Carson's survey of the research on pesticides opens in a most unscientific fashion with a tale about an American town that has suffered a series of plagues. At chapter's end, Carson acknowledges that the town is an imaginary one, but lest the tale be dismissed as mere fantasy, she hastens to add that each of the catastrophes it catalogs ‘‘has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them.’’
Chapters Two and Three
Not until chapter two does Carson identify the source of the ills described in chapter one: potent synthetic poisons of relatively recent design, proliferating at the rate of about five hundred a year, applied in massive quantities virtually everywhere, with disastrous short- and long-term consequences for both wildlife and humans. To convey the grave danger that these substances represent, she introduces an analogy that will resurface over and over in Silent Spring: pesticides are like atomic radiation—invisible, with deadly effects that often manifest themselves only after a long delay. Chapter three identifies a small handful of qualities that make the new pesticides so much more dangerous than their predecessors: 1) greater potency 2) slower decomposition and 3) a tendency to concentrate in fatty tissue. Carson clarifies the significance of the last two characteristics by pointing out that a toxin that might not constitute a...
(The entire section is 1640 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
The book opens with a chapter titled “A Fable for Tomorrow”; the author intends to offer an instructive lesson. Beginning with a picturesque description of a small town in America, Chapter 1 abounds in detailed imagery. This town is tucked away in a countryside that is peppered with beautifully flourishing farmland.
The farms are teeming with life. Regional vegetation includes crops that are grown for food production and plants that decorate and enliven the landscape. Every season offers a varied yet thriving view for those who traverse the roadways. The area is both visually appealing and alluring. The animal life in the region exists in abundance. Animal life flourishes on the land, in the sky, and on the sea. Again, the life forms reflect animal species that coexist in natural habitats and those bred for human consumption. There is a superabundance of life in the town and the surrounding area.
Visitors to the region contentedly tour the area, stopping to hunt or fish. Others journey to the region for exploration. These visitors engage in sight seeing and appreciative observation. The mere vibrancy of life is magnetic for these travelers. In fact, the region seems so ideal that the reader is lulled into a false sense of security.
Abruptly, this paradisiacal view quickly shifts, and the author presents a vision that is in stark contrast to that of the unblemished town. All outward aspects of the town undergo a drastic and horrifying metamorphosis. The landscape becomes a dreary and dismal skeleton of the region described at the outset of the chapter. Gone are the glorious visions of life in abundance. They are replaced by visions of utter decay and destruction.
In this altered view of the town, animals simply die. Both livestock and wildlife perish with no apparent cause. People, too, begin to suffer from mystifyingly noxious diseases. Afflicted ones die within hours of falling ill. Death settles like a plague on the land. Moreover, even the animals that survive fail to reproduce. These animals are alive but their fecundity is replaced by utter sterility. The inhabitants of the town search for the origins of the lethal epidemic, but they discover nothing. Neither science nor superstition can explain the tragedy.
In the closing paragraph, the author explains that the depiction of the town is largely fictitious. Then she adds another clarification: although this actual town does not...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
The author begins this chapter with a stunning observation. Within the past 100 years, man has gained the ability to alter the environment. Previously, the environment had a significant impact on plant and animal life, but there was no reciprocal ability for life forms to alter the Earth. Consequently, the human impact on the environment was relatively insignificant and benign.
Recently, humans have had an unquestionably malignant effect on the Earth, primarily through various forms of pollution and chemical contamination. Radiation, pesticides, and herbicides penetrate the soil, the water, the air, and human cells, prompting “irrecoverable” and “irreversible” changes in all forms of life on Earth. Apparently, though there are naturally occurring environmental contaminants and “hostile” elements that wreaked havoc over the course of time, they cannot compare to the scope and degree of damage caused by man-made elements.
In the natural environment, change takes place over the course of time, which allows plant and animal life to adapt, adjust, and find the means of survival. On the contrary, the human impact on the environment has recently become rapid and rampant. In this instance, nature has not been granted the time required to adjust to the changes. The time required for the environment to adequately and healthily absorb the “500 new chemicals” introduced into the environment each year can only be measured in generations. In short, these transformations are lasting and pervasive.
Pesticides are the primary source of these chemical threats. These pesticides are generally sold as “sprays, dusts, and aerosols.” Although they are applied with the sole purpose of destroying pests, these chemicals are often capable of destroying nearly all insects and plants. Therefore, rather than labeling the products insecticides, the author suggests using a broader term: biocides.
