The history of life on earth could be thought of as a record of living things interacting with their surroundings; for most of history, this has mostly meant that life is molded over time by the environment it inhabits. But very recently humans have become capable of altering the environment in significant ways.
This is a significant point; Carson believes we have entered a new era in the world’s history, in which man has the power to change his environment on an unprecedented scale. Life has always been an interconnected web of mutual influence, but now humans are in a position to affect that web in new and profound ways.
Those alterations have been of an increasingly dangerous nature, and mostly involve widespread contaminations of the natural world that spur “a chain of poisoning and death” as poison is passed between living organisms. It passes through underground streams, and can be changed mysteriously by exposure to sunlight and air, so that its ultimate effects on those who drink from “once-pure wells” remain unknown.
Here is Carson’s basic thesis about the dangers of pesticides. She urges caution because alarmingly little is known about their effects, and because what we do know – that they move through and are changed by the environment in unpredictable ways, and that they cause a harmful ripple effect in the interconnected web of life – means that they could pose a dire threat to humans.
One of the scariest aspects of this pollution is the speed with which it has taken hold. Although there are naturally occurring dangers from small amounts of radiation or chemical exposure, life has created a careful and resilient balance over the course of millennia in defense against them. The “heedless pace of man” in developing new poisons means that natural selection is not given the chance to develop these defenses. Many of the changes Carson describes have taken place over just the previous twenty-five years – which is a mere moment in geological time.
Rather than following the example of nature, Carson sees man as sprinting ahead at an unsustainable pace – her critics would cite this as an example of her ‘anti-development’ tendencies. In fact, Carson encourages development but urges caution, and a respect for the methods of nature, which have been ‘developed’ over millennia. The fragility of this age-old balance in the face of man’s new power is also frightening.
This “heedless pace” is truly astounding: 500 new synthetic chemicals are introduced in the U.S. alone each year. This includes those used in “man’s war against nature,” the insecticides designed to combat the perceived pests. Carson refers to these pesticides with her own term, “biocides,” or ‘life-killers,’ making the case that the destruction they cause is by no means limited to the insect world. She argues that this combat against nature creates a useless spiral of violence, destroying many species that were not the initial target of pesticide spraying and spreading chemicals that accumulate dangerously in organic tissues.
The recklessness of chemical development is, for Carson, a sign of humanity’s arrogance in this new, fast-paced age. Instead of living in harmony with nature, humans have chosen to take up arms against it. By calling pesticides “biocides,” Carson makes two points: 1) that these poisons are not just targeted to “pests”—they kill all sorts of living things; 2) that with these biocides we have begun a war against life itself, a war whose effects will be felt by humans in unexpected ways. Because life is an interconnected system, it is impossible to target only the ‘pests’ that humanity wishes to destroy.
We are told by their supporters that these pesticides are necessary for farm production, but in fact there is a problem of food overproduction: each year the U.S. pays one billion dollars to subsidize the surplus-food storage program. This disconnect between reality and the language used by politicians or people in the industry is typical of the logic of urgency that many lawmakers use to justify insecticide use whenever there is a pest problem that they view as a ‘crisis.’
This statistic on overproduction is part of Carson’s goal for the book: to educate the public, speaking directly to citizens and providing a different perspective from the one commonly taken by politicians and proponents of the chemical industry, which tends to exaggerate the pest problem, which in turn helps them sell more pesticides.
There may be an insect problem, but our notion of it is out of proportion with reality. Insects do in fact trouble humans if they carry disease in crowded areas or interfere with the food supply, but chemical methods of control have often backfired, causing wide harm and failing to eradicate the pests in question.
Carson admits that pests can pose real problems, but here she speaks to another frustration – that other, less destructive methods of control are not considered, although chemical methods are often both dangerous and ineffective.
Moreover, the agricultural problem is in fact a product of modern, intensified methods of production – agriculture that is “engineered” instead of operating according to natural principles - that leave crops vulnerable to attack. One species of pest can flourish explosively when farmers plant a field composed exclusively of a single crop (as opposed to the time honored tradition of planting a field with multiple crops), and that single crop is then vulnerable to any attack or disease because of its lack of diversity.
This explanation for the fragility of crops in the current agricultural world is in line with Carson’s consistent argument that nature is a complex ecological system, developed through checks and balances over thousands and millions of years, which should not be disturbed without proper precautions. It is arrogant of man to attempt to ‘engineer,’ over the course of a few decades, a better system than nature’s own.
Non-native insect species introduced to new regions by accident pose another issue in insect control. Most often, these insects hitchhiked to the new area on imported plant species. When they arrive, they enter an ecosystem without the predators or parasites that normally keep them in check, and their populations can balloon rapidly. Quarantine and pesticides campaigns against such pests are expensive and ineffective. Invasive species are better dealt with by other means.
By explaining the ways that invasive species can become entrenched in a new environment, Carson is again demonstrating the important relations between species that exist in nature. She wants to educate her readers about the realities of the pest issue, while introducing an understanding that pesticides only worsen a problem that could be solved by natural means, which she will discuss in later chapters.
Paul Shepard, an American environmentalist thinker, writes of life “with only its head out of the water,” barely clutching on to survival conditions. Although no one would seem to desire this sort of life, it is pressed upon us by the “ruthless power” of regulators in state and federal agencies who are enamored by pesticides. It is almost unbelievable that they should have the right to pollute on behalf of the whole population, which has no say in the matter.
Here, Carson presses a few of her key themes. First, she offers a vision of the present and future that is cramped, desperate, and precarious – an exercise in survival – in contrast to a past lived fully at peace with nature. On behalf of the concerned public, she then questions the regulators responsible for creating these conditions, and urges caution and a return to the past.
In addition to the problem of regulation of pesticides, there is a lack of research into the negative consequences of these materials. Industry officials dominate discussion of the topic, silencing protests that urge caution and issuing false assurances of safety. The public must actively demand to know the facts about pesticide use before continuing down its current path of action.
Carson’s insistence on the value of research before undertaking massive aerial pesticide spraying is echoed in modern environmentalism’s support for the “precautionary principle,” according to which if the potential dangers of a new invention are unknown, it should not be put into the world until more testing has taken place. Carson places the responsibility for enforcing this principle on the public.