Silent Spring: Theme
Western Science Is Stone Age Science
Carson uses a quote from E. B. White in the front of the book. White says he is pessimistic about life on earth because “Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission.” The Western philosophical view has largely been that humans are superior to and apart from nature and that to live a good life we must subdue nature to our own purposes. Carson bluntly refers to modern science as Neanderthal science or Stone Age science (p. 261) because it knows how to create deadly chemicals for everything from food supplements to pesticides, but it does not know what the chemicals do or how to control them. Her thesis is that man-made chemicals are destroying life on earth. This was written in 1962, when she pointed out that chemicals had been part of our lifestyle for less than twenty years, yet their influence was global, in every corner of the vanishing wilderness. Already science was documenting the destruction and effect of this recklessness, but few scientists were speaking out about this looming menace. One reason is that the chemical companies were employing many scientists for their own purposes to invent or promote chemicals.
One evidence of Western science as Stone Age science is the accepted mentality that if there is any problem, with crops, food, diseases, buildings, clothing, or warfare, chemicals will quickly and easily take care of it. This is the notion that as White said, we can bludgeon nature into shape by pouring poison on it. Kill pests, weeds, or the enemy, stop unwanted decay with chemical preservatives, destroy dirt and germs, with what Carson says should be called “biocides” (p. 18). Western civilization has accepted as a premise that chemicals are the cutting edge of progress, and this is proven by the fact that chemists inventing deadly cocktails are winning the Nobel Prize. Carson asserts that any culture that uses chemicals the way ours does is not truly a civilization. Civilization is the word used for those cultures that were forward thinking, gathering knowledge and practices that saved life and made it comfortable and worthwhile to pass on to the next generation. We are handing a legacy of death to future generations, as verified by the incredible increase in cancer and mental disorders and vanishing wilderness.
Cancer was a disease of old age, and now more children die of it than any other disease. Environmental disease through chemical exposure is a major medical specialty. These are the human problems. The wholesale destruction of nature and its species led to the title of the book, Silent Spring, where already there are places in the world where the birds have been killed and silenced by pesticides. Water is polluted, fish are dead, whole species are wiped out or endangered because of pesticide spraying. Besides the direct killing of living things, chemicals change the whole balance of nature bringing many unwanted side effects that no one envisioned. Most of the spraying, she points out, has been counterproductive because no holistic scientific thought has gone into targeting, or in what the consequences would be. This is hardly science in Rachel Carson’s definition of the word, who, as a marine biologist, has been a successful naturalist writer, able to describe in minute detail the delicate niches occupied by plankton and microscopic organisms in the ocean.
Chemicals Are Big Business
Carson quantifies the chemical problem, giving dollar amounts to sales of chemicals and pounds of production of types such as DDT per year. She tells how many pounds of chemicals are used per acre in spraying or how many parts per million are allowable in FDA tolerances. The scientific documentation she builds of the volume of non-biological substances being pumped into the biosphere is staggering, and this was as of fifty years ago. Her book treats mostly chemicals in pesticides and household products. She does not even address the drugs, prescribed and nonprescribed, we put into our bodies, or food additives. Understanding the volume produced, sold, and used allows the reader to understand the point that chemicals are big business and that there is no hope of stopping without a major shift in thinking.
She addresses the fact that the average consumer is unaware of the danger, since chemicals are found in the grocery store aisles in bright packages with slogans about making lives better. They can clean clothes, kill household pests, and do dozens of things consumers do not even need to think about. Even with case histories of housewives dying from trying to get rid of spiders in their basements, or pets dying from exposure to roach killers, or children accidentally ingesting plants that have been sprayed, or birds in convulsions in the yard, few want to believe the products they are used to are the result of our commercial culture rather than scientific miracle.
Another shocking revelation is that governmental agencies have the power to order mass sprayings over vast territories without permission from anyone. Seldom do they do enough research on the problems, or verify the problems, such as the supposed fire ant scare in the south. They listen to chemical companies, who also have not done enough research on what they sell, rather than to citizens or ecologists. They contract out the spraying to pilots, often out-of-state, with little experience of the dangerous chemicals they handle. There are problems of overspraying, wrong spraying, and wind drift. Once spraying commences, the agencies are on the treadmill of respraying to keep the situation under control. The chemical solutions that cause more problems end up being very expensive to budgets, to the environment, and to people.
Nature Has Its Own Checks and Balances
Rachel Carson’s book is often credited with kicking off the environmental age of science. She speaks of ecology as the sort of science needed now to deal with complex problems, because of the intricate interrelatedness of biological systems. Her book demonstrates systems thinking, showing how an ill-timed spraying disrupts a whole cycle of salmon or trout, or destroys the valuable sage lands, or roadside habitat cover for various species, or the loss of species like the robin from spraying for Dutch-elm disease.
In case after case, she shows better ways of handling pests such as natural parasitism and microorganisms, found by knowing their life cycles and how they interact with other species. There are natural insecticides like marigolds that kill soil nematodes.
Biological controls involve finding the predators of a species like the wasp Tiphia to control the Japanese beetle. Spraying, on the other hand, removes the natural predators and checks in a system, letting the pests get out of control. In addition, Carson addresses the issue of pests adapting to chemicals and developing immunity, causing an ever-increasing creation of new chemicals to fight pests. Carson is careful to show there are alternatives to chemicals, solutions that are long term, cheaper, and more successful, such as sanitation, natural parasitism, the built-in resistance of the environment, and planting for variety.