondrial process; its ability to transfer energy from one place to another within the body is the secret to physical life.
It is the “currency” of the life process. Without ATP, life would cease; essentially, organisms would burn themselves out because energy would be burned but not transferred, halting the cycle that keeps living things going. Chapter 13 “Through a Narrow Window” 37 Radiation and a number of chemicals easily serve to disrupt the energy-transferring process. There are a number of ways these substances can adversely affect the enzymes involved in the cycle of oxidation.
An increase in such disasters as congenital deformities and the cessation of fertilized egg cell division has been noted, and as of 1961 the Office of Vital Statistics was conducting studies based on the increase in malformations at birth. The reproductive systems of all creatures are adversely affected by DDT and other chemicals, so that this drastic disruption of the “universal currency of energy” affects the capacity of all living things – including humans – to reproduce successfully. The problem is not merely one of reduced reproduction, but of possibly severe damage to our very genes.
Our genes carry thousands of years of adaptation and evolution to us, so that in theory each successive generation is more successful than its predecessor. Chemicals that act upon our genes can cause sudden mutations, producing new and undesirable changes in subsequent generations. Cell division is the basic process of life creation for everything from amoebae to humans, but mutations as a result of the sudden influx of chemicals into our environment threaten this process that builds upon millennia of gradual adaptation to infinitesimal change.
At the cellular level, life cannot cope with the onslaught of chemicals. Our understanding of chromosomes is extremely new from the perspective of the millions of years life has taken to reach the present, and our understanding of the effect of chemicals on chromosomes barely exists. Nevertheless, we bombard our environment with these chemicals; and now we are seeing the drastic effects they have on the most fundamental processes of all life. A number of examples are given of drastic mutation because of chemical exposure. Various chromosomal abnormalities discovered in humans are examined.
We are now filling our environment with chemicals that have the power to alter our chromosomes and so alter the path of our genetic heritage, which is the result of millions or even billions of years of evolution. Chemical makers are not required to test their products for their effects on genetics, so they do not – at our peril and the peril of future generations. Chapter 13 “Through a Narrow Window” Analysis Chapter 13 “Through a Narrow Window” 38 Carson again uses the technique of moving from a micro view to a macro view.
She begins this chapter by focusing on the tiniest pieces of life, the cells and mitochondria and enzymes that function to keep energy flowing and life going. She builds upon previous chapters’ emphasis on the drastic effects of chemicals on living things, now explaining the intricate processes of the cells and microscopic biological “factories” that enable us and all creatures to live. Having explained the complex and finely tuned process, she then explains the drastic effects radiation and chemicals have on the process. Then she builds further upon that foundation, explaining the ewly understood function of chromosomes and the potentially dire effects of chemicals upon these building blocks of life. She ends this chapter as she has ended previous chapters, with a call to action that points out how we are only killing ourselves with our indiscriminate use of chemicals, but she builds upon this, too, by pointing out that damaging our chromosomes hurts not only us but also generations to come. Our irresponsible actions affect not only our present and future, but the very existence of humanity in the long term.
Chapter 13 “Through a Narrow Window” 39 Chapter 14 “One in Every Four” Chapter 14 “One in Every Four” Summary Cancer has existed for so long that we do not know when it was first recognized. There are naturally occurring substances that cause cancer, such as radiation and arsenic. Life adapted to these threats, which are relatively few, but human beings alone among the planet’s creatures have the ability to create carcinogens, which cause cancer. Soot is one carcinogen. The industrial era has brought many more.
Because life, including human life, adapts to environmental changes extremely slowly, the carcinogens that man has created relatively recently in the span of history can have drastic effects on humans, as well as other creatures. Only since 1775 has the connection between external agents and the existence of cancer been recognized, and it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that various cancers were traced to exposure to certain chemicals. There has been a huge increase in the incidence of malignancy, and in our awareness of it, in fewer than 200 years.
