My latest read was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Originally published in 1962, Silent Spring is considered to be one of the most influential books of the 20th century as it launched a massive public outcry against pesticides and their destructive effects on the environment. The book catalyzed the environmental movement against the use of dangerous chemicals like DDT, which led to its eventual ban in the United States 10 years after Silent Spring was first published. Al Gore, who wrote an introduction to the 1992 edition of Silent Spring, claimed that the book was one of the main reasons he became so involved with environmental issues. Without question, Carson's work was incredibly important in shifting the public's view of the environment and how much damage we are capable of causing. This shift in public perspective, among other things, led to the establishment of the U.S Environmental Protective Agency. Unfortunately Carson was not around to witness the complete scope of change her efforts caused - she died only two years after the publication of Silent Spring due to breast cancer. Her impact continues to be felt, to this day, through her incredible work and writing.
With all that being said, I personally thought it was a rather boring read. I think it was too long, too repetitive, and too dryly written; It was a difficult task to finish all 250 monotonous pages. I think Carson was so focused on squeezing as much real-world evidence into the book that it ended up being just a collection of experimental results and anecdotes that were all similar and related to environmental damage. The consequence of this is that the stories blended into one another and led a forgetful narrative. For the most part, Carson did not take a step-back to comment on the significance and context of the findings she was presenting. I can appreciate this as a form of scientific integrity, but I think a book which deals with a subject as unique and anthropocentric as human-caused environmental destruction deserves a stronger voice to discuss the ethical implications. Instead of this, Carson instead tried to present the problems with current (at the time) chemical based pesticides, and then to present alternative methods of environmental control. As summarized in the Forward,
Rachel Carson, in recounting such horror stories in Silent Spring, did not call for an end to pest control. Rather, she asked for an end to reckless endangerment by the use of broad-spectrum pesticides. These substances, she argued, should never be spread across the nation's fruited plains without adequate and public knowledge of their impact on the environment and human health. Instead, she insisted, we must switch to clean, precise solutions based on science and broad environmental knowledge.
These chemical solutions were brought to market by companies seeking profit, with little regulation and without requiring due diligence in determining their risks and long-term effects on the environment. The primary issue, Carson argues, is that "the chemists' ingenuity in devising insecticides has long ago outrun biological knowledge of the way these poisons affect the living organism." Not only were these risks of these insecticides not fully understood, they were also applied without proper training or restraint:
"It is scarcely possible ... to handle arsenicals with more utter disregard of the general health than that which has been practiced in our country in recent years," said Dr. W. C. Hueper, of the National Cancer Institute, an authority on environmental cancer. "Anyone who has watched the dusters and sprayers of arsenical insecticides at work must have been impressed by the almost supreme carelessness with which the poisonous substances are dispensed."
The life-cycle of pesticides unfortunately possess an incredibly harmful snowball effect. As you move up the food chain within an ecosystem, the presence and concentration of chemicals multiplies. If a lake is sprayed with an insecticidal chemical at a concentration of 1/50 ppm (part per million), later sampling of plankton within that lake exhibit concentrations of the same chemical at 5 ppm. The fish that then eat this plankton will accumulate the chemical internally at levels of 40 to 300 ppm. At the top of this lake's food chain, the carnivorous fish tested will contain a lethal amount of the chemical: 2000 parts per million! These samples are taken long after the presence of the chemical within the water has vanished:
No trace of DDD could be found in the water shortly after the last application of the chemical. But the poison had not really left the lake; it had merely gone into the fabric of the life the lake supports. Twenty-three months after the chemical treatment had ceased, the plankton still contained as much as 5.3 parts per million. In that interval of nearly two years, successive crops of plankton had flowered and faded away, but the poison, although no longer present in the water, had somehow passed from generation to generation. And it lived on in the animal life of the lake as well. All fish, birds, and frogs examined a year after the chemical applications had ceased still contained DDD. The amount found in the flesh always exceeded by many times the original concentration in the water.
