Important in the development of the modern ecological movement, Silent Spring is concerned with the widespread use of chemicals in America in the 1960s. Chapter by chapter, it documents the impact of chemicals on water, soil and plants, river systems and their supporting aquatic, mammalian and bird life. Rachel Carson (1907-1964) makes a powerful case for the idea that if humanity poisons nature, nature will in turn poison humanity. The title – Silent Spring – refers to the apocalyptic vision of the future Carson paints, a silent spring where no birds sing and children, stricken with illness, no longer play. The books is a critique of humanity’s arrogance expressed in three ways: man’s attempt to subdue and control nature; man’s indifference to nature and failure to recognise man’s survival is wholly dependent on it, and finally, man’s belief nature exists only to serve man.
The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been moulded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.
During the past quarter-century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. 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. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world— the very nature of its life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death.
Similarly, chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass 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. As Albert Schweitzer has said, ‘Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.’
It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth— eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings. The environment, rigorously shaping and directing the life it supported, contained elements that were hostile as well as supporting. Certain rocks gave out dangerous radiation; even within the light of the sun, from which all life draws its energy, there were short-wave radiations with power to injure. Given time— time not in years but in millennia— life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.
The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature. Radiation is no longer merely the background radiation of rocks, the bombardment of cosmic rays, the ultraviolet of the sun that have existed before there was any life on earth; radiation is now the unnatural creation of man’s tampering with the atom. The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.
Among them are many that are used in man’s war against nature. Since the mid-1940s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as ‘pests’; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names. These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes— 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 soil— all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. 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’.
Some would-be architects of our future look toward a time when it will be possible to alter the human germ plasm by design. But we may easily be doing so now by inadvertence, for many chemicals, like radiation, bring about gene mutations. It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray. All this has been risked— for what? Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. 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? Yet this is precisely what we have done. We have done it, moreover, for reasons that collapse the moment we examine them.
Questions for reflection
- How far do you agree with Carson’s proposition that if we negatively harm nature, it will in turn harm us?
- Do you agree that humanity has irrevocably upset the balance of nature?
- Education, and the ‘right to know’, are major themes in Silent Spring. In your opinion should more be done to inform Christians about the dangers of environmental destruction, including that wrought by chemicals?
- At Silent Spring’s end, Rachel Carson observes mankind stands ‘where two roads’ diverge and that the more difficult path is the one which assures the preservation of the earth. What can the Church do to ensure that humanity chooses the ‘right road’?
Some further reading
Gaia Vince (2014) Adventures in the Anthropocene
Paul Hawken (2007) Blessed Unrest