US Political Thought

Notes on Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

I. A Fable for Tomorrow

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings” (1). The utopia that was, but is now under siege. It had “a checkerboard of prosperous farms.” It was a pastoral Eden of beautiful hardwood forests and bountiful wildlife.

But a “strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. . . .Everywhere was a shadow of death. . . . It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. . . . Even the streams were now lifeless” (2-3).

“No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves” (3).

While no community has experienced all these misfortunes, “many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them” (3).

2. The Obligation to Endure

An ecological ethic (its two sides: belonging to a larger whole; prudence given objective conditions):

“To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -- man -- acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world” (5).


“It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth -- eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings” (6).


“Man, however much he may like to pretend the contrary, is part of nature” (188).

This is similar to Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” or ethical holism, as expressed in A Sand County Almanac:

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for.

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (Leopold, 203-204).

“...quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold, 224-225).

The nature of the new pollution: “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials” (6). Carson singles out chemicals and radiation. A dangerous and unexpected vulnerability where we might least expect it -- in the triumphant use of new chemicals to expand the food supply -- inherent in the nature of techno-economic progress, in other words.

Dangerous characteristics of this new pollution:

1. They are capable of “changing the very nature of the world -- the very nature of its life” (6).

2. “the chain of evil it initiates” in the world and in living tissues “is for the most part irreversible” (6).

3. A catastrophe may already have occurred -- the future may be foreclosed by what we have already done: “We all live under the haunting fear that something may corrupt the environment to the point where man joins the dinosaurs as an obsolete way of life . . .our fate could perhaps be sealed twenty or more years before the development of symptoms” (188). Compare the entire worldview here to the fear of nuclear annihilation--many many parallels.

4. Dread (uncontrollable, unknown, mobile, mutable (a kind of perverse agency): They may strike anyone, anywhere, causing illnesses whose source will often be unknown. They show how interconnected with nature we are -- our poisons return to sicken and kill us. They may act “upon us directly and indirectly, separately and collectively” (188).

The poisons are “formless and obscure” (188). They circulate “mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells” (6). They travel “from link to link of the food chain . . .” (190).

5. Ecological time overwhelmed by industrial time: Life adjusts to harm over millennia but “in the modern world there is no time.

6. A staggering stream of new chemicals “having no counterparts in nature” pour out of the laboratories: “500 new chemicals” each year, “to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt” (7).

7. Exterminism: “nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil. . . . Can any believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides” but “biocides” (7-8).

8. The insects are winning: We’re on a pesticide treadmill. The insects, “in a triumphant vindication of Darwin’s principle of the survival of the fittest, have evolved super races immune to the particular insecticide used . . .” forcing us to find ever more deadlier new ones. Heavier application is another result. “Thus the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire” (8).

9. Uncontrolled genetic mutations: “many chemicals, like radiation, bring about gene mutations” (8).

10. Many of these substances are persistent and bio-accumulative (8). Health effects depend on exposure over time. Effects are delayed. But this can lull us: “the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster” (189).

11. Some of these substances have toxic effects in very small quantities. In the ecology of our bodies, “minute causes produce mighty effects” (189).

12. Violation of human rights: “We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge” (12).

13. Self-endangerment: The chief public health threat has ceased to be disease; now it is “a hazard we ourselves have introduced into our world as our modern way of life has evolved” (187).

14. A new reliance on science to identify health effects: “to discover the agent of disease and death depends on a patient piecing together of many seemingly distinct and unrelated facts developed through a vast amount of research in widely separated fields. Think of Beck, Dewey, “popular epidemiology.”

Indeed, we may be technically incapable of detecting the presence of some toxins. “The lack of sufficiently delicate methods to detect injury before symptoms appear is one of the great unsolved problems in medicine” (190).

15. We are the subjects of a massive uncontrolled experiment: “a human being, unlike a laboratory animal living under rigidly controlled conditions, is never exposed to one chemical alone” (194). Not only we subject to multiple exposures, “interactions” among chemicals can have “serious potentials” (194).

The underlying problem: “this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence” (189).

Why have we done this? Carson dismisses the claim that increased farm production necessitates this; as far as that goes overproduction is the real problem. Rather, the source lies in our “modern way of life,” specifically:

1. agricultural intensification and its use of large scale monoculture. Simplification destroys natures “checks and balances” (10).

