Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2336
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, she mentions a more aesthetic kind of disaster, one that wipes out the beauty of nature. Using the excuse of traffic control and safety, there was, in Carson's time, and largely remains today, the practice of spraying weeds with an herbicide along all the country's roadsides and highways. In a poetic voice, Carson declares that in those rare places where herbicides had not been sprayed, she would drive along the country roads and her spirit would be lifted by "the sight of the drifts of white clover or the clouds of purple vetch with here and there the flaming cup of a wood lily.’’ These are not weeds that need to be controlled, she says. They are places of great, wild beauty. There is seldom a need to kill back the wildflowers, especially in the dimensions that are employed. In some states, the height at which the spraying occurs is from road level to eight feet above the road. This is needless overuse, Carson contends. She also cites other abuses like the contractor who was caught discharging the herbicides from his trunk into a protected wood side area, a place where no spraying had been authorized. Another contractor's negligence was a little more severe. He purchased chemicals from a ‘‘zealous chemical salesman.’’ The herbicide contained arsenic, which eventually ended up killing twelve cows. This was all done in the name of killing weeds. Herbicides, states Carson, "give a giddy sense of power over nature to those who wield them.’’ In the process of using them, herbicides destroy natural beauty. They leave behind a ‘‘sterile and hideous world.’’
More important and much more painful for humans, is the effect of chemicals on their own bodies. In particular, Carson expresses her views on some very serious, life-threatening diseases that have been linked to the use of man-made chemicals. She begins by explaining that cancer-causing agents are as old as the earth. Radiation from the sun and certain rocks in earth's crust has always been capable of producing malignancies. Over time, human biology adapted to these radiations in varying degrees. But with the rapid development of man-made carcinogens, a medical term for cancer-producing substances, human biology has not been able to keep pace. "As a result, these powerful substances could easily penetrate the inadequate defenses of the body.’’ Added to this problem is the inadequate research done on the causes of cancer. Chemical use is approved without fully understanding the potential complications. Often it takes years of use before the slow but steady buildup of chemicals in a human body results in a malignancy. Admonishing the government as well as the chemical companies who produce the insecticides and pesticides, Carson writes, ‘‘Our recognition of the agents that produce it [the cancerous malignancies] has been slow to mature.’’
All humans are susceptible to cancers. No age is immune. As a matter of fact, Carson reports that in the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was a rarity to find cancer in children. But by the time her book was published, not only was it not considered rare for children to have cancer, children were being born with cancer already growing inside their bodies. Apparently the developing fetus is the most susceptible to cancer-producing agents. Whereas the pregnant mother may not be affected, the agents may penetrate her body and the placenta and "act on the rapidly developing fetal tissues.’’ As newer and more powerful chemicals are used in the production of food, pregnant women, who eat this food, pass on the carcinogens to their children unaware. Chemicals are used on food without full knowledge of their effects as well as without full disclosure of their potential danger. The result is that cancer rates climb.
There has also been a rise in cases of leukemia, a malignant blood disorder. Whereas malignant cancerous growths may take years to develop, leukemia can occur soon after exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals. In 1960, the Mayo Clinic, a world-famous medical institution, published an opinion that stated that the increase in leukemia could almost definitely be linked to an over-exposure to pesticides. Some of the case studies involved people doing simple tasks around their homes, such as the woman who tried to rid her house of spiders or the man who tried to kill the cockroaches in his office. Both used commercial bug sprays. Both were afflicted with sudden painful symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as leukemia. Both died. Another case involved two farm workers whose job it was to unload bags of insecticide. In all these cases, death was swift.
The world is quickly becoming a sea of carcinogens, says Carson. And carcinogens are linked to death. But unlike the last century, where mankind's biggest health concern was contagious disease, carcinogens could be easily removed from the earth's environment. At least a majority of the man-made carcinogens could. She suggests that in addition to looking for a cure for cancer, people should be re-evaluating chemical use. How much is really necessary? Chemicals, she writes, ‘‘have become entrenched in our world in two ways: first, and ironically, through man's search for a better and easier way of life; second, because the manufacture and sale of such chemicals has become an accepted part of our economy and our way of life.'' In other words, if mankind put them here, mankind surely could get rid of them. And along with ridding this earth of chemicals, civilization would rid their own bodies of cancer.