In addition to these unforeseen effects on the environment, the actual effectiveness of spraying itself is also suspect, and can potentially lead to the opposite intended outcome. Nature cannot be controlled and it is impossible to predict the effects of artificially altering it. In the 50s, Toledo Ohio attempted to control a disease that effected Dutch Elm trees and was spread through a beetle which lives off the bark of the tree. After years of repeated DDT spraying of the elm trees in an effort to kill the beetle, it was found that the disease was still killing trees and had no signs of slowing down. When compared with areas that DDT had not been applied to, the city realized the spraying was actually accelerating the spread of the disease:
Where we depended on spraying the disease was out of control. In the country where nothing has been done the disease has not spread as fast as it has in the city. This indicates that spraying destroys any natural enemies.
So after all the time and effort spent applying the insecticide, the result was an increase in the beetle population, most likely because the insecticide ended up killing the things that killed the beetles. You really can't fuck with nature...
Reading this book made me think about how lucky we are to be alive today, where so many dangerous mistakes have been made already and we have collectively learned from them. Our human history can be seen as a story of continual progress in the direction of health and well-being. The greatest tool we have in this pursuit is the collective body of knowledge on ourselves, our environment, and the interaction between them.
Another example of this incredible change in our tolerance for chemicals is the story of the aerial application of insecticide in Detroit in the 50s. In the fall of 1959, thousands of acres in Michigan were heavily dusted with clay pellets of an insecticide called aldrin, in an effort to contain the Japanese beetle. I find it amazing that it was considered completely fine for a government to commission these unsolicited aerial applications of chemicals from planes *over populated areas like Detroit. In fact, the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation claimed that the chemical was “harmless to humans and will not hurt plants or pets”. And then within the days following the spraying, the city doubled down and denied that all the bird deaths and pets and human sicknesses that resulted immediately afterwards were due to "something else":
Despite the insistence of the City-County Health Commissioner that the birds must have been killed by "some other kind of spraying" and that the outbreak of throat and chest irritations that followed the exposure to aldrin must have been due to "something else," the local Health Department received a constant stream of complaints.
So if there was one lesson I took away from reading Silent Spring, its that we are fortunate to have already learned from the mistakes of the past, and advanced towards a future with less unnecessary harm. These advances in society are directed by people like Rachel Carson; people that ask the hard questions and work to provide answers. Carson recognized that dangerous trends were developing - trends that were being masked by those that stood to profit from them. Despite attempts to silence and discredit Carson, she succeeded in bringing these dangers to the public eye and starting the discussion necessary to protect ourselves and our environment. On the other hand, it makes me wonder what other unknown mistakes are currently being made by our society which future generations will look back upon similarly.
Carson did not simply point out the issues with pesticides and insecticides, she also devoted a significant portion of the book to explaining alternative ways of controlling the environment, if it is required. Such alternative solutions included gene editing, sterilization, natural predator introduction, and microbial pathogens. These methods Carson deemed to be more "natural" and sustainable compared to the unsolicited application of chemicals with the intent of targeting certain organic life.
However, it seemed to me a bit hypocritical to use experimental results to justify the harmlessness of these alternative insecticides, particularly the microbial pathogens. When the entire book has been devoted to debunking the evidence that the chemical industry had used to justify the harmlessness of the chemical insecticides they were selling. Is the entire coda of this story not that nature is unpredictable, and that we should look to be less reckless in our decisions to alter our environment? I found that Carson's proposed "solutions" sounded just as risky.
To some the term microbial insecticide may conjure up pictures of bacterial warfare that would endanger other forms of life. This is not true. In contrast to chemicals, insect pathogens are harmless to all but their intended targets. Dr. Edward Steinhaus, an outstanding authority on insect pathology, has stated emphatically that there is "no authenticated recorded instance of a true insect pathogen having caused an infectious disease in a vertebrate animal either experimentally or in nature."
So I don't think we can necessarily credit Carson with solving these environmental issues with the publication of Silent Spring, but I can appreciate that she presented these alternative methods and areas of research in insect control. Like I said earlier, I didn't actually enjoy reading the book very much - it was incredibly dry, repetitive, and monotonous. There was definitely some interesting information learned, and I can understand the historical context of the book, but overall I found the narrative to be too weak and not engaging enough.