Silent Spring Critique

Silent Spring cover
Silent Spring is a very tight argument against the indiscriminate and unregulated use of pesticides, especially insecticides, particularly DDT. Carson’s argument, in fact, is so tight, so well constructed, that the book is extremely difficult to excerpt without losing a great deal of the argument itself. The works by Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold selected for this reader were much easier to excerpt: they are mostly essays that stand on their own. Not so with the chapters in Silent Spring. Each builds on the preceding chapter and is intimately intertwined with the argument as a whole. A sense of continuity is retained, however, with the selected excerpts, and Carson’s argument will be completed through this critique.

Carson established her reputation for thorough research and exquisite writing long before she embarked upon Silent Spring, the book that would propel her into the company of the century’s most influential environmental writers. Though, as a marine biologist, her primary scientific focus was not on chemical pesticides or their effect on land-based wildlife, her position as eminent science writer kept her in the loop on matters of biological interest in general. She became aware of a growing problem with the use of DDT. Her conclusion, as stated in “The Obligation to Endure,” a chapter from Silent Spring omitted from this guide, was this:

It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.

I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.

Carson’s argument, then, is stated succinctly and without malice toward any one group or industry. Let us see how she uses the rest of Silent Spring to support her argument.

She begins the book with “A Fable for Tomorrow,” the Grimm tale of Anytown, USA, which wakes up one day to find that its wildlife has largely disappeared, rendering the capacity for life in general greatly depleted. As in all good fables, the town’s fate has been self-inflicted by the residents themselves in their quest for an easier, seemingly better, life. By creating a collage from the reports of dire consequences of chemical pesticide use then available, Carson brings home the point that America is heading down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies an undesirable future.

She then states her case in “The Obligation to Endure.” She knows she must educate her readers in the complex chemistry and biological effects of chemical pesticides, and does so in “Elixirs of Death.” In this wonderful introduction to organic chemistry, Carson teaches all of the chemistry required to understand her argument. This serves to further reinforce her credibility, as students are usually inclined to accept the theories of their teachers. She describes the composition of chemicals, inorganic as well as organic, and the proclivity of each to bind with other chemicals essential to life. She goes on to describe the effect of these chemicals on the environment, including their migration throughout the environment and all of its inhabitants, then includes the reader in “The Human Price:”

We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life — or death — that scientists know as ecology.

But there is also an ecology of the world within our bodies. In this unseen world minute causes produce mighty effects; the effect, moreover, is often seemingly unrelated to the cause, appearing in a part of the body remote from the area where the original injury was sustained. “A change at one point, in one molecule even, may reverberate throughout the entire system to initiate changes in seemingly unrelated organs and tissues,” says a recent summary of the present status of medical research. When one is concerned with the mysterious and wonderful functioning of the human body, cause and effect are seldom simple and easily demonstrated relationships. They may be widely separated both in space and time. To discover the agent of disease and death depends on a patient piecing together of many seemingly distinct and unrelated facts developed through a vast amount of research in widely separated fields.

This cause and effect in the human body refers to exposure to carcinogenic chemicals and later development of cancer. As cancer was and still is a growing concern for civilized societies, “The Human Price” makes the problem of pesticides a personal problem for every reader. It is this aspect of Carson’s compelling argument that gave her book the impact required to stir society into action.

In “One in Every Four” she completes our education of poisonous and potentially carcinogenic pesticides through a number of cases and then-current theories as to how these chemicals work. She describes the problems encountered by regulatory agencies, specifically the Food and Drug Administration, in requiring companies to prove the safety of their products before they release them upon the public’s environment. Unfortunately, chemicals are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proof lies upon the government, not the producer. She cites cases of acute leukemia directly attributable to chemical pesticides, and leans on the latest theories to explain how organic chemicals work within the environment of the human body to cause leukemia and other blood disorders. This is important because leukemia is a rapidly developing disease that may give clues to the cause and effect of other, more slowly developing, cancers. She uses the Warburg theory to demonstrate that exposure to levels of chemicals that do not result in acute poisoning may actually be more certain of carcinogenic capacity later in life. She also mentions the effect organic chemicals have on the chromosomes, and the possibility that chemically altered chromosomes may later become mutagenic.

Curiously, she refers to the two-fold attack on infectious diseases — prevention as well as cure — but does not apply the analogy completely to her argument against the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Chemical drugs are analogous to chemical pesticides — both rid the environment of unwanted organisms. Both attempt to control the environment, whether it be the internal environment of the human body in the case of medicinal drugs or the external environment of the landscape in the case of chemical pesticides. The pests in our internal environment are infectious bacteria. The pests in our external environment are weeds and insects. Carson notes the analogy of prevention — personal hygiene, disposal of bacteria-ridden waste, treatment of drinking water — to the human environment in which the agents of prevention in the external environment become the agents of cancerous disease in the internal environment. However, she does not strongly disclose that even in the internal environment, prevention is more effective than cure. She does not immediately and strongly argue that we should be emphasizing prevention in the external environment, just as we do for the internal environment. The environmental analogy of cure has a dark side, i.e., the chemical “cures” of our external pests have become the pests themselves in our internal environment. She points out that chemical production and use has become so firmly entrenched in our notion of a better life, including the economy that supports a better lifestyle, we are unwilling to look upon those chemical cures as the very agents of disease themselves. Her final conclusion, that we must eliminate carcinogens for the danger to ourselves, seems too narrow, however effective it may be in winning the support of her readership.