Carson ends her book with a bit of irony and finally with a hint of hope. The irony is that in mankind's efforts to control nature, people are poisoning not only themselves, their food, their water, but their future generations. Added to this is the most ironic fact of all. In an effort to rid the world of pests, to make this world a better place to live, mankind has tried to kill every insect that gets in the way. As a result, insecticides have killed the weak. Stronger insects have not only survived, they have created insecticide-resistant offspring. Added to this is the fact that in killing the insects that were detrimental, mankind has also killed the beneficial insects that helped to maintain a balance in the sheer numbers of insects. So now the earth is suffering through stronger and more powerful plagues.
But there is hope. Carson discusses in her last chapter some of the research that was going on in the 1960s, research that is continuing today. There is the research in the relationships between different kinds of insects in the hopes that by encouraging one type of benevolent insect, a farmer might curb the propagation of destructive types without the use of chemicals. Some researchers were looking into the possibility of sterilizing male insects as a way of controlling their numbers. Others were working on the creation of natural lures or introducing natural predators.
Carson encourages her readers at the end of her book to take a holistic approach to life. She reminds people, who are trying to create favorable environments for themselves, that they are not the only ones living in that environment. Humans are not the only creatures on earth. "Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves,’’ she writes. A lot of suffering has been caused by the rush to use man-made chemicals, a rush to find a quick fix to stop mosquitoes from biting, stop cockroaches from raiding trash cans, stop grubs from consuming the roots of that all-perfect lawn. The suffering is everywhere, in the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the people who live in the cities, the people who live on farms. Carson's book is a portrayal of that suffering. It is also a portrayal of the causes of that suffering, and its very simplistic cure. Curb the use of chemicals.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Silent Spring, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing, and she is a copy editor and published writer.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4718
Scattered reports of problems with pesticides had appeared in the technical literature from the fifties onwards, but it was only in 1962 that a wide-ranging critique of pesticides was published for a popular audience. Brought out by a major trade press, this book charted the tremendous increase in the production and use of these chemicals since World War II, and documented their failings. Focusing on chlorinated hydrocarbons and DDT in particular, it described their physiological effects, their impact on human health and wildlife, and the inadequacy of existing pesticide regulation. The book demonstrated how pesticides were not only harmful, but ultimately self-defeating, since pests soon developed resistance while beneficial insects and animals that helped keep them in check were killed. Further pesticide applications to counter a resurgence of the targeted species and infestations of new insects that weren' t a problem before began an escalating cycle. The book proposed replacing this hubristic attempt to master nature, which was destroying the earth's capacity to support human life, with a philosophy of wise management of ecosystems and the development of ecologically sound biological control of pests. These changes, the author stressed, should not jeopardize nutrition and the American economy, and pesticides should not be banned, only used very selectively.
The book flopped; it received short negative reviews in the literary supplements of the New York Times and the Times of London, and not much else, and soon disappeared. I doubt many of you have heard of its author, Lewis Herber, or remember its title, Our Synthetic Environment. A few months later, however, in three June issues of the New Yorker magazine and then in the fall as a book, Rachel Carson's critique of pesticides was published. Her Silent Spring contained in amplified form every one of the charges against pesticides I have just listed for Herber's work, but no substantially new ones. Yet Carson's critique created an immediate storm of media and governmental attention. There was much praise, as well as angry rebuttal and attacks, including a fierce and well-funded campaign by the chemical industry to counter Carson's message. Within a year of its publication, Silent Spring had prompted programs for scientific research into the hazards of pesticides, brought significant changes in their regulation, spurred public debate on environmental practices more generally, inspired a younger generation of environmental activists, and made ecology a household word. Carson's initially embattled viewpoint on pesticide problems rapidly became absorbed into public sentiment. It is standard in the historiography of environmentalism to speak of the book as a—perhaps the—watershed of the modern environmental movement.
Why did these two works have such a different fate? What enabled Silent Spring's critique of pesticides to become so broadly accepted in middle-class America? Part of the answer lies, no doubt, in luck and in the New Yorker forum. Also contributing to the book's success were Carson's standing and skills as a gifted writer and her biological training, which Herber lacked. She was able to offer a terrifyingly eloquent portrait of what it would mean to inhabit an increasingly toxic landscape. Building on postwar anxieties about technological excess and radioactivity, Carson's novel descriptions of our vulnerability to new chemicals that acted in eerie and unexpected ways were shocking and galvanizing.
