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Book Summary Review: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson



Silent Springs, written by Rachel Carson, was considered to have started the environmental movement around the world. The book brings light to the negative impact of chemical pesticides on human life and nature. Launched in 1962, the message in her book is still relevant to the global environmental crisis that we are facing today. However, as self-interest is a part of human nature, humans are constantly abusing nature for temporary benefits. Rachael Carson, in her book, talked about the use of pesticides in farming and pest control procedures such as aerial spraying and the dangers associated with it. She presented suggestions to solve the pesticide issue with alternative measures. Silent Spring started an environmental revolution about a year later after its launch and has been labeled as one of the best books in history. She presented a powerful case that when humans destroy nature, the results will inevitably be disastrous for humans. The recklessness of humankind causes hazards not only for nature but return to humankind as a cycle completes. This summary expressed three important points: the increase in the use of chemical pesticides after World War II, the impact of such pesticides on the ecosystem, and the disruption that comes with it; the impact of these chemicals up the food chain.

Increase in Chemical Pesticide Use After World War II:

The first point Carson highlighted was that DDT use increased after World War II. First created in 1874 and was discovered to kill insects in 1939 by Nobel Prize winner Paul Hermann Muller. During WWII, soldiers applied the powder directly to their skin to control lice, but that was its most common use known to people at that time. Its use increased when many ex-soldiers and pilots got into the production of chemical pesticides and to find new markets in American communities.

Book Summary Review: Silent Spring By Rachel Carson

However, concerns related to the harmful effects of pesticides on plants and birds were mounting among the biologists at a research refuge by US Fish and Wildlife Service when many species of migrating birds and fish have started to disappear.  Lawsuits were also being put up by residents who were affected by the aerial spraying and wanted a stop to it.  Carson compared the effects of nuclear radiation on the effects of these publicly disseminated chemicals to grab people’s attention in her book, stating their indifferences and similarities. She didn’t want a ban on chemicals in her book but stated that she was against the aerial spraying, which happens on government orders and with the permission of the residents. She also explained the effect the pesticides had on dairy farmers, as the milk becomes poisoned and was late banned from the market because of the government ordered aerial spray.

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DDT was initially manufactured to be used for killing insects, which are predominantly considered an annoyance by many but are thought to be enemies by those working in the agriculture industry.  Farmers try to get rid of insects in effective and cost-effective ways as much as they can to save their crops before nothing remains. Every year, farmers have to go through invasion from swarms of crop-eating bugs during migration seasons of many different species of insects.  Therefore, after WWII, the chemical industry manufactured chemical pesticides like DDT to combat such pesky pests. These chemicals targeted whatever species were considered to be pests, often including rodents and weeds, along with insects. The effectiveness of their lethal nature was perfected by scientists involved in chemical warfare, and this time, these proved to be even deadlier than their forerunners. During the 1940s to 1960s, around 200 chemicals were produced, and pesticide production had increased five times its previous rate.

In earlier days, chemicals such as arsenic were used as a pesticide. Arsenic is labeled as carcinogenic and has caused diseases and deaths in animals such as horses, cattle, pigs, deer, and goats and also in bees and fish.  But the pesticides created after WWII were discovered to be even more lethal than arsenic. Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane, commonly known as DDT, was one example. Whose use as an insecticide began in 1939. It was used in the form of gas, powder, and spray, which made it easier to be inhaled or consumed by the target or victim. Once inside the body, the chemical causes havoc and lethal damage by causing organs to shut down, preventing oxidation, which leads to suffocation, destroying certain enzymes in the body that protect the body or help in important processes.

Impact and Disruption Caused Chemical Pesticides on The Ecosystem

Another point that Rachael discussed in her book was the inevitable impact the deadly chemicals have on nature and the environment. She explained the interconnectedness of life by narrating the effect the plant, animal, marine, and human lives have on each other. To catch the reader’s attention, she began her book with a perfect fictional town later plagued with deaths. The fictional town in her book is described as a picture-perfect place, with beautiful streets and forests and where the life of all kinds is thriving and is in harmony. She then cuts the fairytale short with a horror of people and animals suddenly becoming sick and dead animals and birds being found in people’s backyards. Livestock, wildlife, human adults, and children were all being affected by unknown diseases.  She later explained the case with scientific arguments on how people have been becoming impacted because of chemical pesticides like DDT. And then calls out to readers to assess their choices stating that humanity has diminished amongst us due to our selfishness and greed. The book questions people’s arrogance and morality about the effect their choices and recklessness may have on their surroundings and demands a personal action to the right and the wrongs done to nature by people.

She explained with an example that people were using DDT on insects on their lawns and farms, which was causing many birds such as the ospreys to die out because of either decreasing number of insect population or the poison they were indirectly ingesting. Although she talks about other chemical pesticides, DDT had the largest impact on the ecosystem, as it was being sprayed aerially over farms and vast areas to control insects such as ants and mosquitoes.