Attempts to destroy pernicious insects blamed for destroying crops are often unsuccessful. These efforts result in “flarebacks,” or circumstances in which the insect population returns in even greater numbers. Moreover, the chemical formulas that have been expressly designed to eradicate these insect populations have a human and environmental cost. In fact, they
alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.
(The entire section is 651 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
In today’s world, no human can avoid contact with chemicals. Water sources—both fresh water and salt water—are contaminated with chemicals. Likewise, chemicals are now found in soil and in the bodies of animals everywhere in the world. Regardless of the terrain or geographic region, the author insists that chemicals have permeated and tainted the environment. She lays particular blame for this contamination on the push to manufacture synthetic pesticides and insecticides following World War II. Moreover, she complains of the chemicals’ ability to modify body processes and alter the function of enzymes.
Chemical pesticides and insecticides yield millions of dollars in annual profit for the companies that manufacture them. The use of chemicals such as arsenic, which is extremely lethal, has given way to even more destructive chemicals. The process of creating these chemicals can be complex. However, scientists primarily manipulate carbon molecules by substituting various atoms within the carbon bonds with other elements to create new chemical compounds. For example, she illustrates how the use of DDT to combat lice generated an expectation of benign utility. Unfortunately, it is anything but harmless. DDT can invade the body. Once absorbed, it is stored within the body and it can begin to affect the function of vital organs such as the liver. Moreover, scientists have not been able to determine the full extent of the body’s ability to absorb the chemical. And there are other chemical insecticides that can have similar lethal effects.
Chlordane, which can enter the body through respiratory or digestive means, can be more toxic than DDT. In fact, it can prove toxic for “anyone handling it.” Other chemicals, such as “dieldrin, aldrin, and endrin” are also far more toxic than DDT. The author cites an incident in which a family used endrin to treat the house for a cockroach infestation. Prior to spraying the chemical, the family dog and a one-year-old child were removed from the home. Following the treatment, the house was thoroughly cleaned and the dog and child were returned. Still, within hours after returning to the area, the dog was dead and the child was catatonic as a result of endrin poisoning.
Another group of organic compounds is alkyl phosphates, which are largely spread through the use of sprays that can remain lethal for weeks after application. Several of the documented cases of...
(The entire section is 761 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Although the majority of the earth’s surface is covered by water and all human life depends upon it, this precious natural resource is in short supply. Most of the earth’s water contains too much salt to be used for drinking, so only a finite amount is available for human consumption. In fact, the quantity of safe drinking water is limited and rapidly decreasing. Some areas of the world already face critical water shortages while other areas will soon be confronted with a life-threatening depletion of potable water.
Rather than preserve and protect the earth’s water supply, however, mankind has contaminated it with pesticides and chemicals. According to the text, the culprits are many. Water pollution is the result of chemical reactors, municipalities, industries, hospitals, and scientific laboratories. Moreover, the chemicals used to nurture crops, forests, and gardens have contributed to the problem. In fact, the combination of chemicals and waste products found in polluted water has made water purification very difficult. The intermixture of various chemicals often prevents scientists from accurately identifying or removing them during the purification process. Some chemical compounds, it appears, are too stable to destroy using ordinary techniques.
Streams, rivers, and drinking water are contaminated by chemicals that have been sprayed, directly applied, or borne along by rainwater that washes various contaminants seaward. One test of polluted water in a local orchard yielded horrifying results. Test fish were placed into the water; all were dead “in only four hours,” indicating the extreme toxicity of the water. In 1960, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report that intensified the alarm about water pollution. The poisonous chemical DDT was found in the tissues of fish located near an area where the DDT had been sprayed. In addition, fish found thirty miles upstream also suffered from DDT tissue contamination. There was no indication that spraying had ever taken place in the vicinity of these fish.
Because the earth’s water cycle is so comprehensive, it is not possible to prevent polluted water from reaching man’s supply of groundwater. A farming district in Colorado discovered that its groundwater was polluted when people in the area became ill after drinking the water. The contaminated water also caused illness in farm animals and damage to crops. The people in the area...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
There exists a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship between the earth’s soil and earth’s life forms. The decay of all forms of matter continually contributes to soil production. Simultaneously, living organisms use the soil and the substance therein to perpetuate their lives. Moreover, a typical acre of soil contains thousands of pounds of life forms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. These organisms are largely responsible for generating the decay of “animal and plant residues” in the soil. They are also credited with modifying nitrogen for absorption by plants and for the oxidation and reduction processes in minerals that are used by plants.
