Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 7 : Needless Havoc | Summary

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Summary

Carson argues humanity's goal of conquering nature has left needless destruction of life in its wake. Even worse, she claims, is "a new kind of havoc—the direct killing of ... practically every form of wildlife by chemical insecticides sprayed indiscriminately on the land." Life killed incidentally is deemed unimportant in relation to the larger goal of ridding the earth of unwanted "pests."

Carson presents two conflicting views: (1) conservationists who claim loss of life is severe and (2) control agencies that claim the losses are minimal or inconsequential. She poses the question of who should be believed. She argues the "credibility of the witness" is most important and judgment should be based on reports of unbiased observers.

Carson also asserts the enjoyment of nature is a legitimate right. For this reason even transitory disruptions of nature, like the roadside defoliations discussed in the preceding chapter, deprive the people who live there.

Carson provides an example of the heedless destruction of unchecked use of pesticides. She describes the westward spread of the Japanese beetle, an insect that first entered the United States in 1916. The eastern states were reasonably successful at using natural forms of control. However, despite lacking justification, officials in Michigan launched an indiscriminate chemical attack that resulted in the destruction of birds and animals and sickening humans. This was done without the consent of the residents of the area. Similar chemical campaigns were launched in other midwestern states with similar effects.

Despite the existence of effective alternatives and clear evidence of harm, the spraying continued. A bill requiring consultation with government wildlife agencies was opposed on the grounds consultation was "usual" and the bill was, therefore, unnecessary. In addition, funds for insecticide research disappeared in the 1950s, with the research funding totaling "a small fraction of 1 per cent" spent on the spraying program. Meanwhile, the Japanese beetle continued to move westward.

Carson argues the use of pesticides was done "in a spirit of crisis" that was not rooted in fact, with disastrous effects to the environment. She raises a question she considers not just scientific but moral: "whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized."

Analysis

Carson instructs her readers on determining credible from scurrilous arguments. She lays out two conflicting messages: (1) conservationists claim there's much loss of life and (2) the control agencies deny such losses. Carson guides the reader in evaluating the competing claims by looking at the credibility of the witnesses and examining the reports of the actual observers.

Carson presents two characters as the villains in this story. The "man with the spray gun" is a warrior intent on bringing nature into subjugation, no matter what victims may fall in the process. Aiding him is the pesticide salesman, who lies to local officials and downplays the destructive effects of his poisons in the name of profits. Carson's story of the Japanese beetle shows us the harm caused by these characters. The campaign against beetles resulted in many unintended victims, from dead birds to sick humans.

Another important element is Carson's emotional appeal as she describes the deaths of animals. She pulls at the reader with descriptions of dead birds and rodents found with twisted postures, evidence of horrific deaths. She even shows the reader the deaths of beloved pets, explaining how fastidious house cats were poisoned while grooming themselves.

At the foundation of this chapter is Carson's presentation of moral questions. Does the enjoyment of nature hold value in itself? She argues it does. Can humankind wage war on nature in an attempt to control it, and still call itself civilized? Carson asserts "acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature" diminishes our humanity.

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