When the earth is layered with chemicals, the biodiversity inside the soil gets affected. There may be thousands of species of insects and microorganisms that are utterly vital for the ecosystem to flourish. Microorganisms such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria, algae, and others help regulate the compounds and nutrients present in the soil, which make it fertile. Apart from killing the necessary microorganisms, chemical pesticides disturb the natural balance of these nutrients or react with them to make them toxic.  These chemical compounds do not simply disintegrate into the earth, but the effects of these chemicals last for years and make the soil infertile and barren.

The plants that we eat or obtain food from, survive on the nutrients the soil has. If that soil has been sprayed with chemicals, the plant may absorb them and become toxic for us to eat. Chemicals could cause mutations in the plants by altering the genes or get store in their leaves and may cause mutations in the herbivores who consume them. The same is the case in crops that have been sprayed with chemical pesticides or DDT to get rid of weeds or insects. When we consume them, we are ingesting the chemicals which cause different diseases, disorders, mutations in humans.

Carson explained that DDT does not only kill the insects it is intended for but targets everything in the area it’s sprayed on. This may include species of insects that are harmless to humans or prey to other species which are beneficial to the survival of the ecosystem. In recent years, there has been a decrease in the number of insects like bees, which have been credited by scientists as the most important insect for the planet as they help in the pollination of many different species of plants.

Carson explains that during 1954, Michigan State University used DDT to fight beetles that caused the Dutch Elm Disease. That year, in spring, dead robins were found lying around on campus while others were unable to reproduce. Healthy migrant birds that came to the campus were also found either in an irrecoverable state or dead in just a couple of weeks. It was discovered that the insects and earthworms, the birds fed on, were poisoned with DDT after feeding on the leaves of the sprayed trees.

Birds that feed on such insects and the chemicals are transferred to them. In the book, Carson mentions that biologists were concerned with the decrease in the population of birds. It may have been because trees had been cut down for civilization of areas that were previously forests. But later, they discovered that many birds had become unable to fly, infertile and unable to lay eggs, or the hatchlings survived only for a few days. Robins have been considered the first sign of spring after winter. People in earlier days were eager to spot robins and anticipate the change in seasons.  There is a balance to nature; every species in the food chain is essential to the next for survival. When one species get affected or become extinct, others soon follow.

Similarly, the author mentioned in many other cases, these chemicals were found to cause damage to fish, birds, and other animals. Different species of birds all across the country were also found to be victims of DDT spraying, having suffered damage causing them to lose their flight ability, paralysis, and infertility.

The new chemicals after WWII had dangerous side-effects, even more than the previous insecticides and pesticides. Apart from consumption and inhalation from the aerial sprays, chemicals like DDT were able to enter the water systems and cause unintentional damage to the ecosystem.  Pesticides sprayed on gardens, lawns, crops, and forests could enter our water systems by getting mixed up with the water from irrigation channels or sewerage systems that are linked to the main water sources such as seas and oceans. Although such water goes through a purification process, synthetic chemicals sometimes avoid being detected.

Carson mentioned that a drinking water sample was taken from an orchard in Pennsylvania, which was found to have enough poison to kill every fish in a maximum of four hours. A stream of water that had come from a cotton field was also found to be poisonous to fish even after it had been purified.

The drainage water from fields, residential areas, and industrial waste channels when it makes its way into our water systems tremendously affects all other life forms. The pollution humans have created has no bounds and has affected the earth in every way. This has caused many fish to die out, decreased the number of salmon in streams that many animals rely on for food, the coral reef has been affected and started to die out. In summary, we are ingesting poison from everything we consume because of our own recklessness.

The Impact of Chemicals on Human Life and The Food Chain

The third main point Carson mentioned is the fact that by making their way up the food chain, such chemicals are also a threat to humans. Considering the damage these chemicals such as DDT had done to birds and fish, they unavoidably posed a danger to humans as well. However, it was falsely believed by many individuals that these chemicals were only dangerous for the targeted pests and were harmless to humans.

Given the number of chemicals we use around us, it is not possible for humans to remain unaffected. If DDT is toxic and killing out animals, birds, plants, fish, and other species, the ones that we are consuming, the havoc expected from these chemicals, is undeniable.  Recently, there has been an increase in cancer cases and other diseases that were considered rare and had been causing disorders in children. Carson explained the causes of such diseases might be hereditary, environmental, or from the food we are consuming. From the minute a baby is born, the exposure to toxins has been unavoidable.

Many new diseases have been reported in livestock such as cattle, sheep, goat, poultry, and fish, species that humans rely on for meat and dairy products. On one of the dairy farms, the calves that were experimented on were found to have the chemical remnants in their bodies, and the question arose where the chemicals had come from. Whether they had come from the mother during pregnancy or from the mother’s milk? If the milk had been affected, it might have been transferred to human children who consume the same milk. Cancer has been increasing in humans in recent years or so and has been linked to radiations and the chemicals in our food chains. DDT, when traveling up the food chain, causes mutations in our genes by reacting with certain compounds.

