Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: an Alarm

Aug 3, 2018 in Literature

Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring has aroused public attention, but it cannot be considered merely a piece of sensationalist journalism with little scientific basis.

The “sensational journalism” is reasonably treated by many as a kind of “yellow press” writing, statements of which are, as a rule, not supported by scientific clearly proven facts and, moreover, are not intended to arouse the reader's real interest in problems of serious public or ethical nature.

Carson has raised such issues in her book

She urged the scientists working in the field of agriculture, and government members to abandon the widespread poisoning of the planet with pesticides, and the public - to change the attitude towards the influence of humans on the nature. The book is based on the scientific evidence and factual information about the dangers of pesticides, herbicides, and other hazardous chemicals that are used in industry and agriculture. Rachel Carson has driven the attention to problems in testing of new chemical companies, the issues connected with the instructions on the use of pesticides, the inadequate and strict adherence to the legal framework. The real facts, presented in an accessible form and on the scientific basis, as well as the scientific authority of Rachel Carson, made Silent Spring very popular.

Brilliant style and revolutionary content made the book a bombshell. For the first time the theory of the interconnectedness of nature was introduced in an accessible form and it was stated that, trying to change the nature, one must exercise extreme caution.

One friend brought the author the thrushes, affected by DDT - substance, applied in agriculture to protect crops from pests. Birds paws were frantically pressed to the body in the death agony. This case encouraged Rachel to fight for the environment, often opposing the powerful corporations and government agencies. She was supported by some other scholars. The book Silent Spring had a great response and increased the number of conservationists (Lear, 1997).

The publication of Carson's book immediately alarmed the chemical industry and some members of the government. She was called “a hysterical woman,” unqualified to write such books. However, despite these criticisms Silent Spring became a bestseller, a book, considered to be the initiator of the development of a new environmental movement.

After the Silent Spring publication Rachel Carson wrote to a friend:

The beauty of the natural world, which I was trying to save, has always been paramount in my mind with anger about the ongoing senseless cruelty. I felt bound by a solemn obligation to do all that I can - if I had not at least tried to do so, I would have never been able to feel happy in nature (Carson & Freeman, 1995).

In short, her book Silent Spring – is a book about ignorance, recklessness and crime of people, using agricultural poisons without considering the possible consequences. Carson indicated the serious danger posed to humanity, and, especially, to future generations, by new synthetic drugs. She also claimed that new chemicals threaten the entire fauna of the planet.

Her point of view Carson clearly stated this way:

Those who value most profits and technological progress, unconsciously believe that the way of man on the stage of history cancels the problem of balance in nature. Might as well they might assume that at the same time also the law of gravity is canceled! The balance of nature is based on the internal connections of the living world and its relationship with the environment. This does not mean that man should not try to tip the scales in his favor, but in any case he must remember what he does, and provide for the consequences of his steps (Carson, 2002).

The environment is changing rapidly, and the old stereotypes still hold our minds, though long since passed into the category of false information. We believe that we are able to create a social system in which mankind has a possibility to implement the birth control and thus improve their living standards while preserving the environment. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. So far, all efforts to protect the environment are taken within the standard paradigm of improper conduct of the economy and the possibility of technological problem solving. The main mistake of many researchers is that they assume that the terrain deformation is a smooth process, although the nature usually demonstrates a threshold beyond which there are the landslide processes of deterioration. On what stage we are today: still at the start, pre-crisis state, or a catastrophe? Some are trying to leave everything at the mercy of nature, others live in harmony with it, and some are trying to subdue it.

DDT and other insecticides with a broad spectrum of activity not only ushered in an era of industrial agriculture, it was believed that they were once and for all to “solve” all the problems of pests. Alas, it is this optimism partly to blame for the severe consequences that led to the almost meaningless saturation of the environment with pesticides. Now the soil is polluted by these long-acting (i.e. very slowly degradable) toxic substances with a wide range of actions to such an extent, that we are forced to give up many of them.

Signals of entomological risk (pest outbreaks caused by spraying) rang in the 60's, but were ignored, they caused a sensation only in 1962, when Carson wrote her famous book Silent Spring. Detailed study of Nicholson, Grezendy and others (1964) proved that the infection of the watershed is a result of the uncontrolled use of pesticides. Finally, today the evidence of the insidious effects of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons on the nervous and endocrine system of vertebrates, including humans, are collected (Hynes, 1989).

