Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson

5 February 2009

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. (1962). 296 pp.

Why would anyone ever think that it is a good idea to dump tons of poisonous toxins all over just about everything?  If that question has never occurred to you, you’ve never read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the book that jump-started the environmental movement.  The book argues that human actions can have devastating, even if unintended, consequences for the natural world, a conclusion that few would now dispute.

Carson makes it clear that her opposition is not to chemical use per se, but to the short-sighted and ultimately very harmful use thereof, which also happen to be unnecessary in most cases.  She shows that, counterintuitively, massive spraying programs can often lead to the target species becoming more prevalent if the chemicals more thoroughly wipe out the target’s natural predators than the target itself.  Fostering a proper predator-prey balance she says is the best way to control pests, including invasive species, and she gives many examples of when and where this has been done with success—and at much lower cost than massive spraying programs, writing that
Nature herself has met many of the problems that now beset us, and she has usually solved them in her own successful way.  Where man has been intelligent enough to observe and to emulate Nature he, too, is often rewarded with success. (81)

Examples that she gives include using marigolds to keep nematodes away from roses and using shrubs to prevent view-blocking trees from growing up too close to the roadway.

Several times she takes snipes at the chemical companies, “the beneficiaries of this ‘sales bonanza'”, for promoting the use of insecticides for their own good, not that of the public; the book is certainly not an anti-capitalist manifesto, however, and any excesses of the environmental movement find little to no support in what Silent Spring actually says.
Rachel Carson's official Fish and Wildlife Service photo, circa 1940

Official Fish and Wildlife Service photo of Rachel Carson (1907–1964), taken circa 1940

Carson explains enough of the chemistry, but never gets bogged down in unneeded detail; information on the biology of the toxins and how they interfere with the body’s normal functioning were very interesting.  Given how dangerous many of the everyday chemicals that were available back then are, and how little education the public had about their use, it seems surprising that more people weren’t killed or crippled.  Especially since chemical interactions could greatly amplify the effects of toxins: with certain pairings of chemicals just 1% of the fatal dose of each, if taken together, could result in death.  Thankfully, such compounds are better regulated now than hitherto—in significant part due to this book.

Carson’s use of language is excellent; every word selection is correct and the book’s ideas flow into each other.  She is good at summing things up and turning a phrase to catch one’s attention.  Consider: “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”  Carson also knows exactly what level of detail to get into when discussing the examples and case studies that support her thesis, never glossing over important facts or getting bogged down in technical points; for those who want to verify her claims or explore any topic in more depth the book contains a 55-page bibliography. A 7-page afterword by entomologist E. O. Wilson completes this edition; but those familiar with the excellent quality of Wilson’s other science writing may be somewhat disappointed: the afterword doesn’t add much to the book unless you hadn’t been paying attention to the preceding 353 pages.

The book did it’s job so well that parts of it are no longer directly applicable: we no longer use many of the chemicals it mentions and we don’t do a lot of the really dumb things it critiques.  But the precautionary message is still right on and Silent Spring can serve as an excellent introduction to ecology.  Recommended for all readers who live in the environment.
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