Silent Spring: Metaphors
War With Nature
Carson makes continual references to chemicals as weapons in a war against nature. She calls them “As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club” (p. 261), on the one hand, and on the other, she likens them to nuclear fallout, a bomb that we carelessly drop on the landscape. After giving case after case of death and destruction from pesticide sprayings from airplanes, she asks who has decided on this war, on “these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out” (p. 118)? Pesticides originally developed during World War II as chemical weapons against other humans. They were also thought to be miraculous insecticides as a weapon to fight diseases such as malaria. After the war, they were turned into pesticides in a widening conflict against all pests, but the collateral damage of pesticides makes the sprayings into a war against anything perceived to be in the way—plants, animals, and humans. Governmental agencies, under the advice of chemical companies, sprayed farmers and citizens without warning, destroying crops and animals, and endangered many species in the name of making the country safe from pests. Carson calls pesticides a “habit of killing” anything annoying, such as blackbirds that eat corn. Parathion, in a case she documents, is not a specific for blackbirds, but a “universal killer” that destroyed other animals such as rabbits and raccoons as well as 65,000 blackbirds (pp. 117-118).
Carson depicts the carnage of dead carcasses from mass sprayings—fish, birds, wildlife, domestic stock, and animals left in convulsions, as on a battlefield. When she asks who has authorized all this killing, she credits it to a “moment of inattention” (p. 119) by the public who has not understood the consequences. The parallel to wartime Germany is implied with its policy of killing undesirable people while the public did not protest. Even after the war, the attitude of killing did not stop, but using the same or modified chemicals, the war was shifted to nature itself. War is shown to be a mindset of modern civilization as a solution, but Carson shows that it is at best, poor science. She puts the same moral weight on “acquiescence” (p. 96) with these practices as on war crimes, for these unchecked attacks on nature “diminish” us as human beings (p. 96). There are clearly better, safer, and more humane ways to deal with problems by using accurate scientific knowledge. When human wisdom and knowledge are sufficient to deal with problems then “brute force becomes unnecessary” (p. 243).
Web of Life
Chapter 6, “Earth’s Green Mantle” has as its main point that “The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life” (p. 64). Every case study Carson presents where pesticides were used to solve problems unexpectedly backfired because there was a lack of understanding that the poisoning was not an isolated incident but was done to an entire ecosystem. The example of spraying Clear Lake, California, with DDD to get rid of gnats, for instance, shows water also must be thought of in terms of “chains of life” not as a simplistic model (p. 50). Minerals pass from link to link in the chain, and so is poison passed along the food chain in surprising ways. There was a careful measuring of the volume of the lake and only one part chemical per 70 million parts of water was added. The gnats died, after many applications, but so did the western grebe, in whose tissues the DDD was found as 1600 parts per million. This was a “house that Jack built sequence” she says in which “the large carnivores had eaten the smaller carnivores, that had eaten the herbivores, that had eaten the plankton, that had absorbed the poison from the water” (p. 52). True management of pests has to come with knowledge of nature’s own “intricate system of checks and balances” (p. 258), because nature is like our own body, a holistic system with interconnected parts. Introducing natural predators is one way to control pests, for this is nature’s own method of balance. Birds, for instance, are insect-eaters and should be encouraged, not endangered by careless poisoning. The entire book illustrates the ecological model of the web of life rather than the Western model of conquering nature. In either model, the human factor is important, either as a cooperator in nature’s system, or as a tragic and brute disrupter.
When discussing the systemic insecticides, Carson can only turn to mythology and fairytales to discuss their evil. Systemic insecticides, she says, are like the Greek Queen Medea’s toxic robe of poison offered as a present to her rival. They attract an insect to feed on a poisoned host. She concludes that this is a “weird world, surpassing the imaginings of the brothers Grimm,” like the “cartoon world of Charles Addams” (p. 39). Carson does not want us to think of pesticides as normal but shows them to be some surreal solution invented by insanity and distorted perceptions. The historical reference she makes to the Borgias in Chapter 11 is effective, for the Italian Borgia family is an extreme example of political ambition. They are thought to belong to an earlier inhumane era where poisoning someone was a well-known strategy for advancement. Pesticides are thus compared to these outlandish and primitive stories of revenge.
At various places, Carson uses cultural or literary references to make her points, going beyond mere scientific description. This is first of all helpful in a work to popularize a certain scientific picture of nature by referring to stories and words already understood. In a larger sense, the historical and literary references stretch the scope of the study to the underlying philosophy of using pesticides in the first place. She makes clear that using pesticides the way we have done is a moral question, an act that reflects on the basis of our civilization. Can we have a civilization based on a war with nature? It is both cruel and self-defeating. The book’s title is based on Keats’s poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which tells the story of a knight bewitched by the spell of a beautiful woman who leaves him in despair. In a state of depression, he can no longer perceive the beauty of the things around him; his life is over, for the sedge appears to be withered from the lake, and he does not hear the birds sing. Carson transposes this story to modern America where the sedge is literally withered and the birds are not singing in the spring because they are all dead. The fantasy has become actualized.
She uses poetry also to paint a more optimistic outcome by referring to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Frost tells of a traveler who sees two roads in the wood but can only follow one of them. He chooses the road that is less traveled and that makes “all the difference.” In this way, she shows there is a choice of which direction to take. The less traveled road in this case is the alternative to chemical pest control. Many scientists and naturalists had already been experimenting with great success on how to farm or manage forests and wildlife areas without pesticides. She gives examples of individuals and countries where poison is not necessary to guarantee good crops and a good life. Her vision of an alternative road has of course been realized in the environmental movement of recent decades where such research into green solutions has become mainstream and promises to make “all the difference” to a sustainable earth.