In this essay, however, I want to consider how Silent Spring's success depended on its politics and, relatedly, its conception of nature. By not grappling head on with the political and economic factors that led to the entrenchment of pesticides in postwar America, and by centering its arguments instead on conceptions of natural balance and the web of life, the book was made palatable to a wide audience. I want to explore the mixed results of this success. The book's broad acceptance gave it considerable if circuitous political-economic impact. At the same time, its avoidance of politics troubled the logic of Carson's argument.
Herber's unnoticed book can scarcely serve as a model for a more politically desirable intervention, but it does highlight another conception of politics and nature that was possible, if not broadly acceptable, in that moment. Written pseudonymously by the journalist and anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, who later became well known as the founder of social ecology, Our Synthetic Environment briskly covered almost all of the substance of Carson's critique of pesticides in less than twenty pages. The rest of the book documented the many other ways in which human health was compromised by the industrialized, urbanized way of life that increasingly characterized postwar America. Chemical hazards to human food supplies other than pesticides (synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and additives) were described in detail, as was the degradation and erosion of soil by large-scale agriculture, and the deterioration of the nutritional quality of crops raised on synthetic fertilizers. And beyond these problems of the food system, Bookchin described how health was endangered by a polluted, stressful, and dehumanizing urban environment; by the radioactive byproducts of nuclear testing and energy production; and by the rise in heart disease and cancer associated with lifestyle and environmental causes.
This range of assaults to human well-being and nature, claimed Bookchin, were of a piece, and originated in unviable social arrangements. They demanded a return to rural and agricultural communities of human scale through deindustrialization, decentralization, and a reining in of the profit motive, so that the "most pernicious laws of the market place'' were not "given precedence over the most compelling laws of biology.’’ Individual action or even remedial legislation were not, in his mind, sufficient to get at the heart of these problems; a sound ecological practice was synonymous, for Bookchin, with shaping a satisfying social life. Bookchin's pill was clearly too big, bitter, and unfamiliar for most Americans to swallow at that time. His book was dismissed as "nice sentiments, only impossible,’’ as "numbing" or ‘‘unmanageable’’ in its scope, and as offering only ‘‘incoherent," "intangible," or hopelessly utopian proposals.
Whereas the focus of Bookchin's analysis was ‘‘the relationship between human and human,’’ Silent Spring's center of gravity lay in Carson's reworking of deeply conventional conceptions of the balance of nature and the web of life. When the president of the chemical manufacturing company Monsanto characterized her as "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature,'' he was reacting to what is indeed the book's central metaphor. Carson's nature—a ‘‘complex, precise, and highly integrated system’’ characterized by relations of ‘‘interdependence and mutual benefit,’’ and regulating checks and balances—was the new science of ecology's rendition of a conception that goes back to antiquity. In its explicitly theological eighteenth-century form, for example, the harmony and order underlying nature's economy had a divine source: God's providence ensured a system of perpetual balance among all living things, in which each creature had its allotted place. The ‘‘balance of nature'' provided Carson with a norm against which human interference could be assessed and challenged. The existing ‘‘system of relationships between living things,’’ she claimed, ‘‘cannot be safely ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied with impunity.’’ A second guiding metaphor in the book is the related notion of an "ecological web of life'' whose "threads" "bind'' together organisms and their environment so that even minute changes in one area reverberate over space and time.
These notions—the balance of nature, the ecological web, "the natural''—do a tremendous amount of persuasive work. Nature whole is the basis for Silent Spring's unsettling tidings of balance lost. It allowed Carson to invert a tradition of nature writing that celebrated harmony and connectedness. to cast pesticides as unnatural and sinister. Thus the book is dense with images of dislocation: a living world "shattered," landscapes "bludgeoned," threads "broken," fabric ‘‘ripped apart,’’ delicate processes "uncoupled." Carson brought a tone of elegy into conventions of wonder by introducing her reader to the unseen dynamics and relations of the natural world (a hidden sea of groundwater, invisible bird flyways and fish migration paths, teeming microscopic soil life) through portraying their disruption by pesticides. And by including the delicate internal realms of human and animal physiology within nature's balanced and interconnected system, she seamlessly and chillingly joined inner and outer landscapes, ecology and human health, launching a new phase of environmental concern.