Often, soil contains incredible numbers of mites and “wingless insects” known as springtails. Each year, these tiny organisms digest tons of discarded plant foliage and mix the decomposed matter back into the soil. Other creatures also make enormous, but largely unnoticed, contributions to healthy soil production. One primary example is the earthworm. These underappreciated inhabitants of the soil are responsible for transporting tons of soil over the ground. In addition, their active and energetic routine of burrowing in and out of soil serves other beneficial purposes. The industry of the earthworm aerates the soil, aiding plant roots in soil penetration and supporting soil drainage systems. Finally, the tiny earthworm enriches the soil with excretory wastes from its digestive tract. Consequently, the earthworm serves as an ideal illustration of the reciprocal relationship between the organisms whose lives are sustained by the soil and their beneficial contributions to healthy soil production.
Concerns have arisen regarding the effects of chemicals on these soil-dependent organisms. Sterilants, insecticides, and fungicides are used to destroy specific populations that inhabit the soil. They also contaminate the soil and expose a variety of soil-inhabiting creatures to poisons. Despite the growing concern,
this critically important subject of the ecology of the soil has been largely neglected even by scientists.
The impact of insecticides on the soil has yielded inconsistent results. It seems that the extent of the damage to the soil varies by soil type. Therefore, one type of soil could be negatively affected to a greater extent than another would. Nonetheless, there are measurable and irrefutable damages that...
(The entire section is 941 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Although humankind acknowledges dependence on plants for sustenance, we arbitrarily destroy plants that do not provide immediate benefits as food or decoration. Plants have intricate and often complex relationships with the earth, with other plants, and with animals—including humans. Therefore, destroying any plant can have long-term consequences for the earth, other plants, and animals including humans.
Still, the market for generic “weed killers” is an ever-expanding proposition. To illustrate the ill effects of eradicating particular plant species, consider the sage. This plant thrives in the west. However, humans have made a concerted effort to replace large areas of sagebrush with grasslands that can be used for grazing cattle. The unintended consequences are far-reaching. Because the climate in the natural habitat of the sage is unforgiving, few species of plants or animals could survive and thrive in this region. Furthermore, the plants and animals that have managed to populate the area often have significant and reciprocal relationships. For instance, the sage grouse depends on the sage for shelter and food, while the sage relies on the grouse to loosen the soil around its base and prevent invading grasses from taking root beneath its foliage. Other animals, such as the pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and sheep, use the leaves of the evergreen sage for food during winter months when deciduous plants shed their leaves and snow accumulations cover other plants. Still, the effort to eliminate sage continues.
The aims of this replacement program may not prove authentically beneficial even to the cattlemen and their herds. The plentiful and succulent grasses used to feed these herds cannot thrive during harsh winter months. Without sage and other hearty native plants, the herdsmen will face a considerable deficiency of food for their herds. Already, the governmental program of “sage eradication” has produced actual, observable, and far-reaching effects. She cites a devastating illustration from Chief Justice William O. Douglas, who recounts the unintended consequences yielded by a particular herbicidal spraying. In this instance, the sagebrush was “killed,” but so were groves of willows. Moose and beavers that fed on the willows were also affected. Without the willows for food, the beavers left the lake. Subsequent to the departure of the beavers, the lake—previously plentiful in trout—became a parched,...
(The entire section is 848 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
This chapter examines the collateral damage that ensues when communities and municipalities short-sightedly use chemicals to target unwanted pests. In an effort to rid the area of Japanese beetles, the state of Michigan enacted a spraying program that devastated some bird populations. Although the beetle population evidenced “no appreciable” increase during a thirty year period, an organized spraying program began to drizzle aldrin pellets from the air. The state of Michigan provided funding for “the manpower and supervising the operation,” while the federal government supplied the insecticide.
A documented record of natural controls had been proven effective. Still, a large-scale spraying campaign was begun in the state of Michigan in the 1950s. Public concerns mounted as the state prepared to enact the spraying campaign. To quell the fears regarding the use of the lethal chemical, aldrin, one official was recalled to have stated that the use of aldrin was “a safe operation.” Thus, the state initiated the campaign, relying on state pest control laws, which did not require permission from landowners prior to commencing the spraying program.
The spraying began and citizens began protesting immediately. They complained that granules of insecticide beat down upon pedestrians as they walked along the street, covered the sidewalk and grasses, and pounded the rooftops of homes. These initial calls caused a minor stir and efforts were made to reassure an unsettled public. However, more troubling calls reported “an alarming number of dead and dying birds.” In addition, following the spraying, dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals were treated for a myriad of ailments. Worse than the ailing animals, however, were human patients who suffered from symptoms including “nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, extreme fatigue and coughing.” These people reported to their physicians that they became ill only after watching the planes spray the area.
