Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Silent Spring Analysis

Since Silent Spring had been serialized in The New Yorker beginning June 16, 1962, the heated controversy concerning the book’s content had already begun before its publication as a book. Conservationists and wildlife societies, such as the National Audubon Society, were extremely enthusiastic. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association, on the other hand, had already initiated an extensive public relations campaign to discredit the book. Spokesmen for the opposition claimed that the book was “one-sided” and often “unscientific.” The general public, however, did not have to rely on the book’s advocates or critics. As the author intended, the public could now become the jury, for the whole case had been clearly and painstakingly laid bare in the seventeen chapters of this book.

As the audience, the American public, became engrossed in this work, many quickly recognized that it was not the recounting of man’s violations against life that gives Silent Spring its permanence but rather its ethical dimension. Carson asks a series of questions which will always be integral to the human experience: “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.” While admonishing man throughout for his imprudent and injudicious behavior, his “shotgun approach to nature,” she never lets him forget his essential humanity and his humble place in the scheme of life. She urges man to preserve the harmonious balance in nature, she invites his humility, and she begs for his “reverence” before the great and precious miracle that is life.

While celebrating life, Carson knew that she must educate and caution her readers. Grave mistakes had been made, perhaps unwittingly, yet such mistakes constituted heinous crimes against nature and against humankind. Repeatedly, Carson underscores the inadequacy of the research that was to test the chemical pesticides before they were marketed. Although laboratory tests were conducted to determine the effects of the lethal substances on their designated targets, little or no regard was given to the effect the pesticide would have on the surrounding ecology. Nature endures and survives through the interdependence of many life forms. In many instances, not only were the “pests” eliminated but other creatures were destroyed as well. Ironically, very often in the aftermath of a toxic deluge there emerged a species of insect resistant to the chemical, requiring even more lethal dosages. In launching this warfare, this chemical “rain of poison,” then, people had succumbed to a strategy which often not only did not eradicate the initial problem but also wrought heedless and senseless devastation.

Birds and fish have been particularly susceptible to death by chemical pesticides, but man is not exempt. Of grave concern to Carson are the long-range effects on the ecology and on humans, effects that result from a chain reaction of disasters, all precipitated by the initial lethal event. Body tissues in other life forms and in man have the proven capability to store toxic substances. Thus, a chemical, laboratory-tested for a “harmless” dosage, may not prove quite so innocuous once it accumulates or when it interacts with other substances which render it even more lethal.

The unknown long-range consequences should hold people back from their precipitous campaigns against insects and weeds, campaigns which not only are severely disturbing the balance of nature but also, in some instances, are producing changes in cells’ genetic structure or creating cancer-producing substances, or carcinogens. Silent Spring validates pesticides’ link to cancer, either directly or indirectly. Carcinogens have the capability to disturb the natural respiratory function of the cell, the oxidation process. In the ensuing desperate effort of the cell to survive, often through a process called fermentation, the cellular control and balance go completely out of control. Other chemicals impair the normal functioning of the liver. This damage to the liver reduces the body’s supply of the B vitamins, leading to the escalation of the body’s production of estrogens. The latency period for many types of cancer in humans is quite lengthy (blood disorders are a notable exception); therefore, it is not always easy to trace the cause-effect relationship. When the medical case histories are researched, however, quite often victims can be shown to have been exposed to cancer-producing chemicals. Moreover, with the pervasiveness of these substances in the environment, humans are frequently subjected to more than a single exposure.

Silent Spring is an alarming book, but its primary aim was neither to frighten nor to shock, but to caution. Bleak as the message is, it is not without hope. Carson reminds the reader that man has won other great battles, notable among these being the victory over infectious disease in the nineteenth century. She never adopts a tone of defeat. Rather, she emphasizes that people must recognize that solutions which are not compatible with the ecology are not viable solutions. While not wishing to diminish the funds and the effort expended in the research to find a cure for the most dreaded twentieth century scourge of man, cancer, she advocates an equal commitment to research directed at prevention.

The prose style of Silent Spring is rational and straightforward, but a deep emotional involvement permeates every page of this factual, scientific text. Occasionally an arresting figurative comparison explodes to underscore the emotional intensity of this work. For example, “This system, however—deliberately poisoning our food, then policing the result—is too reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s White Knight who thought of ‘a plan to dye one’s whiskers green, and always use so large a fan that they could not be seen.’” In our consumption of poisonous substances, says Carson, “we are in little better position than the guests of the Borgias.”

Never was a voice more sincere, more committed, and never was a tone more urgent. Carson realized, perhaps, that time for her was running out (she died, from cancer, just nineteen months after the publication of the book), as she predicted it may be for the life of man, who is sustained by the good earth. Yet her legacy to mankind, in the form of this impassioned warning, if heeded, may abet man’s survival.