Although the term did not yet exist when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, a major component of its argument conforms to the spirit of the precautionary principle, which suggests that when a risk is unknown – because not enough research has been carried out, perhaps – the prudent course of action is always to hedge against potentially dangerous effects by slowing or even halting progress until more is known.
Although Carson consistently aims to demonstrate that there is in fact a well-known risk to using pesticides on a large scale, her greatest indignation stems from accounts of state and federal bureaucratic agencies that proceeded with plans for massive aerial spraying despite warnings and protests about unknown dangers. The budget for research at these institutions is pitifully small, notes Carson, as is the staff at the FDA tasked with enforcing mandatory limits on pesticide residue on foods, such as vegetables or other crops, consumed by humans. The little research into effects on the environment that had been done was mostly conducted by independent biologists from a ‘post-mortem’ perspective; that is, it assessed damage after spraying had already occurred. Many of Carson’s accounts are cobbled together from sources such as these, letters from locals, or cases where environments were carefully monitored before spraying as a result of other interests in the area.
There are a multitude of these stories, which were uncovered too late to prevent the tragedies they describe from recurring, and Silent Spring seems to be an attempt to gather them together into one narrative that could effect change. Carson gives voice to this repeated tale of far-ranging destruction as a means of warning readers about the potential risks of pesticides, and to urge caution in the face of consequences that are often long-term and difficult to predict.
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The Precautionary Principle Quotes in Silent Spring
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.
Our attitude toward plants is a singularly narrow one… The earth's vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and animals. Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.
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.
So, perhaps, it appears in the neat rows of figures in the official books; but were the true costs entered, the costs not only in dollars but in the many equally valid debits we shall presently consider, the wholesale broadcasting of chemicals would be seen to be more costly in dollars as well as infinitely damaging to the long-range health of the landscape and to all the varied interests that depend on it.
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.
Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. This sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously, and unnoticed by those whose communities are as yet unaffected.
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.
Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his lifetime. For these very reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.
There is no reason to suppose these disastrous events are confined to birds. ATP is the universal currency of energy, and the metabolic cycles that produce it turn to the same purpose in birds and bacteria, in men and mice.
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.
If Darwin were alive today the insect world would delight and astound him with its impressive verification of his theories of the survival of the fittest. Under the stress of intensive chemical spraying the weaker members of the insect populations are being weeded out. Now, in many areas and among many species only the strong and fit remain to defy our efforts to control 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.