The American Cancer Society estimates that two out of three families will be stricken with cancer. Only 25 years ago, cancer in children was rare; now more American children die from cancer than from any other disease. Animal experiment evidence has shown that as many as six of the pesticides Carson has been discussing are carcinogens. Others are thought to produce leukemia in humans. Still others may be indirect causes of malignancy. Arsenic is one cancer-causing substance. It has entered water supplies as a result of gold nd silver mining and has caused regional outbreaks of numerous disorders, including malignant tumors. The widespread use of arsenic compounds as pesticides begs the question of when more such regional outbreaks of arsenic-related cancers and other diseases will occur. Not only humans but other animals, from sheep and deer all the way down to bees, have been known to develop arsenical diseases. Chapter 14 “One in Every Four” 40 A chemical widely used to kill mites and ticks was eventually shown to cause cancer, but meanwhile, many thousands of people and other creatures were exposed to it.
Several years elapsed before the Food and Drug Administration instituted a zero-tolerance policy on the chemical; before then, residues of this known carcinogen were allowable in food. DDT and other chemicals have been shown to cause cancer, yet these substances are still in use (in 1962). Some of these chemicals take many years to produce cancer, so that what may seem a “safe” level is really a level that will, eventually, rather than immediately, kill those exposed to it. Unlike most cancers, Leukemia is a cancer that develops quickly.
Since modern pesticides began to be used, the occurrence of leukemia has been increasing. Other cancers also have been shown to be the result of chemical exposure. Several examples are given of individuals who developed leukemia after direct exposure to pesticides. The mysterious origins of cancerous cells are explored. Cancer appears in many different forms, and it is assumed that there are many different causes. One theory, the Warburg theory, is discussed involving damaged cells that survive through fermentation rather than respiration.
This theory accounts for many of the huge differences among different species’ experiences with cancer, such as variable cancer growth rates. It also may explain why repeated small exposures to chemicals may be more dangerous than one single blast. The latter might kill cells completely, while the former may damage them only to the point that they become cancer-creating cells. The standards Warburg established show that most pesticides are perfect carcinogens because they interfere with the process of oxidation so vital to continued cell health. Another theory of cancer involves damaged chromosomes.
Again, chemicals can easily damage chromosomes and so contribute to cancer creation and growth, or chemicals may cause mutations, which then foster cancer growth. Many chemical pesticides cause chromosome doubling, which can cause major physical problems, including cancer. Certain chemicals are drawn to bone marrow, and thus are very likely to cause leukemia in people exposed to them. Children who are growing quickly provide ideal environments in which malignant cells can multiply. Chapter 14 “One in Every Four” 41 Cancer may be caused by a chemical indirectly.
Some chemicals affect sex hormones, which in turn adversely affect the ability of the liver to resolve hormonal imbalances. This can lead to an excess of certain hormones, which at elevated levels will cause cancer. Even exposure to very low amounts of the chemicals may affect the liver’s ability to keep hormones in balance. Human beings are exposed to multiple chemicals that cause cancer. These exposures are uncontrolled. Exposure to certain substances may happen in many different ways, each one of which alone may be insufficient to cause harm; but in the aggregate result in cancer.
Other substances may cause no harm until a person is exposed to both of them, so that their effects are combined, or one chemical may increase the danger of another substance – even something apparently innocuous, such as laundry soap. Cancer may be caused in a two-step process involving exposure to radiation and later to a chemical. Public water supplies are now frequently contaminated with detergents, which alone are not carcinogenic but can increase the susceptibility of certain body tissues to chemicals that cause cancer.
We live in a “sea of carcinogens,” and some people approach this dire situation with the fatalistic view that we should concentrate on finding a cure for cancer because it is inevitable many people will develop the disease in our contaminated environment, but the better approach is twofold: cure as well as prevention. Just as we conquered many infectious diseases by improving sanitation and producing miraculous drugs, we must conquer cancer by finding a cure and eliminating the environmental poisons that cause cancer.
Medical experts believe that even if a cure were found, the rate of new cancers would far outstrip the rate of cured cancer patients. The good news is that humans have the ability to remove carcinogens from the environment, in contrast to a rampant infectious disease that humans did not introduce into the world. By eliminating most of the carcinogens from our environment, we could greatly reduce the “one in four” statistic of cancer affliction. The search for a cancer cure must continue for the sake of those who have already been exposed, in some cases over decades, to dangerous chemicals likely to cause cancer.
