Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

It’s ironic that I’m reading this book while suffering a sore throat and sinus distress that I suspect is the result of spending time in a friend’s pool yesterday. I could find no other explanation for the tingle in my throat that started about dinnertime and steadily became worse overnight. My mother made the connection to chlorine and a Google search turned up more information on it. It’s only a theory right now, that the chlorine in the pool is responsible for my misery right now, but it sounds pretty plausible. But I also got a delivery of homegrown tomatoes from a friend who had too many to know what to do with and I’m going to douse them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and oven roast them to save them for winter. I’m fairly sure my friend didn’t use any chemicals on them. At least I hope not.

I did not expect this book to inspire me to formulate a class called “The War Against Nature,” even going so far as to brainstorm books. While it’s impossible to read Silent Spring outside of its 1960s context, its parallels to current events are eerie. This is one of those books that I should have read a long time ago and now that I have, I wonder why I’ve waited so long. The tone of this book is so accessible that I think undergrads should be able to read it easily and grasp its concepts—and it’s notable that while Carson has a definite agenda in this book, it’s not so liberal to argue against pest control overall. She is merely arguing that there are better ways, alternatives to poisons that do nothing and cost too much.

I recently saw an article published during the debt ceiling debacle that called for loosening EPA restrictions around the Grand Canyon to open up opportunities for uranium mining, various Republicans calling the EPA anti-business and arguing that it is standing in the way of progress and getting the American economy back on track. And I wondered what short-sightedness leads them to say such things out loud. Indeed, early in the book, Carson writes, “Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” (8). This could have been written today, about so many things in our political process, including the debt ceiling debates. This is the point I would like to make about Silent Spring: we are short-sighted, because we have been trained to be, out of a culture that has always gotten nearly everything it has ever wanted, without having to worry about the price. Even the language that Carson uses, the mentality she identifies, has come out of this post-WW2 mentality and it’s this kind of thinking that is staying with me, after I put it down. This is what I’m still thinking about.

A hierarchy of value is set up with regards to planet life, distinctions that include plants, animals, insects, humans, etc. It’s not that Carson is promoting this hierarchy, but she is arguing against it, arguing that the natural world is an interconnected world that is circular, not linear. But what’s interesting about Carson’s discussion of these different groups is the way these different groups divide themselves further in terms of which groups are more valuable. Soil, as she discusses in chapter 5, has been completely ignored by control men, only treated slightly to more attention by scientists (56). Plants are the least valuable, insects barely better than plants, animals above them, and humans at the top. But even the animals are not created equal. Wild and domestic animals are divided and even among the wild animals, further divisions are identified: rodents and fish are lower than various charismatic megafauna—which includes salmon and eagles. One might also consider charismatic mini-fauna, which includes robins and other songbirds, as well as monarch butterflies and honeybees. Moths and beetles and wasps do not conjure the same type of protective feelings in most people.

When she writes of eradication, she defines it as “the complete and final extinction or extermination of a species throughout its range” (157). How could this kind of phrasing have not come out of those who fought in Europe during WW2, where the Nazis sought to eradicate the Jews and other undesirables, using the same sorts of gasses and poisons that the Americans decided to use on its undesirables? To a country who, with its Allies, had won a decisive victory (though by entering late in the game, we lost so much less than other countries) in Europe and who had literally obliterated two Japanese cities with the nuclear bomb, how could they turn any less intensity on the domestic issues it faced?

In the chapters that address the suburbia of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the aerial spraying in various parts of the country, moving into the discussions of consumer pesticides, it is clear that the mode of thinking here has absolutely come out of this post-WW2 mentality: this is still an era where people still have absolute faith and trust in their government. The suburban consumers who are buying these pesticides and herbicides to get rid of crabgrass and other undesirables are of the generation that went to war on their government’s orders, trusting that they were serving the common good. These veterans naturally trusted that their government is still acting in their best interests and would never allow a product on the market that wasn’t safe. This book was published before Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, when people started to question their government.

In Chapter 12, “The Human Price,” Carson makes a very interesting comment at the end of the chapter: “In view of the severe damage they inflict on the nervous system, it was perhaps inevitable that these insecticides would eventually be linked with mental disease” (197-8). This makes me wonder about subsequent generations and the rise of mental disease, ADD, asthma, allergies, autism, and such. Obviously part of the rise is due to better diagnosis (some might say overdiagnosis), but given how Carson discusses the long range effects on chromosomes and other genetic material, I wonder. She concludes the chapter like this: “Confusion, delusions, loss of memory, mania—a heavy price to pay for the temporary destruction of a few insects, but a price that will continue to be exacted as long as we insist upon using chemicals that strike directly at the nervous system” (198). A few chapters later, she discusses the effects of DDT on humans, a housewife spraying for roaches, and though Carson does not blatantly make the point: isn’t the effect that the DDT had on the housewife the desired effect the manufacturers wanted the poison to have on the spiders and roaches? How did they think that it would affect one species one way and not the humans who were doing the spraying?

“In some quarters nowadays it is fashionable to dismiss the balance of nature as a state of affairs that prevailed in an earlier, simpler world,” she writes (246). The value of spirit, as it pertained to her chapters on songbirds disappearing and the spraying of brush along roadsides, is easily dismissible in some circles. Why is it not valuable? Because it makes no money. In our American society, there is no value in anything that cannot bring in revenue. A mountain in the Appalachians has no inherent value unless it can be mined for coal, its tops and contours removed, which release poisons into the water supplies of the communities it surrounds. The fish are not valuable until losing them destroys the tourist business that comes to fish for them, likewise for hunting.

I grew up in northern Minnesota, one of the most beautiful places on earth, descended from my maternal grandparents who took conservation very seriously. They, like Carson, were not anti-use, but when one tree at their place fell down or had to be cut down, they planted trees to replace them. They were especially concerned with erosion, since the soil at their house is almost pure sand. Neither of them came from the area and actually moved to 3rd Crow Wing Lake in 1990 to be closer to my family. Both came from farming families. And given what Carson argues about the prevalence of leukemia, it makes me wonder if my grandfather’s leukemia resulted from his upbringing on the family’s farm and his later work as an agricultural economist. I don’t know. But I wonder. But it’s at my grandparents’ lake cabin where I see the most bald eagles.

-Karen Babine is Assay’s editor.


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