But although it provided Carson with a versatile conceptual framework and familiar stirring images, there are difficulties in founding a treatment of environmental destruction on a depoliticized notion of "nature." Terms like the "natural," or the "balance of nature'' can obscure the social relations and priorities that go into evaluating environmental practices. Take, for example, Carson's preference for biological rather than chemical methods of pest control as less disturbing of ‘‘nature's balance.’’ This term reifies judgments about the respective benefits and costs—to humans—of these methods, creating internal contradictions in Carson's account. Why, for instance, is the importation of an exotic pathogen (a bacteria) to kill the Japanese beetle a "natural" means of control? Is this intervention—which Carson notes in passing kills not only the target species but at least forty other species in the scarabaeid family—more respectful of the balance of nature than certain pesticides?
Similar questions could be asked about each of the biological control technologies Carson celebrates: juvenile hormones, chemical attractants, repellent sounds, microbial and viral infection of insects, introduced predators and parasites. For example, she enthusiastically endorses the dispersal of X-ray-sterilized male screw-worms and heralds the ‘‘complete extinction of the screw-worm in the Southeast'' as a "brilliant success'' and "a triumphant demonstration of the worth of scientific creativity.’’ Slipping into the militaristic imagery she objects to in the proponents of pesticide spraying, she talks approvingly of research that turns ‘‘insect sterilization into a weapon that would wipe out a major insect enemy.’’ But surely the difference between this celebrated method and the chemical practices Carson castigates lies not in their inherent degrees of "naturalness'' but in (human) judgments about their respective impacts. Had Carson chosen to cast the X-ray sterilization of males as unnatural, the rhetorical resources she uses to disparage pesticides could easily have been redirected, as in the following imagined rendition of the same facts Carson gives in her celebratory account.
Rather than seeking to understand the intricate life cycle and ecology of this tiny insect, scientists invented a scheme that would allow them, by infiltrating the very heart of their natural reproductive cycle, to sever the link between generations. Day after day, in huge ‘‘fly factories,’’ technicians bombarded male insects with mutagenic radiation and then, using 20 light planes working 5 to 6 hours daily, these insidious carriers of genetically altered material were dispersed over huge areas. Unsuspecting females mated with these seemingly normal products of the laboratory. While these unions produced eggs, these were, without exception, sterile. In less than two years, the species had vanished.
The ease with which a creative triumph becomes a tragedy of technological hubris highlights the instability of the categories of natural and unnatural.
Bookchin's analysis in Our Synthetic Environment, which didn't rest on notions of ‘‘the balance of nature,'' is spared these particular paradoxes. As part of nature, humans are justified, claims Bookchin, in making the world's fate up as they go—if they do so with an eye first and foremost toward "promoting human health and fitness.’’ There is, he argues, no preordained state that must be preserved forever, and the "quasi-mystical" and unreserved valorization of "nature" and the "natural" is misguided, ‘‘an impediment to a rational outlook.’’ For him human emotions in the presence of nature are not an indication of nature's special metaphysical status (as they were for the Transcendentalists with whom Carson sympathized), and reticence in using technology to remake nature in service of our needs should not be sentimentalized. "Our nostalgia,'' he claims, "springs from a growing need to restore the normal, balanced, and manageable rhythms of human life—that is, an environment that meets our requirements as individuals and biological beings'' (emphasis mine). (Note that having forgone biological nature as a guide for human action, Bookchin immediately recovers another nature: the "normal'' and "balanced'' rhythms of human life.)
Politics, and Its Avoidance
The massive adoption of synthetic pesticides in the postwar decades in America was facilitated by a densely interrelated network of factors. The dynamics of the competitive free market pressured farmers, suppliers of farm technology, and food processors toward pesticide use. In addition, pesticides were first tested and mass produced during a period when priorities were skewed by wartime agendas; they were institutionally and culturally entrenched at the war's end. Existing standards and legal procedures were not fitted to enforce the regulation and testing of this new technology, nor to establish liability for damages it caused. And a pest-control method that was chemical-based, fast-acting, broad-spectrum, and seemed to offer total eradication accorded well with certain American cultural values. In the face of these forces, the underfunded and mismanaged biological control methods that had shown great promise in the decades prior to the war did not stand a chance, and were soon eclipsed.
