Thursday, May 5, 2011

Silent Spring: Birds Are Just the Beginning

By Dan Savino

Silent Spring is a piece of speculative literature by Rachel Carson that warns of the dangers associated with chemical poisons used as insecticides to kill insects on American lands. She argues that these chemicals only kill insects in the short term. Meanwhile, insects slowly become immune to the insecticides. Soon, there are more insects than ever and the poisons will instead, start to kill off natural predators meant to balance the insect population. She paints a picture of two worlds. There is one where people and nature work together to respect and enjoy the natural world, listening to the sound of birds chirping in the distance. The other world is completely silent because the harmful chemical insecticides have backfired and destroyed the environment to the extent that there are no more birds chirping or signs of life in sight.

The environment is not the only victim either. Unfortunately, these poisonous chemicals also affect wildlife and even human beings. These poisons “deposit themselves in fatty tissues,” worsening over time. The effects are felt all the way up the food chain. This leads to diseases such as hepatitis, liver disease, cancer, and others.

There are a number of ways that these insecticides damage our environment. First, these chemicals run-off into bodies of water, and even find their way into our own water supply. These chemicals mix with other chemicals and end up in our drinking water. These poisons also find their way into the soil, which is made up of living creatures. Essentially, the soil is a springboard for life. These chemicals end up staying in our soil years after they are used. Another victim of chemicals is plant life. Utility companies often used weed killers to clear land for power lines and other projects. These weed killers end up damaging plants as well. Carson explains that there are other ways to kill weeds that are far more responsible and don’t destroy the environment.

Carson goes on to discuss the affects of “massive spraying campaigns.” The worst part about these needless campaigns is that they are very inefficient and inaccurate. While they are meant to target insects, they end up killing birds, animals and anything in their path. Often times, we choose to ignore evidence that other methods are not only more effective, but also much safer for the environment. For example, Carson talks about reducing Japanese beetle populations by introducing natural enemies in the affected areas. This method was used in eastern states but states in the Midwest chose to ignore what was proven to be successful. Instead, they unleashed a massive spray campaign that killed lots of wildlife, including birds and other animals. One of the reasons this happens is because there tends to be very little funding for natural methods of killing insects. The human cost is overlooked. Birds are particularly threatened by spray campaigns because they eat worms and other insects in the soil. One particular disease among birds is due to DDT sprayed to kill a fungus that causes dutch elm disease which killed massive amounts of birds.

In Chapter 10, Carson talks about the massive spraying campaign against the gypsy moth. The worst part about this case is that airplanes not only sprayed chemicals over forests, but also over cities. In effect, unsuspecting people were sprayed with poisonous chemicals while going about their day. Dairy and vegetable farms were ruined because their produce became unfit for human consumption. Carson suspects that everyone has been contaminated at some point by chemical residue.

The human cost is a silent, but deadly one. These harmful chemicals specifically target cells. Radiation and chemical poisoning turns cells cancerous, leading to life-threatening illnesses. There has been plenty of research, as noted in Chapter 14, which directly links these chemicals to cancer. Scientists have also been able to link these poisons to diseases like Down’s Syndrome.

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that these insecticides don’t even work! In the short term, it may appear that they are affective but in fact, insects only grow immune and adapt to these chemicals. In the long run, these insects thrive while their natural predators die off. In the end, we are left with a worse problem than when it all began. We pay such a tremendous cost and all the while, these insecticides only worsen insect and weed problems.

We live in a fast-paced, competitive society in which patience and concern for the future takes a backseat to instant gratification and giant profit margins. As Rachel Carson suggests, the consequences of acting without consideration for long-term effects and inherent dangers of our decisions, will be severe. We tend to act only after it is too late. Much of this has to do with the nature of politics in this country. De-regulation has allowed huge corporations to do as they please with little or no oversight. The end result is a situation such as the catastrophic BP oil spill, in which irreparable damage was done to our oceans. The worst part is it could have all been avoided. If the EPA and other government regulatory agencies had been doing their jobs they would have been able to notice the signs and prevented the spill from ever happening. BP knew there were problems but decided to ignore them. Profit is the only concern. The environment means nothing to big oil.

This kind of attitude is not limited to the oil industry. In the same way, the companies that manufacture chemical poisons are trying to make a profit. If restrictions are placed on the amount of insecticides and chemicals that can be used, the chemical company loses money. Their only goal is to sell as much of their product as possible. They could care less what they are used for or any damage they might cause to the environment.

Technology continues to advance with one particular, consistent trend I’d like to highlight. I am referring specifically to the attention paid to making everything we do as people faster, easier and of course, cheaper. If there is a more convenient way out of any chore or commitment, we tend to exploit it. In the end, we are only exploiting ourselves. Without a sustainable environment, no one and nothing will survive. There will be no use for money because there will be no more people. It is sickening how easily we take for granted the most basic, yet crucial gift we have been given. The earth is all we have. It is a miracle that it sustains life. It is a miracle that I can wake up and walk outside on a nice, sunny day and just enjoy the weather. One day, we may no longer have the privilege to enjoy a nice day. I hope we wake up before the day comes when spring is forever silenced.

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