By Rachel Carson Sketches from one of the Twentieth Century's most important works a fable for Tomorrow

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Silent Spring
by Rachel Carson

Sketches from one of the Twentieth Century's most important works

A Fable for Tomorrow

"There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings...a pastoral Eden of hardwood forests and bountiful wildlife...strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change...Everywhere was a shadow of death...It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh...Even the streams were now lifeless...No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves...

"Man, however much he may like to pretend, is part of nature.

"The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials...The poisons circulate mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells...They travel from link to link of the food chain...."

Exterminism: "Nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the good and the bad, to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in the soil...Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called 'insecticides' but 'biocides'...

"The insects are winning: We're on a pesticide treadmill. The insects adapt to the particular insecticide used...forcing us to find ever deadlier new ones...Thus the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire...many chemicals, like radiation, bring about gene mutations...Many of these substances are persistent and bio-accumulative. Health effects depend on exposure over time. Effects are delayed. But this can lull us: the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster...Some of these substances have toxic effects in very small quantities. In the ecology of our bodies, minute causes produce mighty effects."

Violation of human rights: "We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge...

Self-endangerment: "The chief public health threat has ceased to be disease; now it is a hazard we ourselves have introduced into our world. Indeed, we may be technically incapable of detecting the presence of some toxins...The lack of sufficiently delicate methods to detect injury before symptoms appear is one of the great unsolved problems in medicine." 

We are the subjects of a massive uncontrolled experiment: "A human being, unlike a laboratory animal living under rigidly controlled conditions, is never exposed to one chemical alone...we are subject to multiple exposures...This is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence." 

Why have we done this? Carson dismisses the claim that increased farm production necessitates this; as far as that goes overproduction is the real problem. Rather, the source lies in our "modern way of life," specifically: (1) agricultural intensification and its use of large scale monoculture (simplification destroys nature's "checks and balances"); and (2) the migration of species with humans, both deliberately and accidentally ("nearly half of the 180 or so major insect enemies of plants in the United States are accidental imports from abroad").

The alternative: develop ecological knowledge and use it. "We need the basic knowledge of animal populations and their relations to their surroundings, but we allow the chemical death to fall as though there were no alternative...Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior and detrimental?...The choice, after all, is ours to make."

If once we have "at last asserted our 'right to know,'" we decide that we "are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks," then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.

But have we done this? Absolutely not. According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, we produce pesticides today at a rate thousand of times faster than we did when Silent Spring was published 35 years ago.

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