Silent Spring, however, made visible only a tiny part of this network of factors. This is because Carson cast the entrenchment of pesticides and the call for their replacement as primarily an epistemic and moral problem, rather than a political-economic one. This, I believe, is a large part of what allowed her work to be so broadly accepted.
The book's muted political stance was in part a consequence of its author's background. Carson came to her book as a biologist, as an author immersed in the nature writing tradition since adolescence, and as a former writer and editor of public information publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service. (Bookchin was steeped in the writings of the Frankfurt School, in anarchist theory, and Marxism.) But an avoidance of overt politics was also a strategic choice, one of several Carson made in carefully shaping a defensible challenge of pesticide practices. Linda Lear in her forthcoming biography of Carson shows, for example, how Carson chose to include only a small amount of the extensive evidence she had for the environmental origins of cancer, and declined to mention organic gardening for fear of being associated with food faddists. Nor did Carson invoke the biocentric convictions about the inherent worth of other forms of life that she expressed in other writing. Similarly, while it is clear from her remarks in interviews and from her collaboration with the politically outspoken director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Biological Survey, Clarence Cottam, that Carson was keenly aware of the financial incentives that skewed the development, use, and evaluation of pesticides, she kept this out of the book.
Carson had been warned of the hostility her pesticide work would invoke. She wrote in a period that some have called the ‘‘McCarthy era of the environmental movement,’’ in which those who questioned the use of pesticides were specifically branded as being against the spirit of free enterprise. After the appearance of the New Yorker articles, for example, Louis A. McLean, secretary and general counsel of Velsicol, the sole manufacturer of chlordane and heptachlor, sent a five-page registered letter to Houghton Mifflin suggesting that it might want to reconsider publishing Silent Spring. His letter built up to the following statement:
Unfortunately, in addition to the sincere opinions by natural food faddists, Audubon groups and others, members of the chemical industry in this country and in Western Europe must deal with sinister influences whose attacks on the chemical industry have a dual purpose: (1) to create the false impression that all business is grasping and immoral, and (2) to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals in this country and in the countries of Western Europe, so that our supply of food will be reduced to east-curtain parity. Many innocent groups are financed and led into attacks on the chemical industry by these sinister parties.
In such a climate even some members of the Sierra Club's board of directors opposed the appearance of a positive review of Silent Spring in the Club Bulletin. A more forthrightly "political" analysis would probably not have survived to have Silent Spring's political impact. At the same time, however, Carson's avoidance of politics left unchallenged the structural underpinnings of pesticide use that are with us still.
One concrete way in which politics was avoided in her text was through the circumloçutions she substituted for the names of chemicals, their manufacturers, or other delinquent parties in order to avoid lawsuits. With the exception of the Army Chemical Corps., Carson did not name a single manufacturer of chemicals or pesticide brand name. For example, her extended description of the biological havoc caused by pesticide wastes dumped over the course of ten years by "a chemical plant'' doesn't say which. Her discussion of a new carcinogenic chemical used against mites and ticks requires a stream of nonspecific designations: "a chemical;" "this chemical," "the chemical," "the product," "the suspected carcinogen,’’ and so on, rather than Aramite, the product's name. Even when protesting the fact that certain innocuously named weed killers sold for suburban lawns didn't list their ingredients, including chlordane and dieldrin, nor mention their dangers, she withheld the names of these products at this tantalizingly apt point, when mentioning them would have worked directly to end their facade of benignity. But even in the absence of potential legal action, claims Linda Lear, Carson might not have mentioned specific names; contention about specific culprits, Carson felt, would have distracted from her central message.
