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Silent Spring : Rachel Carson’s Fight For All Life

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one speciesmanacquired significant power to alter the nature of the world. ” (Carson 5). Silent Spring by Rachel Carson marked the beginning of the environmental movement where people realized that pesticides like DDT have the ability to harm all living things, including humans. Originally published September 27th, 1962, the book swept the nation and awoke many citizens to the poisonings right outside their doorsteps. Each chapter outlines different realms of life which are negatively impacted by improper pesticide use. For instance, Carson explains how the promising use of insect killers, like DDT, turns into a vicious cycle of insect adaptation and resilience, requiring farmers to use larger amounts of the poison with each application. Then groundbreaking, she explained how the introduction of pesticides into agricultural practices has lowered biodiversity and weakened the environment’s natural defenses to insect predators. Without the efforts of environmentalists like Carson, the true effects of pesticides would not have reached such a large audience, leaving a misinformed nation to continue down a path toward a silent spring.

Pesticides do not know their intended agenda, they cannot set out to cause harm to only the crop hindering insects and plants. All species risk contamination and lasting effects. Carson provides multiple examples of these unintended consequences caused by synthetic chemical pesticides that were designed to kill species or hinder reproduction. Carson discussed the new chemicals created since the 1940s, which presently exceeds 200. Chapter three goes into detail about DDT and other widely used chemicals, explaining how they work and transform in nature. DDT, short for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane, was one of the most dangerous pesticides due to its wide use until its ban in 1972. The pesticide will bind to the body’s fatty organs and does not exit the body quickly. This is a trait of all pesticides since the toxins can bind to the cells and proteins that are carried throughout the body, or stored in fat. So, continual application of the pesticide can cause a deadly accumulation, because storage in the body can magnify the effects by 100 fold. One example highlighted by Carson was the harm done to bird nests in areas where DDT was applied. An example of DDT’s drawbacks is when it was discovered that DDT had caused a thinning in the egg shells of bald eagles, which made them more vulnerable to predators and caused a species decline. The book’s title serves as a warning that the ongoing increase of pesticide use will lead to barren landscapes devoid of color, diversity, and the sounds of nature.

There are two primary groups of insecticides. The first group is called chlorinated hydrocarbons, which easily form additional bonds or add themselves to existing carbon chains. This group includes DDT, Aldrin, and other sometimes dangerous chemicals. The other group of deadly modern insecticides are called organic phosphates, like Parathion or Malathion. This group can inflict a lethal dose of poison through close contact, sometimes even indirect contact. In her book, Carson wrote of an instance where a soil analysis yielded misleading results. The presence of the initial chemicals sprayed were tested for, and since they had transformed to a new byproduct chemical, they were not found in the environment. Scientists incorrectly concluded that the effects are not lasting, and a reapplication would be safe. Since then, on some farms, multiple insecticides might be used within close proximity and without proper chemical management, so the new combination has the ability to transform and destroy the soil, plants, and animals around it. Neonicotinoids are the most common pesticide used for crop protection as well as flea and tick deterrent for pets. In large doses they can be toxic and have contributed to the decline of bees in California. There are some pesticides that have proven helpful, the use of fungicides, algaecides, and disinfectants have helped keep us healthy and safe. Fungicides are used to control mold and mildew problems, and disinfectants protect us from bacteria and viruses.

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” (Carson 8). In the decade following the release of Silent Spring, there was a growing public awareness that the environment was suffering at the hands of oil spills, air pollution, and pesticides. In the 1970s, America ushered in new laws and amendments focused on the improvement of environmental protection for the betterment of public health and sustainability of natural resources. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) of 1942 was one of the areas of reevaluation. The rampant misuse of chemicals described by Carson put a spotlight on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to better regulate, store, and dispose of pesticides. FIFRA was amended in 1972 and it gave the EPA more enforcement power during the pesticide manufacturing process. This law required manufacturers to report toxin labels to the EPA including information on ingredients, quantities, uses, and intended doses. This couldn’t prevent improper pesticide use completely, but detailed ingredient labels helped streamline any safety or cleanup measures that needed to be taken.

Pesticides used in the time of Carson’s writing are still influencing ecosystems today. Chemicals used in pesticides have incredible strength and longevity in the environment. Once released, the entire ecosystem will soon be a part of the pesticides transportation vessel into every level of the ecosystem. Some insecticides, like Aldrin, are capable of transforming into other long-lasting chemicals once released into the environment. When Aldrin or other insecticides react with the soil or the body of an animal, it can create a new deadly compound that will go unnoticed for years, since the FDA never knew to test for it. Carson describes that once the pesticides get into our soils and waters, there are lasting effects on everything that has the misfortune of crossing its path. All plants will absorb the poisons from the soil and produce leaves, berries, and fruit full of chemicals that will follow the food chain through every link, slowly contaminating all life. This is one of the main reasons chemicals can be found in humans. We ingest these pesticides after they were applied onto our produce, or in animal products that had their feed infiltrated by the toxins.

“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds” (Carson 10). Earth had existed for 4.5 billion years before humans came and made their mark. In just 300,000 years humans have become the dominant species, altering the ways that species coexist. Human impacts have changed species via selective breeding to yield more bountiful harvest; like making animals and produce larger, going against their previous evolutionary paths. For centuries, plants and animals have evolved around each other, creating ecosystems that thrive with the help of each intricate piece. Human migration introduced invasive species which outcompete native plants and animals for resources. Pesticides are one method used to try and eliminate this rapid new growth, but the unbiased poisons harm everything in their path. The invasive species manage to live on and our native species often pay the price. Fast growing invasive species have less natural predators since they are new to the environment, meaning they face fewer barriers than the species operating in the area for centuries. As opposed to pesticide treatment, Carson highlights the possibility for a natural form of species control. Plants and animals are often a less expensive and more advantageous method of species control than pesticides. For example, in chapter six, Carson tells an account of Marigolds being used to combat a nematode population found in the soil, or a beetle population brought in to control an invasive plant species. In both cases, the natural method yielded greater results for a fraction of the cost and time all while doing less harm to our environment.

Modern pesticides have come a long way since their creation in the 1940s, now in many forms and strengths. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is a reminder of the severity of the unintended effects that agricultural pesticide use can cause. These chemicals can exist in our environment and inside our bodies for many decades, sometimes being passed down through each generation. With the publishing of her book, Carson gave the public easy access to the knowledge that helped create smarter decisions towards a safer future. With the help of this revolutionary piece of literature, we can preserve the diversity of life and avoid poisoning our food, water, air, and ourselves.


Carson, Rachel, 1907-1964. Silent Spring. Boston :Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

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