In "The Obligation to Endure," Mrs. Carson uses the metaphor "train of disaster" to explain the impact of pesticides on insects. Why is this?
Many of Rachel Carson's ideas in Silent Spring seem commonplace to us today, but roughly sixty years ago, when Carson was researching her book, most people were not thinking the way she did. For example, if a problem emerged with a certain kind of insect pest, a straightforward and sensible solution seemed to be to blast the pest with lots of pesticides and kill as many of the insect as possible. Carson argues that this solution creates many more problems than it solves, including threats to human health and to the life of the earth itself.
Carson uses "train of disaster" early in the book and continues to pound on this concept in the early chapter "The Obligation to Endure" to make the following point: all of life, plant and animal, is interconnected in a single eco-system. When you violate the way nature arranges life, you create a ripple effect throughout the entire system that is destabilizing and destructive. "Train of disaster" is more effective as a metaphor than ripple effect because it is more dramatic. "Train," in this instance, simply means series, as in a series of disasters, but linking the word "train" with the word "disaster" also would bring to mind the dramatic train wrecks of the nineteenth century, in which many human lives were lost.
Therefore, argues Carson, while it might seem an isolated project to kill off a nasty pest with a pesticide, in fact, it can lead to a chain of unforeseen problems, such as that the birds dependent on that insect are denied a food supply. Also, the pesticide that killed the insect enters the environment, getting into the soil and into the air we breathe, entering our human cells and possibly causing cancer. Carson relies on cutting edge research at the time, but also plays on fear. At that moment, the long term effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II were beginning to be understood, with people near the blast site developing cancer from the radiation 10 or more years later. Part of Carson's "train of disaster" includes the lingering, long-term, radiation-like effects of pesticides.
The "train of disaster" metaphor is Carson's way of describing the lasting effects of pesticides on the natural environment. She establishes the metaphor in the opening of her essay. Carson suggests that the process of spraying to kill insects is a result of the immense power for altering the environment that human beings possess: "Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world." This reality has established a "process of spraying" which has established an "endless spiral." Carson sees the problem which has resulted from this as having brought about a "train of disaster in its wake." This is what Carson views as the "accomplishment of our modern way of life." The train of disaster is Carson's way to express the destructive nature of human use of pesticides. Carson makes the argument that there is an ecosystem balance of which humans are a part.
In using pesticides, humans have created irreparable damage to themselves and the other creatures that inhabit the planet. Carson's point in using the metaphor is to show how the interconnected nature of living organisms means that everyone and everything is impacted through the use of pesticides. Carson's point in using the metaphor is to express the connectivity of life that has been disrupted through the use of pesticides. In doing so, the "train of disaster" becomes a haunting reminder that what human beings do today will have inescapable consequences tomorrow. This train continues on and stops for no one.