On a larger scale, Carson downplayed the political implications of her account through a consistently elliptical capping of its descriptions of irrational pesticide use. Repeatedly she argued that the instances of spraying she describes were not only harmful to humans and wildlife, but unjustified even in terms of biological effectiveness or economic payoff to farmers. Why did spraying take place nonetheless? Carson's scenarios demand an answer, but hers is vague or often lacking altogether. Readers are left to make their own inferences or, more likely, to ignore the troubling questions these narrative lapses signal. This kind of hanging question is most comfortably accommodated at the end of sections. "The science of range-management,’’ she says in the last sentence of chapter six, ‘‘has largely ignored [the] possibility [of biological control of weeds by plant-eating insects] although these insects ... could easily be turned to man's advantage.'' She concludes another section with the observation that ‘‘there is no dearth of men who understand these things... but they are not the men who order the wholesale drenching of the landscape with chemicals.’’ Elsewhere she describes how ‘‘funds for chemical control came in never-ending streams, while the biologists . . . who attempted to measure the damage to wildlife had to operate on a financial shoestring.’’ Why the marginalization of effective biological control? the distance between those who know and those who order? the discrepancy between budgets for inventing chemicals and for studying their damage? Carson's silence on these questions buries the problem of the democratic control of science, technology, and production.
To the extent that Carson does trace the origins of the destruction whose "irrationality" she has exposed, her account of agency is feeble and diffuse, her blame mild. Destruction of the environment stems from people's failure to "read" the "open book'' of the landscape; facts about pesticides' destructiveness are denied out of ‘‘shortsightedness;’’ spraying continues because of ‘‘entrenched custom,’’ or ‘‘surely, only because the facts are not known." "We are walking in nature like an elephant in the china cabinet,’’ she quotes a scientist whose ‘‘rare understanding’’ she respects, implying "our'' problem to be one of clumsiness.
Even at the level of single sentences Carson frequently masks agency and blame through passive or negative sentence constructions. She tells, for example, of farmers who chose to spray crows rather than switch to a variety of corn that didn't attract birds because they ‘‘had been persuaded of the merits of killing by poison’’ (emphasis mine). Her excision of the subject here closes down a crucial line of inquiry. A similar negative formulation lessens blame even as it assigns it. "Because the spray planes were paid by the gallon rather than by the acre,’’ Carson says, ‘‘there was no effort to be conservative.'' How much more powerful would this sentence have been had its latter part been directly and positively phrased: "there was incentive to use as much as possible’’? (It would also have helped had she unreified ‘‘spray planes’’ to make more visible which people were paid.)
Carson's reticence about the political and economic forces encouraging heedless pesticide use made it hard for her to talk about fundamental social interventions as part of a solution. Her proposals, therefore, gravitate toward the only resource left to her: a respect for the balance of nature and ecological interconnectedness, to be achieved through attitudinal reform and the technologies of biological control. Her call for new attitudes is a reasonable, even inspiring, repudiation of human arrogance in favor of an attitude of cautious "guidance,'' reasonable "accommodation," sensitive "management," and an ethic of "sharing" rather than ‘‘brute force.’’ These are valuable orientations in themselves, but their mildness and abstraction bespeak the book's missing politics.
Carson offers the biological control of pests as the technical manifestation of this more humble attitude. One could not hope for a more symbolically-appealing solution: Yankee ingenuity in service of a pastoral ideal. By pastoral here I am referring to what Leo Marx points to as the most long-lived Western model for an appropriate relation to nature, which proposes a middle ground between the wild and the overcivilized. Silent Spring opens with such a middle ground in its rustic idyll of "a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.’’ This prosperous town is far from the trouble of cities, but also safely removed from wild nature, signified by the barking of foxes in the distant hills. Pesticides are an evil blight disrupting this harmony, killing the town's birds and animals and bringing a strange stillness, a silent spring. At the end of the book, in the last chapter, entitled ‘‘The Other Road,’’ Carson offers her proposal for regaining this lost balance through various forms of biological pest control. It too is structured as a middle ground, a way of navigating between the technological hubris of pesticides on the one hand, and a vulnerability to nature's wildness in the form of pests on the other. It embodies the pastoral vision of enjoying the best of human artifice and inventiveness while preserving a closeness to natural cycles and creatures.
Yet Carson had evidence suggesting that humility and artifice alone often did not determine the choice of pest control methods. She herself describes the repeated bypassing of forms of biological control known to be cheap, effective, and harmless in favor of harmful chemicals. And she knew that for decades prior to World War Two, before they were eclipsed by faster-acting and profit-producing insecticides, biological methods had been investigated and adopted not because they offered a more "natural" or ethically superior solution but because they were cheap and effective. Nor were the many problems that plagued chemical pesticides (resistance, resurgence, toxicity, bioaccumulation) a surprise that surfaced with their widespread agricultural use in the postwar years; most were recognized decades before Silent Spring was published.
