Saturday, April 7, 2012

Silent Spring Review

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked the environmental movement in the United States. Silent Spring is an important part of environmental history. Everyone should want to learn about the environment for the decisions we make as individuals and the policy decisions we support will affect the environment for future generations. I recommending Silent Spring for anyone interested in environmental issues, especially those who to study and improve the environment. Even though many of the facts in Carson’s book are out of date, the basic concepts she talks about are still important to understanding the environment today.

I read Silent Spring last year for my Environmental Politics and Policy class. The main points in Silent Spring are the chemicals we use kill everything, the small doses of chemicals we are exposed to each day build up over time, and chemicals are only a temporary solution that can actually make the situation worse. Below is an adaptation of the review I wrote about the book. I hope the facts discussed in the review spark your interest and maybe even inspire you to pick up the book and see what you may learn from it. Enjoy!

Carson opens the book by describing the beauty of a small town in the country eventually destroyed by a “strange blight” or “evil spell”. This town is fictional, but the situation she describes was found all across the country at the time she wrote the book. “They should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides’”. This short quote by Carson sums up one of her most important points; pesticides kill everything, not just their intended target. Pesticides destroy protective enzymes, block the oxidation process, prevent the normal functioning of organs, and may even cause cancer. When people use pesticides, they are not only destroying the pests they are targeting they are harming themselves. The use of pesticides may also wipe out other species of pests or even species not considered pests because the chemicals poison an entire area.

Another main point in Silent Spring is chemicals are everywhere. The small doses of poison people expose themselves to every day build up in fatty tissues over time. This build up is called chronic poisoning. Toxins also build up in the food chain. Biomagnification is the buildup of toxins in the fatty tissues of organisms as a result of eating other organisms that each contain a small dose of the toxin. Carson discusses the buildup of chemicals throughout the book and about how we cannot possibly test for all of the chemicals around us. “But we do not know the identity of all the chemicals or their total quantity, and we do not presently have any dependable tests for identifying them in highly diluted state”.

The storage of chlorinated hydrocarbons begins with the smallest intake and the toxic chemicals are stored in the fatty tissues of the body. “When these reserves of fat are drawn upon the poison may then strike quickly.” Pesticide poisoning does not happen immediately. The toxins build up over time and symptoms are not observed until it is too late to prevent suffering. Unfortunately, people need tangible, obvious results in order to pay attention to an issue. As Dr. Rene Dubos said, “Men are naturally most impressed by diseases which have obvious manifestations, yet some of their worst enemies creep on them unobtrusively.”

            Chemicals are only a temporary solution to a pest problem and they tend to cause the problem to return worse than it was before the use of chemicals. Over time, insect and other pest populations become resistant to chemicals. This is a classic example survival of the fittest. A few of the insects are not affected by the pesticides and are able to reproduce and pass their resistance on to their offspring. Insects reproduce much more quickly than humans do and resistance to pesticides can develop quickly. Nature has its own controls on pests that are better than any chemical we will ever make.
“The first is that the really effective control of insects is that applied by nature, not by man. Populations are kept in check by something the ecologists call resistance of the environment, and this has been so since the first life was created. The amount of food available, conditions of the weather and climate, the presence of competing or predatory species, all are critically important. ‘The greatest single factor in preventing insects from overwhelming the rest of the world is the internecine warfare which they carry out among themselves, said the entomologist Robert Metcalf. Yet most of the chemicals now used kill all insects, our friends and enemies alike.”

(Below is the conclusion word-for-word from my paper. The opinion I express in the conclusion is the reason I am considering the career path toward working with environmental policies. I feel it is very important that policy makers understand the scientific and environmental impacts of the policies they draft, agree upon, and pass.)

Carson’s basic points about the danger of using chemicals, their overall ineffectiveness when it comes to pest resistance, the unknown consequences of using chemicals, their negative impacts on non-targeted species and humans, and the effectiveness of nature on its own are still relevant to our practices today. Policy makers should better understand the impacts of the use of these chemicals in order to make better-informed decisions. Any policy maker who is going to deal with policies that effect the environment, especially those that involve the use of chemicals, should have the basic knowledge of the effect of the chemicals that Carson discusses in Silent Spring. If people understood that the negative impacts of chemicals and the positive results of natural controls that Carson discusses are still relevant today, policy could be shaped to lessen the use of chemicals that would lessen our negative impact on the environment and save money by not spending money to continually apply chemicals where they are not effective.

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