Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring


I remember Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, though I never read the book. Her thesis that pollution was damaging the natural world always seemed plausible to me, not something that I could disagree with.

That book turned out to be a watershed event: it was only after its publication that laws to protect the environment began to be passed, an issue which continues to be important today in many more ways than Carson enumerated then.

The book had been inspired by the scientists at chemical companies like Monsanto who declared war on insects like mosquitoes and fire ants. They didn’t want to just control, but to eradicate them, and massive amounts of DDT were their weapon of choice. Carson saw the problems with this kind of strategy.

One was that, while the poison killed vast numbers of insects, some that had some resistance survived, and their offspring replaced those killed, and were no longer controllable by DDT, exactly like the misuse of antibiotics creates strains of resistant bacteria. To eradicate resistant insects or bacteria means an ever escalating arms race to find new insecticides or antibiotics.

In the case of insecticides, there were immediate problems. DDT didn’t kill just insects, but other organisms too. Worms were loaded with the poison, and gave it to the robins fed by their parents. They might be poisoned outright or acquire defective immune systems, making their survival more precarious. Earth and water were poisoned too, and the poison became more concentrated as it made its way up the food chain

The problem was also parallel to atomic energy. It became clear, at least by the time the hydrogen bomb was first tested in 1952 that the real danger of atomic weapons wasn’t the explosions, extreme as these were, but the radioactive fallout they generated, which has the potential to destroy much or all life on earth. Unfortunately, it’s not just the bombs that are dangerous, as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have demonstrated. Radioactive waste is toxic, and for a very long time. The last I heard, the Japanese had been unable to stop leakage of it from Fukushima. Who knows how far the pollution will travel, and how serious the damage will be?

What Carson was trying to combat was the optimism of scientists employed by chemical companies who believed that chemicals were the solution to all problems. DDT was the main insecticide of the 1950s, and thanks to Carson it was eventually banned. But DDT was only a small example of the problem of technology.

Technology can do amazing and wonderful things. It can also generate new problems for every solution it achieves. Technology can be, and often is, poisonous. But it’s also extremely convenient in many ways. How many of us want to live a more natural lifestyle? A life without central heating, inside toilets and electricity could be most inconvenient.

Native Americans always had great respect for nature. They also tolerated heat, cold, and other rigors of mostly outdoor living. Few of us are used to that kind of life or wish to adopt it.

And Carson’s book enraged chemical companies, who did everything they could to discredit her. They didn’t succeed. She was able to demonstrate that they had been reckless in their use of DDT and other chemicals, her book became a best-seller, and generated a movement that passed laws to protect the environment.

DDT has been far from the only environmental problem, though. We now know, for instance, that human activity (like driving cars, for example, or burning coal) has saturated the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide (among other chemicals), causing global temperatures to rise. Consequences of that are unlikely to be good.

We also know that hydraulic fracturing pollutes huge amounts of water, and that injecting the waste back into the ground causes earthquakes. And that insecticides are making bees an endangered species.

All of the above makes US an endangered species. Without bees, it becomes more difficult to pollinate our crops. Global warming seems to produce more extreme weather and higher sea-levels–at least. It may produce droughts and eventually deserts too. Polluted air, earth, and water, endanger us, and all the other plant and animal species that live with us.

Many of us, especially in the technologically developed countries, live intellectually and emotionally in a kind of parallel universe where nature is found in parks and makes a pretty spectacle. We rarely realize that we are part of nature, and depend on the interaction of all its species to make our own lives possible.

Wars are going to be a strong possibility in the next decades, partly because climate change will make some areas unlivable, and partly because natural resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate. The USA, with 5-7% of the world’s population uses a disproportionate percentage of its resources. That can’t continue without readjustment, maybe drastic and chaotic.

But the real danger may be much more subtle. Pollution increasingly poisons the entire environment, and corporations who consider they have no responsibility except to shareholders continue to behave in environmentally reckless ways. Fracking is by no means the only bad idea (though convenient in the short-run). Oil spills have been increasing, since our demand for energy doesn’t decrease. Hard rock mines may be even more environmentally dangerous than oil. And many people prefer to believe that all these problems are merely lies by a conspiracy to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, some people HAVE to be told what to do. Large corporations have proven they’re not interested in self-government, which means they need to be regulated by public servants, which they resent, and often successfully subvert. Liberty for them is the license to profit without regard for anyone else. If capitalism (to say nothing of the human race) is to survive, its attitude must change. Of course it is unwilling to go gently into that good night.

Carson realized she wouldn’t live long as she was finishing the book. She had had several lumps removed from her breast at various times, and then a radical mastectomy. Her doctor told her he had gotten all the cancer, but lied. The cancer had metastasized. She underwent radiation treatments which made her able to finish the book, but the cancer metastasized further, and she died little more than a year after the book was published. Not before she was able to defend it from critics in the chemical industry who wanted to keep selling insecticides at the same rate they had been. The NPR documentary made it clear that Carson had no problem with the responsible use of insecticides, but did have with using them in huge volumes.

It’s also clear that in the last fifty-plus years industries have been using similar tactics to be able to continue unwise practices. Cigarette manufacturers maintained that smoking wasn’t dangerous, but eventually had to stop denying. There are still climate change deniers who object that scientists predictions aren’t always accurate–true enough, because the world climate system is very large, but not because human activity isn’t affecting climate. A lot of lobbying has gone into preventing effective action to slow the changes down.

The documentary points out that Carson was one of the first to tell people (after the modern age had forgotten) how nature includes the human race and everything else, and that damaging other organisms (plants or animals) eventually damages us too. A lot of people have been inspired by her to try to make positive change in our collective behavior, with some success, but not yet enough. I’m afraid catastrophe(s) will have to be our teacher.



2 thoughts on “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

  1. Jay Harker

    It is a mystery how the Mayan civilization collapsed. It may be from over use of the land for agriculture. I find it interesting that we may face collapse due to the over use of our resources through CO2 emissions and global warming. I think it is good that you brought that up. Are there parallels here?

    • I certainly think there are. Native Americans are known for treating nature with respect. That’s something we don’t do, and we’ve more or less pushed our approach onto the rest of the world, which I’m afraid puts us in a very dangerous position. Jared Diamond wrote a book called Collapse about previous cultures that ran into severe ecological problems. Some of them were able to adjust and survive, some weren’t. We need to do a lot more adjusting than we so far have.

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