Carson mentions some of these early successes as well as several contemporary ‘‘shining models’’ of nonchemical methods of pest control in her chapter on biological control. And in her next chapter, on the problems of chemical control, she describes prominent early disasters and the intensification of pesticide side effects in the late fifties. Once again, she has juxtaposed facts that pose a pointed question: why has a problematic form of pest control replaced an effective one? Here she offers the book's sole explicitly structural analysis, consisting of the two paragraphs about chemical industry funding for university research mentioned earlier, whose impact is soon diluted with more idealist explanations. The chapter continues to talk of people being "slow to recognize'' problems with pesticides, and of chemical research drawing the best people because it seems "more exciting,’’ and Carson concludes it with a quotation that exemplifies the book's dominant message.
We need a more high-minded orientation and a deeper insight, which I miss in many researchers. Life is a miracle beyond our comprehensions, and we should reverence it.... The resort to weapons such as insecticides to control it is a proof of insufficient knowledge.... Humbleness is in order; there is no excuse for scientific conceit here.
Bookchin makes a different use of the past in his somewhat broader and more forthright account of how vested interests have shaped the directions taken by modern agriculture. He discusses, for example, how the food industry undermined enlightened standards for food purity in place at the beginning of the century, and nibbled away at the Delany clause protecting consumers from carcinogens. For Bookchin, these early achievements are not simply models for what could be achieved again in the future; his description of the eclipse of sane ways of doing things points his readers to the political struggle necessary to establish and uphold these.
Pushing the Limits
Silent Spring presented facts that brought its readers to the threshold of difficult questions about how pest control might be guided by biological knowledge and democratically determined priorities, rather than the logic of capital accumulation. But Carson's avoidance of politics, abetted by her conceptions of nature, helped lead them away again. Through these she taught her readers to see pesticide problems as resulting from oversight and carelessness, or at the most arrogance, rather than from greed or systemic structural factors. By casting the problem of pest control as primarily an issue of achieving a harmonious relationship to "nature," with little reference to the social criteria embedded in the term, nor the changes in social institutions necessary to achieve this harmony, Carson stripped her book of overtly political analysis or claims. She seemed to believe that it was enough to present the facts and let public opinion take over.
My goal, however, is not to judge the book politically ineffective or undesirable, only to highlight the limits of what could be said and widely heard in that particular moment. The disappearance of Bookchin's work and the furor over even the politically restrained Silent Spring suggest that Carson stood close to these limits. A broadly understandable and persuasive challenge to the pesticide paradigm had both to criticize and placate, to extend and maintain existing worldviews. Carson's book did not call for nor achieve a fundamental democratization of research, technology, and production. But it did frighten people, link health to nature for the first time as a topic of heated public debate, and draw on familiar conceptions of nature to undermine the postwar aura of pesticides as a marvelous technical achievement and cast them as sinister and stupid instead.
The book's political consequences are complex, and still unfolding. It prompted a debate that led to legislation banning some pesticides and tightening the procedures for testing, registering, and using others. But with political-economic ground rules remaining intact, agriculture and the chemical industry could respond to these developments relatively easily. Restrictions placed several years later on organochlorines, the earliest generation of synthetic pesticides such as DDT, for example, didn't halt their continued manufacture for export, nor the development and profitable production of other pesticides, nor recent attempts to genetically engineer profitable and hazardous pest and pesticide resistant crops. More generally, these reforms did nothing to stop the trend toward increasingly mechanized and large-scale agriculture that made pesticides unavoidable. On the thirtieth anniversary of Silent Spring's publication the executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides could still describe America as standing at the crossroads between ‘‘promoting safer alternative pest management techniques or simply substituting less toxic inputs into conventional pesticide-intensive practices.’’
At the same time, however, other longer term and more subtle effects of the sea-change Carson helped initiate are only now beginning to surface. For example, the cost of approving a new pesticide and the demand for "organic" produce have both grown to a point where alternative forms of pest management are now becoming economically feasible. Curiously, it may have required an "apolitical'' challenge to pesticides to initiate this process.
Source: Yaakov Garb, ‘‘Rachel Carson's Silent Spring,’’ in Dissent, Fall 1995, pp. 539–46.
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