A major theme of Carson’s argument is that we have entered a new period in history, in which man has the power to change his environment on an unprecedented scale. Geologists have since proposed the term anthropocene – which means, literally, the “age of humans” – to describe this new era. Because of its newfound power, argues Carson, humanity is at a crossroads.
On the one hand, the increasing acceleration of technological development seems to be leading man toward his own doom. Whereas in the past, humans strove with admirable results to eliminate pathogens that were discovered to transmit disease, today we are populating our daily lives with contaminants and mutagens whose negative and cancer-causing effects are barely understood. Moreover, nearly every case of destructive pesticide use that Carson describes can be seen as a chronicle of man’s foolhardy wish to control nature, from elimination of the sagebrush from the Western landscape to eradication of the fire ant from the American South. As Carson explains, these projects are inevitably rushed and ill-conceived, and ultimately backfire; disease-carrying insects evolve resistance to pesticides, destruction of natural predators actually leads to an increase in the population of the targeted species, or the elimination of one part of the system fatally disrupts another.
On the other hand, Carson suggests, we could choose to slow down, regard our place within the complexity of nature with the humility it deserves, and make use of other methods. Carson lists a variety of different techniques inspired by nature that are either in use or development- they are often cheaper, more effective, and less destructive than an indiscriminate, blanket chemical approach.
Another feature of this new era of man is that, given all of the changes to earth’s environment since the beginning of the industrial revolution, every corner of the planet has been touched by man’s efforts. This means that there are no pristine places left; we are all affected by whatever ways we choose to change our environment. Carson cites Alaskan Eskimos as one possible exception, but only to dash this hope by showing that there, too, evidence of contamination has arrived. This means that both the consequences of and responsibility for choices that we, as a species, make about the use of chemicals, radiation, etc. are inescapably global and long term.
A New Era of Man ThemeTracker
A New Era of Man Quotes in Silent Spring
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 molded 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.
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.
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.
…idealizes life with only its head out of water, inches above the limits of toleration of the corruption of its own environment...Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?
If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.
When sportsmen of an area want to 'improve' fishing in a reservoir, they prevail on authorities to dump quantities of poison into it to kill the undesired fish, which are then replaced with hatchery fish more suited to the sportsmen's taste. The procedure has a strange, Alice-in-Wonderland quality.
The chemical weed-killers are a bright new toy. They work in a spectacular way; they give a giddy sense of power over nature to those who wield them, and as for the long-range and less obvious effects— these are easily brushed aside as the baseless imaginings of pessimists. The 'agricultural engineers' speak blithely of 'chemical plowing' in a world that is urged to beat its plowshares into spray guns.
To the author of this paper, many of us would unquestionably be suspect, convicted of some deep perversion of character because we prefer the sight of the vetch and the clover and the wood lily in all their delicate and transient beauty to that of roadsides scorched as by fire, the shrubs brown and brittle, the bracken that once lifted high its proud lacework now withered and drooping. We would seem deplorably weak that we can tolerate the sight of such 'weeds', that we do not rejoice in their eradication, that we are not filled with exultation that man has once more triumphed over miscreant nature.
Under the philosophy that now seems to guide our destinies, nothing must get in the way of the man with the spray gun. The incidental victims of his crusade against insects count as nothing; if robins, pheasants, raccoons, cats, or even livestock happen to inhabit the same bit of earth as the target insects and to be hit by the rain of insect-killing poisons no one must protest.
Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death … Who has placed in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons? Who has decided— who has the right to decide— for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.
Lulled by the soft sell and the hidden persuader, the average citizen is seldom aware of the deadly materials with which he is surrounding himself: indeed, he may not realize he is using them at all. So thoroughly has the age of poisons become established that anyone may walk into a store and, without questions being asked, buy substances of far greater death-dealing power than the medicinal drug for which he may be required to sign a 'poison book' in the pharmacy next door.
But can we afford to ignore the fact that we are now filling the environment with chemicals that have the power to strike directly at the chromosomes, affecting them in the precise ways that could cause such conditions? Is this not too high a price to pay for a sproutless potato or a mosquitoless patio?
The task is by no means a hopeless one. In one important respect the outlook is more encouraging than the situation regarding infectious disease at the turn of the century. The world was then full of disease germs, as today it is full of carcinogens. But man did not put the germs into the environment and his role in spreading them was involuntary. In contrast, man has put the vast majority of carcinogens into the environment, and he can, if he wishes, eliminate many of them.
We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road— the one 'less traveled by'— offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.
The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.