Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
In her desire to put an end to the false assurances that the public is asked to accept about the safety of the environment, Carson puts forth a full complement of facts, noting that the obligation to endure gives people the right to know. In the chapter “Surface Waters and Underground Seas,” the author’s discussion of the amazing history of Clear Lake, California, for example, exposes the results of anglers’ efforts to control a small gnat, Chaoborus astictopus. Carson explains that their chemical of choice, DDD, a close relative of DDT, apparently offered fewer threats to fish life. Gnat control was fairly good but needed follow-up applications to be truly successful. Eventually, the biocide also wiped out the grebe population and created massive concentrations of the poison in the lake’s fish, which were caught and eaten by anglers. Research proved that DDD has a strong cell-destroying capacity, especially of the cells that make up the human adrenal cortex.
In “Indiscriminately from the Skies,” Carson shows what extensive damage was done when irresponsible large-scale treatment was undertaken to eradicate the gypsy moth. The Waller farm in northern Westchester County, New York, was sprayed twice although its owners specifically requested agriculture officials not to proceed. Milk samples taken from the Wallers’ cows contained large amounts of DDT. Although the county Health Organization was notified, the milk was still marketed. Nearby truck farms also suffered contamination. Peas tested at fourteen to twenty parts per million of DDT; the legal minimum is seven parts per million. Nevertheless, growers, fearing heavy losses, sold produce containing illegal residues. Carson strongly criticizes this “rain of death,” noting that modern poisons, though more dangerous than any known before, are used more indiscriminately.
To illustrate nature’s reply to society’s chemical assault, the author includes the chapter “Nature Fights Back.” Sometimes, chemical application has created an increase in the very problem the spraying was designed to eliminate. In Ontario, for example, blackflies became seventeen times more abundant following spraying. In the Midwest, farmers who attempted to eradicate the Japanese beetle did so successfully, only to find that the much more destructive corn borer was unleashed following the elimination of its natural predator. Nature, it seems, is not easily molded. Yet both nature and humans are considerably weakened by the assault.
Citing society’s failure to foresee potential hazards, Carson cautions that even researchers are accustomed to look for the gross and immediate effect and to ignore all else. Thus, the population must be more concerned with the cumulative and delayed effects of absorbing small amounts of chemicals over a lifetime of exposure. The author explains that there is “an ecology of the world within our bodies.” A change in even one molecule may initiate changes in seemingly unrelated organs and tissues. In a prophetic statement, for Carson herself was soon to die from cancer, she says, “The most determined effort should be made to eliminate those carcinogens that now contaminate our food, our water supplies, and our atmosphere, because these provide the most dangerous type of contact—minute exposures repeated over and over throughout the years.”
To demonstrate that society must make a conscious choice to slow and eventually eliminate the chemical poisoning of the world, in her final chapter, “The Other Road,” Carson reminds the reader of Robert Frost’s familiar poem “The Road Not Taken.” The smooth superhighway that people are on is deceptively easy and clearly disastrous. Other roads lie before modern humans, including opportunities for biological solutions to environmental problems. Some of the most fascinating of the new techniques include those that turn the strength of a species against itself. Yet Carson scorns the very premise upon which many of these biological and chemical controls rest. She says the 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.” It is a shame that society uses its most sophisticated technology for such a primitive goal.
The final chapter, which is perhaps the most valuable, deals with the future. In it, Carson argues for humility and an intelligent approach to human interaction with all creatures. Many of the battles with nature that she describes throughout the book have been fought and lost. Unless people revere the miracle of life instead of struggling against it, they are doomed to lose again.
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