For those not yet affected and for those not yet born, we can help prevent cancer by removing the substances that so clearly cause it. Chapter 14 “One in Every Four” 42 Chapter 14 “One in Every Four” Analysis Having developed the theme of chemical destruction to living cells in the previous chapter, Carson here elaborates by discussing the proven link between chemical exposure and cancer. For many people in 1962, this connection would have been relatively new because extremely dangerous chemicals were still being sold for household use as though they were innocuous to all but the targeted insects or unwanted plants.
Once again, Carson uses extensive scientific evidence, including figures and quotes from medical experts, to build her case. She explains how chemicals are understood to cause cancer in cells – again, relatively new information at the time. The major point of this chapter is that many cases of cancer could be avoided simply by eliminating many of the man-made carcinogens from the environment. Carson is again pointing out the obvious solution, which also happens to be the best moral choice: humans must stop poisoning themselves and the generations of the future. Chapter 14 “One in Every Four” 43
Chapter 15 “Nature Fights Back” Chapter 15 “Nature Fights Back” Summary Despite our efforts to control insect populations by mass application of new chemicals, the insects keep coming back. Insects are genetically adapting to the chemicals we use – they are becoming resistant, but even worse than that, our chemical attacks on insects have weakened entire ecosystems, so that the natural enemies of the targeted insects are destroyed, along with the targets. This creates an ideal environment for the unwanted insects to reinfest an environment where their unfettered reproduction will not be challenged.
Humans have been ignoring the powerful forces at work in the balance of nature and arrogantly asserting their dominance, which actually shifts the balance against them. Humans have overlooked two critical facts: first, nature provides the best ways to control insects; and second, a chemically weakened environment opens the door to explosive insect repopulation. Insects are controlled by limitations on the amount of food available to them and by other insects – often an ongoing struggle for survival that is completely invisible to most humans.
Our lack of understanding has contributed to our arrogant and grossly overzealous application of chemicals to the problem of insect control. If we worked at understanding the balance of nature, we could use its secrets to control unwanted insects without doing harm to our environment and ourselves. Some insects hunt others; some insects are parasites to others; some feast on aphids by the hundreds. Many insects are our friends, yet we have killed them along with the unwanted insects by broadcasting lethal chemicals across thousands of acres of insect habitat.
The balance of nature has already turned against us and will continue to do so as long as we continue to kill the good along with the bad. Chemical battles against spider mites, red-banded leaf rollers, codling moths, and cotton-feeding insects have resulted in explosions in their populations. Likewise, chemical attacks on insects such as the fire ant and the Japanese beetle (see Chapters Chapter 15 “Nature Fights Back” 44 10 and 17) resulted in sharp increases in the crop-destroying enemies of those insects: the sugarcane borer and the corn borer.
Trying to eliminate one destructive insect in these cases resulted in a huge increase in an even more destructive insect. Ironically, the extremely destructive corn borer is easily controlled by the introduction of its natural insect enemies – which cannot survive intense chemical attack. In the 1870’s in California, a scale insect highly destructive to the citrus crop was controlled by the introduction of vedalia beetles, a parasite of the scale insect. Then in the 1940’s, chemicals began to be used for insect control in the citrus orchards, wiping out the vedalia in many areas.
The scale insect quickly reasserted itself, and many expensive crops were destroyed. Similar examples are given of cases involving disease-bearing insects, in which the insects’ natural enemies were destroyed by manmade chemicals applied indiscriminately. Chemical companies give enormous amounts of money to universities to support further chemical research, but hardly any money is given for research on natural, biological controls. Natural controls do not provide the chance of making a fortune, but they are the only way the planet will survive in balance.
A program of natural controls in Nova Scotia has proven that expensive chemicals are not necessary. Human beings must give up their arrogance and learn to work with nature rather than battling against it. Chapter 15 “Nature Fights Back” Analysis Here Carson returns to the theme of natural insect control, building upon it by pointing out how poorly chemical control has worked. Indeed, in many cases chemical “control” has resulted in renewed and even greater outbreaks of unwanted insects. Carson continues using the technique of piling fact upon fact and example upon example to build her case.
