Mankind’s brutal legacy of destruction of other species, from the slaughter of the buffalo to the near extermination of the egret, is being repeated in pesticides. It would seem that nothing takes priority over the spray gun. One question is whether to believe the agencies in charge of insect control, who insist that no losses occur outside of the targeted pest, or wildlife biologists and witnesses who assert that destruction from spraying has been catastrophic. Surely, answers Carson, the scientists and locals on the ground are more trustworthy witnesses than chemical manufacturers and government regulators. These local parties have often expressed sadness or anger at the destruction of the wild places and animals they held dear.
As they begin to mourn the loss of the beautiful natural world they inhabit, concerned citizens need to unite in order to prevent another environmental disaster. Currently, not enough voices in power are questioning the dominance of synthetic chemicals as a control for pest populations, despite the evidence of their destructive power. Carson’s mission is to gather the evidence from locals and scientists and publish her findings in the form of a popular science book – this one – that can motivate change.
The case of the Japanese beetle in the Midwest provides a basis for Carson’s arguments against pesticide spraying. In Michigan, in 1959, 27,000 acres of land were dusted with the pesticide aldrin, even though little need was shown for such measures. Despite reasonable control of the invasive beetles in the northeast without excessive spraying, Midwestern pest control agencies have taken a dramatic, pesticide-based approach in light of recent encroachments of the beetle on their states. The highly toxic aldrin was chosen as the least expensive poison, and citizens were told not to worry about any dangers.
By highlighting the fact that the Japanese beetle had been controlled effectively by non-chemical methods in the Northeast, Carson emphasizes that this destructive insecticide-focused method is not necessary, as some lawmakers claim. Unthinking reliance on the chemical option seems to be the only explanation for choosing one of the most toxic poisons to begin the program, simply because it is least expensive. Who is responsible for this choice?
Despite hundreds of concerned calls from citizens, spraying went ahead as planned. Pellets of the pesticide built up on rooftops, and signs of poisoning came shortly afterward, as cats, birds, and humans showed symptoms related to pesticide exposure. The government categorically denied any wrongdoing. Other Midwestern communities experienced similar effects, and entire bird populations were “virtually wiped out.”
Carson’s description of the aftermath of aerial spraying echoes the fable of a silent spring that she presented in the first chapter of the book, down to the white residues that accumulate on the roofs of the community and the symptoms of local wildlife and pets. Here she is showing that the apocalyptic “future” she envisioned is, in fact, our present.
In Sheldon, Illinois, repeated heavy spraying – despite eyewitness reports of its devastating consequences – led to massive losses in wild and domestic animal life. Even so, officials rejected the proposed legal limitations that would have required prior consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before spraying, and the research budget for the project was tiny – $1100 for two years of study.
The problem of limited funding for research is one that Carson will continue to raise. This is what she means when she describes man’s pace as “heedless.” All efforts to limit the power of the chemical industry are rejected, and so caution is thrown to the wind in spite of accounts that should raise serious questions.
As a result of the aerial spraying in Sheldon, which at one point used Dieldrin – a toxin that had been shown to be fifty times more poisonous than DDT – at an intensive rate of three pounds per acre, birds fed on poisoned worms and beetles, and were killed or rendered sterile. Many small mammals in the area suffered similarly tragic fates. Still, spraying continued and more toxic poisons were used. Over eight years, the budget for chemical pest control was over $375,000, but researchers looking into the impact of the program were only allocated $6,000.
Here again the relatively tiny budget for research is placed in contrast with the seemingly widespread destruction caused by pesticide spraying, much of which is a result of bioaccumulation that passes toxins up the food chain, as discussed in previous chapters. This is further evidence of the interconnectedness of nature and the need for caution, rather than the arrogance of an attempt for total control through artificial methods.
Frustratingly, efforts to control the Japanese beetles by more natural means had already succeeded in the northeast. Predators and parasites that target the beetle specifically were imported from the Far East and proved very effective, and also revealed the beetle’s vulnerability to ‘milky spore disease’, which could then be spread artificially to control populations. The use of pesticides to control the beetle in the Midwest was therefore justified only because of a sense of crisis that was fundamentally false. In reality, the problem had been controlled with better strategies elsewhere, and only the modern trend toward immediate results supported pesticides over these methods. Moreover, the chemical solution is inevitably temporary, allowing the industry to win contracts for spraying year after year.
Carson reinforces her argument that the only reason behind selecting pesticides over more effective, less expensive, and less destructive natural controls is some sort of financial interest. The groups that benefit from the production of synthetic chemicals also benefit from the false sense of crisis that justifies their use, and have no incentive to consider other, more natural means, even when they have been proven effective, as in the case of ‘milky spore disease’ with the Japanese beetle. The public needs to push back against the dominance of this industry.
This war against nature being waged by chemical manufacturers begs the question: how long can we destroy the world around us without “losing the right to be called civilized” on the one hand and eventually destroying ourselves on the other? In the often very painful animal deaths described by local witnesses, does not some part of our dignity as human beings also die?
Returning to moral issues, Carson challenges the public very openly. Now that she has provided the information, and ignorance is no longer an excuse, we are all guilty of the violence being perpetrated against the natural world – unless we do something to stop it. What future do we want for ourselves, and our planet?