Many people thought these chemicals were safe because the only prevalent use of DDT was to kill lice in the hair during wartime, which the soldiers and refugees applied directly to their bodies in powdered form. However, DDT is less toxic when used as a powder as it is not easily absorbed by the skin, but when mixed with oil to be used as a gas or in spraying, it becomes immensely toxic. Irrevocable damage can be done by ingesting the smallest amount, such as causing inhibition of a vital enzyme found in the heard or disintegration of liver cells.

Farmers and others exposed directly to DDT showed high levels of the chemical in their bodies, with 648 parts per million found in workers at the insecticide plant. People with no direct exposure still showed some levels of DDT in their bodies. This was found to be because the food that people consumed may have been exposed to DDT at some point in the food chain. Such as, DDT was being used in alfalfa fields, which was fed to hens, which laid contaminated eggs later consumed by humans.

Carson pointed out previously that pesticides destroy ecosystems and do more harm than good. Given how effective these pesticides are in their intended job, they still are a threat to the environment by killing their way up the ecosystems. The chemicals kill not only their targeted pests but also the predators who feed on these insects and rodents, thus disrupting the balance between predators and prey. And ultimately, affecting humans, it will not be long before newer, and more fatal diseases and abnormalities start to arise in humans.

Critique of Environmental Policies and Decision-Making Practices

  As man has taken upon the conquest to conquer the whole of nature, it has tried to control it. No matter how much man tries to take power over the earth, it will only fight back. Because of pollution, nature has fought back in the form of floods, pandemics, volcano eruptions, etc. insects’ resistance to the chemical may be another way of nature fighting back. DDT that was sprayed over lawns and areas to get rid of mosquitoes has decreased in its effectiveness. Mosquitoes have become resistant, and now DDT does not kill them. Similarly, spider mites were shown to have increased in population even in areas sprayed with DDT. These spiders lived in colonies, but when sprayed, they hid in places and found safety and discovered an abundance of food. Their enemies might have died because of the sprays, but now they didn’t have to fight for survival or make webs, which somehow helped their survival despite being sprayed with DDT.

Carson proposed in her book that, to combat the effects of these chemicals, people must adopt alternative and nature-friendly solutions.  People needed to be made aware and educated about better ways to control pests so that they can protect their environment and be mindful of the choices they make. Through her book, she galvanized the whole nation to ask for permanent solutions to battle the dangers of pesticide use. She was the first person to question the disruption modernity and technological innovations have caused, she stance is relevant in today’s world where people are trying to go green and ditch technology and reduce their impact on the earth.

Years after WWII, there were no proper tools and procedures for the water to be tested for these chemicals and to be purified, which caused DDT contamination to remain undetected. Therefore, due to the lack of government regulations, little efforts were made by the Department of Agriculture and the FDA to find if the water was contaminated. And without conducting necessary research about the potential dangers, DDT spraying was carried out by the government itself.  However, the pesticide companies were still declaring their products as harmless.  The author realized that if we were to stop the environment from our own destruction, people needed to be more responsible about their choices and the impact of these choices.

The government has marketed the use of chemicals so creatively and ingeniously that every household believes in the necessity of chemicals of all kinds. Apart from commercial uses, an average American household uses chemical pesticides inside houses in the kitchen near food, in our lawns where the children play, in gardens where we grow plants and flowers. Though it gets rid of the common pests like rodents, ants, spiders, flies, it also has adverse effects.

Carson critiqued that the government does not conduct much research into environmentally friendly alternatives for pesticides such as biological controls, and even if there are any such alternatives, they are not being promoted enough.  The alterative includes sterilization of pests on a mass scale, using predators or parasites to control the invasion of pests and to keep them away. She also talked about pests developing resistance to the pesticides, which may decrease their effectiveness. Alternative measures seem the most effective way of getting rid of pests. Although there are such alternatives known to the public, the question arises, when will we take enough responsibility to implement them on a large scale?

Carson states that the government has failed to take action on the environmental changes that we have been facing and has conducted lesser researches on practices that are beneficial. She discovered that the government has no proper procedures and regulations to keep a check on chemicals used in the agriculture industry.  She says that the ill-informed public authorities have been spending taxpayers’ money on useless practices. The agriculture industry has been closely associated with promoting harmful chemicals and pesticides as the department of agriculture does not have strict regulations to manage which chemicals are toxic to human life. She suggests the use of biological methods of pest control and education for the masses; these methods will not only decrease the harmful effects of chemical pesticides but may be more effective. Such as mass sterilization of pests, certain numbers of males were to be sterilized and then released in the wild, leading to infertile eggs to be laid, which could eventually lessen the pest population to a significant extent.

Using such alternatives on a large scale could decrease the use of chemicals and may cause less harm to the environment and to people. The government should take corrective measures to control the damage done by chemical warfare against pests. Nature has given enough warnings that if humankind continues to abuse her, their actions may backfire only to cause more harm than the intended benefit.

Lastly, Carson emphasized that people should always be alert and aware of the chemicals being used in their surroundings and the threats they pose not only to human life but to the whole ecosystem. All living beings are dependent on their environment; as the most intelligent species on earth, it is our sole responsibility to protect and nurture it for our future generations.


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