She continues to add examples of the arrogance and apparent stupidity of those who apply huge amounts of chemicals with disastrous results – even in some cases after natural controls have been instituted and used with great success for many decades. The chapter ends on a positive note, with a glowing example of natural insect control that has the added advantage of being much cheaper Chapter 15 “Nature Fights Back” 45 than chemical control. She again sounds the warning that humans must stop poisoning the world and instead must learn to work with the amazingly intricate checks and balances provided by nature. Chapter 15 “Nature Fights Back” 6 Chapter 16 “The Rumblings of an Avalanche” Chapter 16 “The Rumblings of an Avalanche” Summary As humans continue to subject the entire environment to intensive chemical spraying, weaker insects are being killed off, and stronger insects are becoming resistant to the chemicals. Earlier, pre-DDT-era chemicals had become ineffective against some insects; Carson cites several instances. Post DDT, insects began to become resistant to chemicals more quickly. Now people interested in combating disease-carrying insects are realizing the seriousness of the situation because insects carrying deadly diseases grow to be immune to chemicals.
This chapter’s title comes from a quotation by a scientist who says the rapidly growing list of insects that have developed resistance to chemicals may be the “early rumblings of what may become an avalanche in strength. ” Resistance can develop very quickly. Many insects carry infectious diseases that are deadly to humans: mosquitoes (malaria, yellow fever), houseflies (dysentery and eye diseases), lice (typhus), fleas (plague), tsetse flies (sleeping sickness), ticks (fevers), and many more.
The use of chemicals to control these insects is no longer working, and indeed may have destroyed the natural forces that could be put to use in combating these disease carriers. The insects persist in developing resistance to each successive new chemical. A number of examples are provided of insects repeatedly developing resistance to multiple chemicals. In many cases the diseases the insects carry have regained a foothold because of the failed chemical control of the insects. In some cases, application of the chemicals has actually increased the population of the chemical-resistant insects.
Many cases of chemical-resistant insects have cropped up in the U. S. , including the salt-marsh mosquito, house mosquito, wood tick (vector of spotted fever), brown dog tick, and German cockroach. Agricultural pest insects have also begun to develop Chapter 16 “The Rumblings of an Avalanche” 47 resistance to chemicals intended to control or eradicate them. It is unrealistic to expect to stay one chemical step ahead of the insects forever, yet that seems to be the approach of many in the chemical industry and farming.
The development of chemical resistance is a perfect illustration of natural selection. The weak insects are killed while the “tough” insects survive and propagate, creating more insects with the “tough” characteristics. Scientists do not really know how insects develop resistance. Some develop resistance within a few months, while others take up to 6 years. Some people ask whether humans could develop resistance, but this is completely unrealistic; human generations last about 33 years, while several insect generations come and go within a month or so.
Humans simply don’t have time to wait hundreds or thousands of years until they are able to develop resistance. We must change our approach to the use of chemicals for attempted insect control. Chapter 16 “The Rumblings of an Avalanche” Analysis This chapter serves as the denouement or crucial turning point in Carson’s carefully crafted argument: not only do chemicals harm the environment and human beings, but ultimately they do not even work against the insects they are intended to destroy. As in earlier chapters, she augments her argument with layers and layers of frightening facts.
She pounds home the conclusion that the only outcome to greater and greater application of chemicals is total decimation of the planet’s life, and she quotes a Dutch scientist as a sort of voice in the wilderness, proclaiming the desperately needed switch from chemical to natural means of insect control. The quotation asserts that humans’ arrogance and ignorance will be their downfall, and that what is needed is patient cooperation with the powers of nature. Chapter 16 “The Rumblings of an Avalanche” 48 Chapter 17 “The Other Road”
Chapter 17 “The Other Road” Summary In our use of ever-increasing levels of dangerous chemicals in our environment, we have been traveling a road that seems easy but will end in disaster. The other road of this chapter’s title is the path of non-chemical control of unwanted insects and plants. Only by this “other road,” the “one ‘less traveled by,”‘ can we ensure our planet’s survival. It is up to us to assert our right not to be poisoned. A huge variety of alternatives to the dangerous chemicals used ineffectively against insects is available.