The destruction in Michigan paled in comparison to the devastation caused by the use of dieldrin in Illinois. Dieldrin was also used to rid the area of Japanese beetle infestations. Following a 14,000-acre initial application, the Sheldon area of Illinois saw a roughly 131,000-acre treatment area within a six-year period. The havoc began with earthworms and beetle grubs, who digested the chemicals from the soil and lay dead on the surface of the ground. Birds...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Water moves in a never-ending cycle from creeks and streams to rivers, lakes, and oceans. Salmon are foremost among the species that rely on this circuitous course for successful reproductive cycles. The Miramachi River, located along the coast of News Brunswick, is a regularly visited site on the salmon’s journey to reproduction. In 1954, a spraying program, completed at the direction of the Canadian government, threatened to destroy the salmon population of the Miramachi. Of course, destruction of the salmon population was not the intended result of the spraying campaign. The program was designed for another purpose entirely.
The budworm, which poses a threat to evergreens, was attacking the forests near the Miramachi River. The spraying program was designed to eradicate the budworm through an application of DDT. Following the use of this pesticide, fish began to die, along with the insects and birds that populated the streams and forests near the treated area. The salmon suffered tremendously. Nearly the entire population of recently-spawned salmon was killed. The loss was verifiable. Only a few remained.
The Fisheries Research Board of Canada was in the midst of a salmon study, and their records indicated that 5 of every 6 young salmon remained after the spraying. A few young salmon survived the DDT spraying, but these survivors were almost certain to die of starvation. The insects, which serve as food for young salmon, were annihilated. Despite the loss of animal and insect life and the damage to their natural surroundings, the budworm population rebounded.
In Maine, following a spraying of DDT, ”blind and dying trout” were discovered. In Yellowstone National Park, several species, including “brown trout, whitefish, and suckers” were killed. The pattern of death following chemical spraying is both lamentable and predictable. Fish, birds and aquatic insects are destroyed and repopulation is a slow and uncertain process. The loss of life in the animal kingdom results in a corresponding loss to human livelihood. Marketers of recreational fishing supplies, owners of commercial production facilities, and waterside economies suffer tremendously.
Chemical use in forest areas is destructive, but the use of pesticides in agricultural production is more widespread and therefore more lethal. Documented destruction has been reported in states including California, Louisiana and Pennsylvania....
(The entire section is 790 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
According to the author, aerial spraying has been referred to as “an amazing rain of death.” Further, the mere fact that pesticides are dispensed from the air in large quantities represented a significant shift in attitudes. The author notes that public perception of the toxic chemicals used in pesticides were once considered so lethal that graphical illustrations hugged the containers' warning labels. By the late 1950s, however, hundreds of gallons of dangerous chemicals were literally showered from the sky over forests, fields of produce and personal dwellings. This chapter describes two illustrative examples of spraying run amok. The first was a campaign intended to eradicate the gypsy moth in northeastern states while the other plan was devised to destroy fire ants in the South.
The gypsy moth is a natural enemy to valuable hardwood trees. Unfortunately, these insects were able to spread from a relatively confined area of Massachusetts to the entire region of New England. Generally, by means of windborne travel in larval form and in the shelter of plants in the form of “egg masses,” the gypsy moth became a threat to countless hardwood forests in the Northeast. In an attempt to curtail the spread of the gypsy moth into “the great hardwood forests of the southern Appalachians,” the Agriculture Department enacted a massive spraying campaign. The spraying campaign proceeded, despite the successful use of natural predators “imported from abroad.”
Despite the success of predatory elimination, the purported aim of the “blanket spraying” campaign was to permanently annihilate or “eradicate” the gypsy moth. The results were far from successful. Even after the spraying campaign, which damaged crops, destroyed honey bee populations, and even “showered” a housewife with toxic chemicals, the gypsy moth remained. Another regretful circumstance resulting from the mass spraying included legal suits. Beekeepers, in particular, sued for damages and loss of livelihood. Apparently, hundreds of colonies of bees were inadvertently destroyed through the use of DDT. Nonetheless, the spraying campaigns continued although the acreage amounts gradually lessened over the course of five years. Ironically, the gypsy moth population remained virtually unchanged.
In the southern United States, the target of eradication was not the gypsy moth, but the fire ant. Generally, the fire ant had been considered an...
(The entire section is 837 words.)