Carson began to show interest to the means of control of insects, including the well-known poison DDT in 1945. In ordinary life such chemicals were called “pesticides”, but Carson has found a hidden anthropocentrism in this word. Creature is a “pest” only from the point of view of the human. In nature, it has its logical role that environmentalists call the structure of life. Carson has considered such pesticides to be the murderers of life. And she has known that these poisons are hard to stop from the further penetration of the food chain. Beings, having eaten the poisoned insects also die. Other forms of life are “involuntary” victims of indiscriminate pollination. As a result, pesticides contaminate the entire ecosystem. The scenario of the ‘silent spring’, during which the birds are not singing, is not so impossible. Carson believes that such a bleak future awaits also sick human society, poisoned by the side effects of its desire to conquer and dominate the world. Making people aware of the fact that pesticides threaten human health, has made Silent Spring a masterpiece (Murphy, 2005).

Ethical philosophy, illustrated in Silent Spring, contains both old and new ideas. Carson has hoped that her book would encourage Americans to act. She has been full of anger. Her purpose has been to cancel the pesticides, or, at least, significantly limit their use. She has wished to be effective in the political arena, and she has understood that if she ignores the public opinion, she would lose her audience. As a result, there is no direct mention of the rights of insects, birds, fish, and other victims of the poison in Silent Spring.

The only linkage with the natural rights is the assumption that if the founding fathers of the United States knew about chemical pesticides, they would probably include the right for freedom from the poison in the Bill of Rights. When she writes of the pain of the poisoned squirrels, she has in mind, that such cruelty diminishes us as a people.

When Carson has started writing the Silent spring, she has said to her publisher that while “it is always the first allocated a risk to human health”, she is more inclined to the idea that the harm caused by pesticides to “basic ecology life far outweighs any or other aspects of the problem”. These words do not appear in the Silent Spring, but Carson refers to “vital structures” and ”interconnectedness” of all life, and the “neglect” that people show to “destroy all living things that cause them discomfort” (Lear, 1997). According to Carson, the insects have the right to life. At the heart of moral philosophy of Carson is her belief that “life is a miracle, inaccessible to our understanding and we have to honor it, even if we have to fight against it” (Matthiessen, 1999). Like any other life form, people have to fight for food, for the habitat. Sometimes insects outdare people in this competition. Pesticides are people’s “response” to this but, according to Carson, they have brought the conflict to a dangerous level. With the help of her book the author wants to make people realize that their growing ability to control nature may turn against them. People need to be “modest” in ethics, emphasizing the “equal rights of all creatures on land ownership” (Lytle, 2007). In Silent Spring not only the risks posed to human well-being are clearly outlined, but also the fact that the lives of other forms of life are far from stable. These beliefs are very close to a philosophy of nature rights.

How close Carson was to this, was testified by awarding her in 1963 the Schweitzer Medal from the Institute of animal welfare. At this point, she was already completely exhausted by cancer, of which she knew even before she finished Silent Spring. But the medal was something special; Silent Spring was dedicated to the idea that people should limit themselves, or they will destroy the Earth. At the award ceremony Carson compared the feeling of Schweitzer, who saw the hippo in the river, with her own “when she saw at the night a small crab on a dark beach, fragile creature, frozen before the raging surf, and still feeling at home here” (Quaratiello, 2010).

Carson writes, “Albert Schweitzer told us that we would be truly civilized, if we are interested not only in the relation of man to man. Important is person's attitude to whole life” (Quaratiello, 2010). In another case, she says that “a man will never find peace with their own kind as long as he does not recognize Schweitzer’s ethic that emphasizes respect for all creatures - a true respect for life” (Quaratiello, 2010). Somewhat differently it is stated in the last paragraph of Silent Spring. Carson (2002) says, “Controlling nature is a phrase invented in ignorance, in Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was believed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” She proposes to introduce “sensible reconciliation” between insects and humans; ethics as a means of deterring technological person deliberately used for this (Quaratiello, 2010).