She then demonstrates the inability of those chemical cures to win the battle against pests in the external environment in “Nature Fights Back.” She shows that effective control of insects is applied by nature, not by man — that the environment itself is an effective control to the overwhelming of pests. She points to cases that demonstrate the consequences of upsetting the delicate balance maintained in nature, especially the case of overgrazing by deer on the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona, with its implicit reference to Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Unfortunately tales of biology do not pack the punch of philosophy, as I think you will see when you read Leopold’s famous essay.

Carson then lets us in on the dirty little secret of the chemical pesticide industry: research follows money. Economic entomologists create chemical pesticides even in the face of (poorly funded) research showing that pesticides are ineffective and dangerous because chemicals make money. Money is energy. Chemical patents require labor, resulting in Lockean property rights to the proceeds from the sale of those chemicals. For, as John Locke said, “Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” Furthermore, this labor entitles the economic entomologist to property rights on the environment itself, including its pests, to which pesticides are applied, even ownership of the economy that places such great emphasis on the manufacture and sale of those chemicals. This is the modern Goliath that Carson sought to slay. She quotes F. H. Jacob in arguing against the economic entomologists, that “only the biologist will provide the answers to the basic problems of pest control.” She does not seem to see the problem of specialists, with their single-dimensional solutions to any given problem, but she does go on to tell of what we now refer to as Integrated Pest Management, the control of pests through biological understanding of the life-cycles of specific pests, including the careful and timely use of chemical pesticides. She ends the chapter with a quote from a Canadian entomologist who clearly does not understand that money is energy, that labor transfers property rights to the laborer: “We must change our philosophy, abandon our attitude of human superiority and admit that in many cases in natural environments we find ways and means of limiting populations of organisms in a more economical way than we can do it ourselves.” Let me state categorically that letting Nature control insects is no way to make money. If we are to change our philosophy, and we must, it must be more far-reaching than merely abandoning the notion of human superiority over the environment.

It is with the final excerpt, “The Other Road,” that I think Carson gained her reputation for having a shrill voice in her fight against the chemical industry. The undertone of this chapter reminds one of the misandry noted in Under the Sea Wind. She begins with a stated preference for biological alternatives to the chemical control of insects. She then goes on to describe those alternatives. She enthusiastically endorses programs of male sterilization, and seems to completely miss the irony of chemical sterilants unleashed upon the environment. She admits that chemosterilants are potentially hazardous, possibly even more so than chemical insecticides, but her admission seems too little, too late. With her enthusiasm for such programs, Carson falls into the very same trap as her opponents in her attempt to control the environment. This lessens the impact of her quote by Dr. Peter Alexander, that the control of insects through chemosterilants would be “open to the most severe objections.”

If Carson is enthusiastic about male sterilization efforts, she is positively gleeful in her description of insect control through the deception of males using sex attractants. She seems mesmerized by andricides. Again I must create a word to describe a previously non-existent idea. Her favorite methods seem to be those that attract the male insect through pheromones, then poison him, leaving the female unharmed. That Carson can endorse these programs, ignoring her previously stated arguments against man’s attempt to control insect populations in general, is completely bewildering. There must have been some deeply rooted issues at work in the author that would cause her to write with such complete abandonment of self-aware irony.

She concludes the chapter with cases of microbial and mammalian methods of controlling insect populations, but again she seems to forget that the environment itself is the best control of insects. There remains the same problem of proof as with chemical insecticides, that is, the burden of proving the ecological safety of such methods should be borne by the promoter. Are there not plenty of cases in which the introduction of exotic mammals has led to degradation of the environment? Do we really know what long-term effect the introduction of shrews to control sawflies in temperate forests will have on the forest ecosystem? Shrewd skepticism would recommend against such action, with even less enthusiasm for microbial solutions.

In the end, Carson is still trying to control the environment. Whether our methods employ chemical insecticides, chemosterilants, andricides, or seemingly benign uses of exotic predators, we are still trying to tip the balance of nature in our favor. Because we are one with the environment we are trying to control, we cannot help but be affected by the consequences of our attempts. Disadvantageous consequences of attempts to control the environment will always outweigh the sought-after advantages. Carson’s final statement admits that “[t]he ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.” Not so much arrogance as ignorance. The real problem is one of one-dimensional solutions of control applied to multidimensional problems about which we have little or no real understanding.

Still, Silent Spring is a tremendously influential piece of work. It resulted in the regulation of chemical pesticides, especially DDT. It worked through heightened public awareness, which in turn created legislative pressure against the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson achieved this impossible victory over the chemical industry by relying on her credibility as a scientist and a writer to create a work with the power to persuade a nation.

Her legacy is far more substantial, however, than merely the regulation of chemical pesticides. Rachel Carson changed American society. Let us now see just how she did that.


Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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1 reply

  1. I somehow let this post get by me in September, so read it today, while waiting for the snow to melt. This statement of yours struck me: “Because we are one with the environment we are trying to control, we cannot help but be affected by the consequences of our attempts. Disadvantageous consequences of attempts to control the environment will always outweigh the sought-after advantages.”
    As one who grew up with direct contact with DDT (applied on our homes’ window screens for bug control) I am appreciative of Rachel Carson’s impact on stopping the use of DDT.
    AND, I love the thought of the Bill of Rights stating we have the right to be free of chemicals. I am having fun imagining that Right.

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