Whether they are already in use or in laboratory development or exist so far only in the imaginations of scientists, they are biological solutions based on the whole of nature and its intricate network of so many different kinds of life. It is becoming increasingly clear that insecticides are more harmful to humans than to the insects we have sought to control with these chemicals. One alternative method of insect control is sterilization, in which sterilized males of the species are introduced into the environment.
When the sterilized males mate with females, the life cycle is interrupted, and a whole generation of insects is eliminated. Populations of pest insects such as the screw-worm have been wiped out with the method of disseminating large numbers of sterilized males. A number of other species are being tested for susceptibility to control by sterilization, in hopes that populations of disease-carrying insects, such as the tsetse fly, may be greatly reduced, thus improving healthful living conditions for thousands of humans and livestock.
Experiments are being conducted to test various methods of insect sterilization, some of which are chemical. We must exercise extreme caution, however, because widespread use of these new chemicals might put us in even deeper trouble that we are already in. Chapter 17 “The Other Road” 49 Other biological means of insect control being studied include methods that use insects’ own processes – such as venoms, attractants, and repellants – against them. Scientists are studying the chemical makeup of these substances, as well as of insect hormones.
One success story is the creation of an artificial gypsy moth male-to-female lure; the fake lure is used to bait traps that capture the males for census work. Such a false lure might also be used to control the moths’ population. Another possible way to control some insects is through manipulation of their extreme sensitivity to certain sounds. Still other biological means of insect control have been around for many years. These involve manipulating the diseases and infections to which insects are susceptible.
As mentioned in previous chapters, the hunter-and-prey relationship between certain kinds of insects can be used against the undesirable insects. Similarly, bacteria and viruses and other microscopic creatures can be used to attack particular insects. A number of tests are being conducted on various crop-destroying insects around the world. Such methods are safe for humans because insect diseases are highly specific to insects; they are completely different from diseases that affect people. Since 1888, about 100 species of insect predators and parasites have been introduced and established in the U.
S. to combat unwanted (often accidentally imported) insects. Only California has a formal program in biological control of insects; unfortunately, such research does not receive the monetary support that continues to be lavished on chemical research programs. Forests offer an incredible opportunity to cooperate with nature in controlling unwanted insects. Canada and Europe have gone much further than the U. S. in developing real “forest hygiene” practices, especially the strong support of birds through nesting box programs and the like.
In Germany and Italy, red ants have been used very successfully to protect reforested areas. Spiders are a huge part of the work of a pioneer in the field of natural forest protection, Dr. Heinz Ruppertshofen. Incredible insect control can be achieved by maintaining an adequate spider population. Canada has used small mammals for similar purposes. A single shrew can eat up to 800 sawfly cocoons in one day. Chapter 17 “The Other Road” 50 The key is to be imaginative, creative, and cooperative with nature’s inherent balances.
The use of poisons has failed terribly and continues to fail despite ever-increasing efforts to find new and better poisons. We must stop trying to beat nature with the club of man-made poisons and learn to work within the intricate structure of the earth. If we do not, we will destroy the earth and ourselves. Chapter 17 “The Other Road” Analysis Carson ends her book with a strong, positive call to action. She provides a spark of hope by providing details about numerous efforts at natural insect control that in many cases have succeeded beyond expectation, even where chemical application has failed miserably.
She emphasizes the miraculously interwoven relationships among the thousands of species on the planet and the hope that we humans can give up our arrogance and brutality before it is too late. In contrast with the nightmare-fairytale described in the first chapter, with its “once upon a time” tone that suddenly twists into a macabre reality, this chapter provides a hopeful but realistic possibility for the future – if only we listen and demand change. Chapter 17 “The Other Road” 51 Key Figures The Chemical Industry
Because Carson refrains from naming particular corporations, the pesticide makers assume the monolithic shape of an evil empire in Silent Spring. Yet Carson does not preach at the industry . Yes, it develops hundreds of new deadly toxins a year, and, through disinformation and pressure on government agencies, it promotes their widest possible use the book is very clear about these things. But Carson seems to view such activity as natural to the commercial enterprise and wastes no time calling on pesticide producers to reform themselves.
