Silent Spring

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For the average citizen, there might be nothing new in the fact that all living organisms are the parts of the vast natural food chain and that pesticides are poisons used in household and agriculture. Few, however, realize the extent to which pesticides are poisonous and the nature of their interaction with the environment, as well as how far-reaching the disastrous effect of that interaction is. In this regard, the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), a natural scientist and a writer, is of special significance, for not only does it raise public awareness on the issue of chemical poisons, but it also introduces a remarkably novel approach to educating the public about nature. Being claimed to give an impetus to the modern environmental movement (Waddell, 2000, p. 1), the book owes its success to the persuasive manner in which Carson constructed her argument that is by appealing to pathos, logos, and ethos.

The purpose of the book was to reach the minds of the public at large in order to attract widespread attention to the problem of the contamination of the biosphere. In the process of enlightening the readers about the major theme of the chemical pollution, the author competently touches upon the themes that are inseparably linked with the major one, namely the interrelationship between living organisms and their surroundings, the speed at which human predominance over the environment takes place in modern times, the brutality and politicization of science, and our poor knowledge of nature and reluctance to study what we think is not the concern of ours until it is too late. Before enlightening actually begins, Carson resorts to a purely literary device, namely to telling an apocalyptic story of an ordinary town in the United States. The fictional image of the once flourishing but suddenly dying town is full of poetic metaphors, for instance: “clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields”, “a blaze of color…flamed and flickered”, “a strange blight crept over the area”, “evil spell has settled on the community”, “a shadow of death”, “a spring without voices”, “silence lay over the fields” (Carson, 2002, pp. 2-3). This appeal to readers’ imagination and senses evokes their anticipation of the author’s message: the fable is not that far from the real life. Further in the text, Carson’s apocalyptical tone manifests itself in the book primarily through such titles of the chapters as “Elixirs of Death” (p. 15), “Needless Havoc” (p. 85), “And No Birds Sing” (p. 103), “Rivers of Death” (p. 129), and “Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias” (p. 173). The evidence that follows does the rest.

In providing support for her thesis – namely that “we have put poisons and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm” (p. 13) – the author is highly illustrative and meticulous. With Carson’s honorary doctorates in both literature and science (Newell, 2004, Rachel Carson section, para. 2), there is no doubt that her preparation for writing Silent Spring was exhaustive. As Carol B. Gartner (2000) certifies, “there are collections of scientific reprints, conference reports, congressional testimony, newspaper articles, and letters ranging from expert testimony in answer to her technical questions to personal accounts of illness or observations” (p. 107). Among the numerous examples which illustrate Carson’s ability to put her sphere of interest to scrutiny, there are some major control programs that she urges the readers to look at and learn from. These are the descriptions of the control of the Japanese beetle, the gypsy moth, and the fire ant, to name just a few. Whether Carson refers to federal pest control law or cites scientific and witnesses’ testimonies, the conclusion that follows is that the method of chemical spraying is used indiscriminately by the authorities, that it results in widespread and needless destruction, that the effect is opposite to the expected, and that biological methods of control are ignored for the sake of self-interest. According to Gartner (2000), Carson’s scientific insight, ideas, and principles are credible to date, even in the field of cancer research where knowledge has increased immensely since 1962 (pp. 107-108).

All the above does not mean, however, that Carson did not recognize the problems stated by the control agencies. She also recognized the necessity of control of disease-carrying insects (Carson, 2002, p. 13). What she actually said was that “control must be geared to realities…and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us with the insects” (p. 12). Addressing the problem of control, Carson proposed much more effective and cheaper biological methods than that of massive chemical spraying. One of them is introducing natural enemies or disease bacteria to the target insect, as in the case with the Japanese beetle, which proved to be effective (p. 90). As Carson presents the biological alternatives to the chemical method of control, she emphasizes that these alternatives do not disrupt the natural balance, are cheap, and efficient, which is particularly important, taking into account the present disappointing state of affairs.  

In conclusion, Rachel Carson specific experience and research provide a credible source of information for learning about chemical pollution of the environment. Her combination of imagery with scientific rigor evokes a wide response long after the publication of the book. Among recommended readings on ecology, Silent Spring is definitely an enlightening one.    

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