Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Fawcett Crest, 1962.
Summary of Chapter 1: A Fable for Tomorrow
Carson begins the book with a short chapter that in a film could be a visual graphic of her main point. First she shows everything coming to life in spring in a fictitious “town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings” (p. 13) and then, she shows what happens to the same town later when “a strange blight crept over the area” and everything “sickened and died” (p. 13).
The first graphic is a town with abundance of life and a variety of birdsong. In the second graphic, the town is quiet with “a shadow of death,” (p. 14) and the birds are gone. There are no sounds of birds or bees; the vegetation is brown; the fish have died; the hens cannot have chicks. There is a white powder everywhere that has come down from the sky. This was not the work of magic or an enemy, for “the people had done it themselves” (p. 14).
Commentary on Chapter 1: A Fable for Tomorrow
Thus begins Carson’s famous study of the deadly effect of DDT, pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals in the environment. The book’s epigraph and title derive from John Keats’s poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” with the line, “The sedge is wither’d from the lake,/ And no birds sing.” She also includes a quote from E. B. White: “Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission.” With this introduction she means to show the danger of blind and incompetent human interference with nature’s processes.
The author seems to be warning of some disaster that is coming if we do not pay attention, but the negative scenario has already happened. Carson begins with a question that the book will attempt to answer: “What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America?” (p. 15).
Rachel Carson was a naturalist in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, famous for her ability to capture the aesthetic beauty of nature in precise and poetic language. She was also a respected biologist and ecologist, able to describe in scientific detail the wonders of nature in specific habitats, in such classics as The Sea Around Us. In Silent Spring she writes in a popular journalistic style, yet she includes a scholarly apparatus by lacing each chapter with dozens of scientific studies documenting her assertions. The studies are listed at the end of the book to show that she is not an alarmist or fanatic. She is a professional among professionals speaking with authority. Her audience is specifically other Americans, but her examples and studies are drawn from around the world, showing the threat of man-made chemicals to all of life on earth.
Summary of Chapter 2: The Obligation to Endure
This chapter makes the point that humans can alter nature. Carson points out that the history of life on earth is an interaction between living things and the environment. For most of earth’s history, living things have been molded by the environment. Only humans in the twentieth century have been able to alter nature. Chemical pollution is “irrecoverable,” “irreversible,”and initiates “a chain of evil” which is now “universal” (p. 16). Like nuclear fallout, chemicals sprayed on forests and crops poison living organisms. It took millions of years of evolution to diversify life into a balance we could live with; now, there is no time to adjust to what is assaulting life. The ordinary adaptation mechanisms do not work, because to adapt to these chemicals would require time on a scale present humans cannot cope with.
We no longer have just the background radiation of rocks and cosmic rays; the danger of radiation today is from human tampering with the atom, producing unnatural synthetic creations. We use chemicals to kill weeds, insects, and pests; they should not be called insecticides but “biocides” (p. 18) for they do not distinguish good or bad living things. There is the possibility of the extinction of life on earth by nuclear war, but also by chemical war, for even the heredity and DNA of species is affected by pesticides. Some like to fantasize changing human heredity by design in the future, but we are doing it now. Future historians will be amazed by the risks we took for such a small gain.
Carson does not deny humans have problems with insects, but only a small percentage of the half million species come into conflict with humans by interfering with the food supply and by carrying disease. Under primitive agricultural conditions, insects do not cause so much concern because of diversification of crops. Only with single-crop farming have the normal checks and balances of nature been destroyed. There is also the problem of world-wide migrations of insect species through importation of plants and animals. Carson says she does not advocate never using insecticides, but that they are now being overused with no knowledge of their effect on water, wildlife, and humans.
Commentary on Chapter 2: The Obligation to Endure
This chapter asserts that current chemical practices are hasty and short-sighted. The earth and its species are millions of years old. The processes of nature are intricate and delicately balanced. When ignorant and clumsy humans try to get a quick fix on problems they can create worse ones because they are unaware of the massive scale and precision of nature’s mechanisms.
Carson uses such words as “evil” and “biocide” to suggest a moral dimension to the use of chemicals. She characterizes chemicals as “man’s war against nature” (p. 18). These very strong accusations led critics to charge her with making her thesis sensational. Carson combines, however, scientific objectivity with moral outrage, making her a model for later environmentalists. She includes the reason for her passion in what is at stake: the survival of earth and its species, including humans. There is no time to quibble. The chemists say insecticides will increase the food supply, but they have created a disaster instead. The motive of industry is to make money. A few individuals or companies, as she will show in future chapters, do not have the right to risk life for the rest of us, for their own agendas. She quotes Jean Rostand, “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”