Thursday, April 24, 2014

Silent Spring Timelessly Harrowing

By Devin Hartmann

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.”

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, is the story of American pesticides and their relationship not only with our food or the pests that would eat them, but the effects the pesticides have on our land, wildlife and ourselves.

The book begins with a haunting representation of what chemical poisoning could bring about. In small rural towns life, without warning or explanation, stops. Birds too sickly to fly, children dying abruptly for unknown reasons, natural flora withering. Almost coming straight out of a fairy tale of a faraway land with an evil curse, Silent Spring shows us that the dangers of a lifeless land are very real. 

With every great story the curse needs to have been caused by something or someone. In this case the curse is pesticides and the villain behind the curse is the manufacturers and farmers who use these pesticides and insecticides on their crops, believing that these chemicals will only harm the insects. These chemicals are used without consideration of what else could be effected, the soil, the water, even animals and people.

Chemicals are introduced in the hundreds every year, many for the purpose of killing insects. Silent Spring was written to show the harmful effects of DDT, a major chemical in insecticides in the mid 1900’s. The book, published in 1962, tells of how the effects humans have had on the environment have increased rapidly within a few decades. The book tells of insects that have a natural immunity to certain chemicals that would otherwise kill them, this immunity could lead to a flareback in which the immune insects rapidly repopulate, leading to more insects with the immunity.

Through the food chain, the chemical DDT and other insecticides have been transferred to humans. Crops that are sprayed are fed to the population but also to chickens and cows. The chicken lays an egg or a cow produces milk and the chemical is transferred on. The chemicals are stored and magnified in the fat cells, increasing the amount of DDT in the organism.

Carson explains how these insecticides infect the water, either by seeping through the soil to groundwater or being washed into the runoff when it rains. The insecticides stay in the soil for decades, affecting the animals, living or dead who’s decomposition contribute to the soil itself. Carson talks about more environmentally friendly ways to keep insect populations down, through natural diseases, parasites or by introducing natural predators of the insects into the population.

Carson shows the effects of these insecticides on humans and insects. She shows examples of repeated poisoning of humans through these insecticides and explains the purpose of body cells and the negative effects the insecticides have on the cells. She links cancer, mental illness and even death to these insecticides.

Silent Spring shows a bleak future, and at times while reading it is easy to forget that this was written over 50 years ago. Even today we hear of negative effects of insecticides and genetically modified crops. Silent Spring opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of these chemicals. DDT was later banned, many citing this book as one of the main reasons as to why it gained attention from the government.

Humans started to think in long term effects of insecticides and what would happen twenty or fifty years down the line. It is this long term thinking that we need to incorporate when talking about the environment in any aspect. 

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