Silent Spring Essay - Essays and Criticism

Rachel Carson

Essays and Criticism

Carson's References to Potential Human Suffering

Given time, states Carson in her book Silent Spring, nature will heal itself. ‘‘Life adjusts.’’ At least this was true through the previous millennia. But in the modern world, humans are quickly running out of time. Carson even says that "there is no time'' left, because modern-day humans are creating havoc at a pace too fast for nature to heal. Modern civilizations are not only quick in creating devastation, they are also broad-ranged, as they are creating synthetic substances that have ‘‘no counterparts in nature.’’ Nature will need generations of time to cleanse herself from the toxic pollutants. Carson wrote her book in 1962 as a warning, and since then, things have only gotten worse.

It is through no fault of Carson's that people have not heeded her warnings. Actually, many people have heeded them, but still the chemical companies prevail. Carson died in 1964 of cancer. Who knows if the source of her illness was the chemical carcinogens in her environment. Maybe she sensed her own fate, and tried with her writing to save the generations that were to come after her. How she did this can be found in her book in which she carefully lists all the chemicals that were being produced in her lifetime, as humanity made every attempt to control nature. But her book is not just a catalog of deadly poisons; it is a book about suffering, potential as well as actual. It is about nature suffering in all levels of her myriad forms. It is also a book of what people are doing to one another and to themselves.

Humans are subjected to ‘‘dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death,’’ Carson states. Chemicals are everywhere. They are in the soil, water, and air. They are found in almost every household: under the bathroom sink in the form of cleaners, on shelves in the garage in forms of paint thinners and glues, in the kitchen in the form of insecticides, in the bedroom in the forms of hair sprays and other cosmetics. They are present in food and drink, even in the milk that mothers produce from their own bodies; they are even present "in the tissues of the unborn child.''

The chemicals that Carson focuses on are those whose prevalence began during World War Two, ‘‘in the course of developing agents of chemical warfare,'' and were first promoted on a commercial level when it was discovered that these chemicals were useful in killing insects. But what Carson believed was the worst element of these chemicals was not that they were capable of poisoning but that these new chemical discoveries were capable of making potent and irreversible changes on a deep, biological level in every living thing on earth. These new synthetic chemicals could enter the plants as well as animals and ‘‘change them in sinister . . . ways. . . . They prevent the normal functioning of various organs, and they may initiate in certain cells the slow and irreversible change that leads to malignancy.’’ Carson was ahead of her time. She sensed scientific truths that would not be proven until after her death. She sensed the cancers that would become more and more commonplace.

Carson warns mankind in part by listing details of the incredible number of new chemicals that are being produced each year. She lists their names and their effects, explaining that ‘‘if we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power.’’ But it is not until she gets very up close and personal in her discussions that the full power of her book takes effect. The lists of chemicals and their potential power are daunting, nightmarish material, but names don't make the same impact as the fear of suffering and pain. And the source of some of that potential suffering might be as close as the nearest water fountain. For example, it is alarming to know that chemists are creating excessive quantities of chemical compounds in their laboratories, but it is even more frightening to find out that even more deadly compounds are being created in the water that people drink. Runoffs from various chemical sources meet one another in the water resources of this earth, such as when fertilizers mix with insecticides in ground water and create ‘‘mingled chemicals that no responsible chemist would think of combining in his laboratory.'' Even if chemists know the effects that their chemical compounds might have on the living things of nature, they do not, Carson warns, know the effects of the compounds being created on their own in the rivers, the lakes, and the sewers.

Another interesting but scary fact that Carson presents is that chemicals from insecticides and fertilizers can remain in the soil more than twelve years after they have been applied. What does this imply for the farmer who wants to grow foods organically? Just how organic can food be if there is no virgin soil left in which to plant crops? Even if the ideal of organic produce is discarded, oftentimes a chemical used to control insects on one plant kill the rotating crop that is planted the following season, and the season following that one, too. For instance, in the state of Washington, farmers successfully used a chemical to kill a bug that was harming a grain called hops. Later, when grapes were planted in these same fields, the roots of the grape vines died. When planted again the next year, the result was the same. Carson was very concerned that applying these chemicals without fully realizing their potential for destruction was courting ecological disaster.

Carson talks about all kinds of potential disasters, some more severe than others. On the lighter side,...

(The entire section is 2336 words.)

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring

Scattered reports of problems with pesticides had appeared in the technical literature from the fifties onwards, but it was only in 1962 that...

(The entire section is 4718 words.)