Silent Spring: Chapter 7,8

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Summary of Chapter 7: Needless Havoc


Humans are careless with the environment, guilty of slaughtering the buffalo and wiping out species of birds. Similarly, chemical spraying has become indiscriminate. The citizen is at a loss to know who tells the truth about the matter when conservationists say one thing, and the government agencies and chemical industry say another. Carson says the expert, the “professional wildlife biologist” (p. 84) on the scene, is the one to trust. Sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts complain about the loss of nature, and they have a valid point of view. Even one spraying does real harm, but most spraying is done repeatedly, often with the sanction of government agencies, such as the Michigan Department of Agriculture, which sprayed Detroit to control the Japanese beetle in 1959. Walter Nickell, a known Michigan naturalist, declared he had seen no rise in beetles; the whole operation was kept secret.


The midwestern states launched an all-out attack on this beetle with little evidence that such an overkill method was needed. Aldrin, one of the deadliest chemicals, was chosen. The agencies declared it to be safe, and in Michigan at this time, the consent of landowners was not required. Within a few days, reports came in of dead birds everywhere. Dogs and cats sickened. People had flu symptoms. The government agencies denied there was a problem. State fish and game departments were not consulted, but their biologists collected facts about the devastations. In the affected areas, songbirds were almost wiped out, the robin disappeared, earthworms and squirrels died, as well as muskrats and rabbits. Most farm cats died. Some sheep and cattle were made sick. The spraying went on year after year in the 1950s, but there were no research funds to study the effects on the environment. In spite of the massive war against the Japanese beetle, it went west unchecked. The eastern states had earlier found natural ways to control this beetle with the parasitic wasp, Tiphia, and a bacterial disease of beetles called milky disease, enemies of the beetle that keep it in check.


Commentary on Chapter 7: Needless Havoc


Carson presents this case study and draws a moral conclusion from it: “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized” (p. 95). If citizens let this happen without protest, “who among us is not diminished as a human being?” (p. 96).


Summary of Chapter 8: And No Birds Sing


This chapter is devoted to the silencing of the songbirds through chemical spraying. Carson gives excerpts of letters from citizens in the areas that were sprayed about how their landscapes changed. A woman in Illinois said spraying the elms had wiped out robins, chickadees, and cardinals. A woman from Alabama talked about the fallout from fire-ant spraying and how the birds disappeared overnight. A birdwatcher in Mississippi saw no land birds for miles after spraying. The robins were particularly affected with the spraying of elm trees for Dutch-elm disease, a fungus carried by insects. University professors studying the demise of the robin found that the spray on the trees entered the soil and poisoned the earthworms, the food of the robins. Those robins not killed became sterile. The studies showed 90 species of birds to be affected. Even hawks and owls have been found in convulsions. The irony is that birds eat insects and form part of a natural control for them. Furthermore, it was found that spraying did not save the elms. Carson gives evidence of a successful program in Syracuse, New York, that controlled Dutch-elm disease through sanitation, by removing diseased trees.


Commentary Chapter 8: And No Birds Sing


The examples Carson gives make the reader feel that what she says is a matter of common sense. In every case study, she gives cheaper and well-known ways to control for pests without chemicals. The cost to the environment of using chemicals is incalculable, for many of the studies suggest the environment is damaged permanently and species endangered. She speaks of the principle known to ecologists of planting for variety. Planting all of any one kind of vegetation, such as elms or wheat, invites the natural predator to show up in great numbers. Carson goes on in depth about the endangered eagles who are sterile and pigeon populations poisoned by seeds treated with insecticides. She ends the chapter again with the questions we should be asking ourselves: who has made these decisions, and who has the right to decide about the use of chemicals?

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