Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Silent Spring: An Alarming Awakening

By Kristen Andrada

Silent Spring is said to be the cause of the American environmental movement in the 1970’s because it asked the American people “Do you realize that life around you is dying?” In the scientific world, people were alarmed about the impacts of toxic chemicals that were carelessly used to kill pests without a thought of how those chemicals would affect their bodies and the environment around them.

Rachel Carson describes how it came to be when “Our attitudes toward poisons have undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use were marked with utmost care that they should come in contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of new organic insecticides and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten.” 

What I absolutely love about Carson’s writing is that she puts this (at the time) new scientific concept into language that everyone could understand. When she mentions a chemical that most people have heard of but didn’t really understand its impacts, she illustrates the body parts the chemical attacks and describes what it could do to the human body.

For example, she describes the physiological effect and symptoms of DDD: “it destroys part of the adrenal gland - the cells of the outer layer known as the adrenal cortex, which secretes the hormone cortin. DDD produced in dogs a condition very similar to that occurring in man in the presence of Addison’s disease.” In this passage, she describes what the adrenal gland is and its normal function in the human body for readers who are unfamiliar with anatomy (such as myself). Even though there was no direct case, no such person who became diagnosed with Addison’s disease after DDD exposure, Carson then makes that connection implying that may be a future case.

In addition to putting the issue into a broad language that wide audiences could understand, Carson also provides examples throughout Silent Spring so her readers can have a sense of that reality. Each chapter becomes a reason for understanding why pesticides are toxic to the environment and human health.

I think the chapter that best describes the relationship between all life on earth is “Earth’s Green Mantle,” when the chapter describes how spraying sage bush, an unwanted plant species in the west, caused an imbalance in the food cycle and affected other non-target species. Wildlife such as antelope, deer and even domesticated animals like cow and sheep fed on sage grass. Ironic how the people who didn’t want the sage bush there were farmers who wanted to make room by destroying the sage bush. The spraying also eliminated non-target species like willows which the moose and beaver feed on. In a chain reaction, the beaver couldn’t build dams to back up lakes and rivers, the trout were struggling to reproduce in lower waters, and birds that would have been attracted to these temporary lakes were forced to travel farther for migration.

Reading Silent Spring reminds us that our actions have consequence and we must think twice before we decide to treat something. We must ask, “Is spraying a living thing that seems undesirable really the only way to treat the problem?” I feel that most of the time, it really isn’t necessary to kill a species for us to live more comfortably. Does chemical warfare on other living things justify the “superior” human race to eradicate a population in the first place?

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