The Government The government is the other great villain in Carson’s story, and though one might think it is the chemical industry that bears primary responsibility for what has occurred, she is much more critical of public servants. Her thinking seems to be that more is to be expected of government. In succumbing to political pressure and helping pesticide makers promote their products, she argues, government has lost sight of its raison d’etre (reason for being), protecting the public interest.
Carson holds that instead of echoing industry disinformation and spending taxpayers’ money on reckless pest eradication programs, agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration ought to impose stricter controls on the development, sale, and use of dangerous chemicals and to fund more research. Nature An overview of key figures in Silent Spring that did not mention nature would be quite incomplete. In terms of the amount of attention that is devoted to them, plant and animals are the most important “characters” in the book, surpassing humans by a wide Key Figures 52 argin, who are the focus of just a few chapters. Still, despite the almost infinite variety of life forms that Carson mentions, there emerges a single image of nature that has a crucial function in Carson’s case against pesticides: nature as a fabric of life in which all things are connected, from the smallest of soil microbes to human beings and other large mammals. If readers accept such a view, they must also agree with Carson that the sledgehammer-like approach of current pest control introducing large amounts of extremely toxic chemicals into the environment to eradicate a few species of insects is indefensible.
What poisons one part of the fabric of life poisons the whole. The Public Along with wildlife, the public is a major concern in Silent Spring. The image the book projects of this collective entity is that of a victim of the chemical industry, betrayed by irresponsible public officials and exposed to toxic pesticides at every turn. As the terrible side effects of pesticides become clearer, the public begins to ask questions, demand answers, and insist on greater responsiveness from government agencies. The Visionaries
The heroes of Silent Spring come from several walks of life: scientists laboring patiently in an often tedious and seriously underfunded area of research to determine the precise scope of the pesticide threat; birders and other amateur naturalists, whose careful observation of wildlife in the field yields essential information about the problem; activists driven by a deep concern for their communities and the natural environment to challenge industry and government to behave more responsibly; and philosophers, writers, and other thinkers who help citizens understand the cultural sources not just of the pesticide problem but of the whole range of trouble that modern civilization has stirred up with technology . What all of these individuals share is an uncommon power discernment. Simply recognizing the broad impact of pesticides on Nature 53 the environment and health is a significant achievement.
What makes Carson’s visionaries even more remarkable is their having probed this tricky problem with great precision in the face of widespread disinformation and obstruction. The Visionaries 54 Themes The Science of Pesticides One of the great insights of Silent Spring is its grasp of the pesticide problem as a compound one. On one hand, there are the intrinsic dangers of these chemicals: their capacity to disrupt basic biological processes, their persistence in the environment, and so forth. But Carson knew that the manner in which a dangerous substance is also crucial. To understand how compounds like DDT and malathion have come to threaten life on a global scale, one has to examine what has been done with them.
Each of the major themes of Silent Spring belongs then to one of two lines of argument; the first concerns the raw toxicity of pesticides, the second the recklessness with which they have been employed. Along with atomic fallout, the synthetic pesticides that came into wide use after World War II are the most dangerous substances man has ever created. The heart of the problem, science has shown, is the pesticides’ unique capacity for disrupting critical biological processes like metabolism and cell division. Acute exposure can cause catastrophic systemic problems paralysis, immune deficiency, sterility, etc. and small doses repeated over time can lead to grave illnesses like cancer.
Carson attributes this radically disruptive potential to the distinctive molecular structure of synthetic pesticides. Part carbon, they mimic the substances that are crucial to life (enzymes, hormones, etc. ) and so gain entrance to sensitive physiological systems. Once inside these vital systems, the elements to which the carbon is bound (chlorine and other deadly materials) wreak havoc on the organism. Two other properties that increase the hazard of pesticides are, first, the slow rate at which they break down and become less toxic, and, second, their tendency to accumulate in fat tissue. It is these characteristics that make even low-level exposure to pesticides so dangerous. A dose that is too small to cause immediate harm