2. The migration of species with humans, both deliberately and accidentally. “Nearly half of the 180 or so major insect enemies of plants in the United States are accidental imports from abroad” (11).

The alternative: Develop ecological knowledge and use it wisely. “. .. we need the basic knowledge of animal populations and their relations to their surroundings that will ‘promote an even balance and damp down the explosive power of outbreaks and new invasions” (11).

But “We allow the chemical death to fall as though there were no alternative. . . . Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior and detrimental?” (12).

12: The Human Price

All of the more theoretical material at the front of this chapter is incorporated in the list above. Beginning on page 192 and running to the end of the chapter on page 198, Carson gives empirical evidence, describing symptoms of more acute poisoning, etc.

17: The Other Road

“The choice, after all, is ours to make” (277). If once we have “at last asserted our ‘right to know,” we decide that we “are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us” (278).

The alternative is to rely on “biological solutions, based on an understanding of the living organisms [we] want to control” (278).

“Some of the most fascinating of the new methods are those that seek to turn the strength of a species against itself . . .” (279).

Carson first discusses sterilization of male insects using X-rays or gamma rays. This was used to eradicate the screw-worm fly in the Southeast (279-281).

“One of the problems of sterilization by radiation is that this requires not only artificial rearing but the release of sterile males in larger numbers than are present in the wild population” (283).

“A chemical sterilant, on the other hand, could be combined with a bait substance and introduced into the natural environment of the fly [or other insect],” in time causing sterile flies to predominate in the population (283).

However, “some extremely potent chemicals are involved. . . . If the potential hazards of the chemosterilants are not constantly borne in mind we could easily find ourselves in even worse trouble than that now created by the insecticides” (284).

There are two classes of sterilants: those that disrupt cell metabolism (“anti-metabolites”) and “chemicals that act on the chromosomes (“alkylating agents”). But “‘any alkylating agent which is effective in sterilizing insects would also be a powerful mutagen and carcinogen’” (285).

Another approach is to use the attractants insects secret to lure them into traps. The Department of Agriculture recently succeeded in synthesizing the gypsy moth attractant (286).

Sound can be used as a repellant, a lure, or a direct destructant.

The use of diseases and biological poisons against insects -- Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). “This bacterium actually kills by poisoning rather than by disease” (289). (Today, the capacity to produce the (Bt) poison is being bioengineered into organisms, raising concerns about what might be called a “genetic treadmill.” The use of Bacillus thuringiensis genes for insect control in transgenic plants is generating concern that widespread deployment of genetically engineered corn, cotton, potatoes, and other crops now under development may hasten the appearance of insects that are resistant to this effective and environmentally benign insecticide.)

She mentions that the “main technical problem now is to find a carrying solution that will stick the bacterial spores to the needles of the evergreens” in gypsy moth infested areas. This brings to mind the Tilth director whose organic farm was ruined by aerial spraying of Bt using oil (petroleum) as a base.

She thinks that since “insect pathogens are harmless to all but intended targets,” and “do not belong to the type of organisms that cause disease in higher animals or in plants” (291).

Use of imported beneficial insects to combat undesirable ones. Great early example: an insect was imported from Australia in 1888 to save California’s citrus crop from “cottony cushion scale” (291-292). “In all, about 100 species of imported predators and parasites have become established” (292). “The advantages of such control over chemicals are obvious: it is relatively inexpensive, it is permanent, it leaves no poisonous residues” (292).

Ecological engineering? Carson praises the Europeans and Canadians for developing “the science of ‘forest hygiene’ to an amazing extent” (293). By this she means that they have added diversity to commercial ‘forests’: “In the modern era of intensive forestry the old hollow trees are gone and with them homes for woodpeckers and other tree-nesting birds. This lack is met by nesting boxes, which draw the birds back into the forest” (293). In Germany, they have established numerous red ant colonies because they are “an aggressive insect predator” (293).

She cites with approval Newfoundland’s introduction of the masked shrew to combat sawflies (296). This, from someone who earlier cautioned that “The predator and the preyed upon exist not alone, but as part of a vast web of life, all of which needs to be taken into account” (293).

Yet the ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man” (297).