Silent Spring by series appeared in the magazine The Yorker in the summer of 1962; Houghton Mifflin published it as a book in the autumn of that year. The book became quite popular, but, like Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Silent Spring was one of those books about which more is said and written, than they are read. In any case, the Silent Spring caused widespread controversy in the country, indicating that like Darwin, Carson highlighted some very deep intellectual issues. Individuals and organizations related to agriculture attacked her with fierce criticism. They thought that by limiting the use of pesticides, they would suffer economic losses, and thus began to resist the spread of ethical boundaries. The owners of the agricultural firms said that proposals of Carson for biological control (promotion of “friends” of insects, insect opposing “enemies”) are not tested and are unfounded. But the main thing was that Carson made angry people who were too shy to think in an ethical way of their relationship to other life forms. She spoke out against the abuse of nature, just as Geriet Beecher Stowe and abolitionists opposed black people’s slavery. Especially Carson angered those who sincerely believed that the exploitation of the nature was right or, at least, a matter outside the scope of morality. But for other Americans, Carson was a brave heroine, ethical pioneer, willing to use all her energy in order to introduce a new type of relationship with the environment and a new ethic. Many people got interested in the problem of pesticides, hazardous to human health, as indicated by Carson. In this sense, the public interest towards the book Silent Spring was consistent with the thesis that postwar America showed a renewed interest in the protection of nature, which contributed to the quality of the human environment and the quality of human life. But Carson also championed the idea that the sphere of human morality should include all forms of life, and even whole ecosystems. She claimed that no being can be considered as operated facilities. Carson helped to attract unprecedented attention to the idea of expanding the ethical boundaries. Carson led the movement to educate the American public of the 1960s with the basics of environmental ideology and ethical shades (Gottlieb, 2005).

One of the consequences of the publication of Silent Spring was the emergence of the alarmist movements of various kinds, philosophical understanding of environmental issues and the publication of government legislation regulating the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

In the late 1960s, chemical ecotoxicology segregated into an independent science. Three disciplines - chemistry, ecology (the study of the relations that determine the distribution and relationships of living things), and toxicology (the study of toxicity) - were combined into a single scientific discipline.

Brown (1961) gives a fair review of the four programs of mass insect control. Preceded by a thorough scientific study, a very successful fight against fruit fly by judicious use of pesticides is described as a positive example. The other extreme negative example is the campaign for the extermination of imported red ant (Sole opsis). It serves as an example since: 1) the mass pollination has been applied after a very superficial study, and 2) the federal government has made an improper decision, which has been guided primarily by political motives, regardless of the opinions of leading scientists. Several million dollars have been spent on mass spraying from aircraft in accordance with the theory that the bombing with a chemical would allow to kill the insect once and for all. As a result of the extreme measures the number of ants has slightly decreased, although full extermination is out of the question, and in the meantime wild populations of aquatic and terrestrial organisms have been hard hit. The truth is that if to provide every landowner with means to fight the ants or to hold local campaign against them in the areas where it is needed, it would be possible to achieve better results and, moreover, with less danger to the environment. With the rejection of the massive use of long-acting poisons with a broad spectrum of action, it becomes clear that the strategy of pest control will increasingly resort to the so-called integral control measures. The idea of the integrated control lies in the coordinated use of the entire arsenal of methods of struggle: the old-fashioned, but full of common sense farming practices, judicious application of unstable or ‘short living’ chemical pesticides and the third generation of pesticides, as well as the use of the natural methods, i.e., biological control measures. In the arsenal of integrated control are the following weapons: 1) predators - such as ladybugs and lacewing who can fight against pests and bugs who can eliminate weeds, 2) parasites - such as Rider Chalcid, very successfully reducing the number of some important pests, 3) specific to the pest pathogens - viruses and pathogenic bacteria, 4) the bait plants - growing low-value crops to divert valuable crops from pests, 5) crop rotation and diversity, 6) the chemical or radiation sterilization 7) hormonal stimulants - such as juvenile hormones, which prevent the complete development cycle of insects, 8) pheromones (sex attractants) and other biochemical agents that regulate the behavior of pests, 9) unstable chemical insecticides - organophosphates and others, 10) the selection of agricultural cultures with resistance to diseases and pests, and not just for short-term yields.

Thus, the Silent Spring has become the beginning of the war for the environment. Recently, people become increasingly aware of the fragility of nature and its limited resources, begin to realize that human activities may destroy the nature or harm the environment. The U.S. has become cleaner and healthier, and the dark era of the Middle Ages, of which we have been warned by Carson's critics, has not come yet. But this fight is not over, as evidenced by the fierce debate over climate change. Perhaps Rachel Carson has predicted a ‘silent spring’, but the struggle between her followers and enemies is likely to be a long and noisy one.

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