Rachel Carson. from "Silent Spring" (Houghton Miffin, 1962).
A FABLE FOR TOMORROW
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of blossom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.
Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler's eye through much of the year. Even in winter the road- sides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of bird-migrants was pouring through in Spring and Fall people travelled from great distances to see them.
Other visitors came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.
Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell seemed to have settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept through the flocks of chickens; cattle and sheep sickened and died. The shadow of death was everywhere.
The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.
The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.
In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams.
No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.
This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality which we all shall suffer . .
THE OBLIGATION TO ENDURE
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 shaped 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 of the present century has one species, humanity, acquired significant power to alter the nature of its world.
During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.
This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life, but in living tissues themselves, is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world through the very nature of its life.
Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, falls to earth in rain, or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death.
Similarly, chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells.
As Albert Schweitzer has said, "Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation."
It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth; eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings.
The environment, rigorously shaping and directing the life it supported, contained elements that were hostile as well as supporting. Certain rocks emitted dangerous radiation; even within the light of the sun, from which all life draws its energy, there were short-wave radiations with power to injure. Given 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 not enough time to respond to the chemical threats now facing us.
The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the slow, deliberate pace of nature. Radiation is no longer merely the background radiation of rocks, the bombardment of cosmic rays, the ultraviolet of the sun, that have existed before there was any life on earth; radiation is now the unnatural creation of man's tampering with the atom.
The chemicals to which life is asked to adjust are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man's inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and have no natural counterparts in nature.
For Life to adjust to these chemicals would require epochs of time on Nature’s long scale; it would require not merely the years of a man's life but the life of thousands of generations.
And even if this, were by some miracle possible, it would would be futile, for new chemicals pour from the laboratories in an endless river; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped: 500 new chemicals, to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year; chemicals totally outside the limits of biological experience.
Among them are many that are used in man's war against nature. Since the mid-1940's over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modem vernacular as "pests"; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.
These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes. Non-selective chemicals, that have the power to kill every insect, the "good" and the "bad," to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil, even though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?
They should not be called "insecticides," but “biocides."
The whole process of spraying seems caught up in an endless spiral. Since DDT was released for civilian use, a process of escalation has been going on in which ever-more toxic materials must be found. This has happened because insects, in a triumphant vindication of Darwin's principle of the survival of the fittest, have evolved super-races, immune to the particular insecticide used; thus a deadlier one must always be developed, and then an even deadlier one. It has happened also because, for reasons to be described later, destructive insects often undergo a "flareback," or resurgence, after spraying, and reappear in numbers greater than before. Thus the chemical war can never be won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.
Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our Age has therefore become the contamination of man's total environment with such substances, of incredible potential for harm; substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. . . .
THE OTHER ROAD
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 choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our "right to know," and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals. We should look about and see what other course is open to us.
A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test.
All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.
Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biological controls. . .
Through all these new, imaginative and creative approaches, to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures, there runs a constant theme: the awareness that we are dealing with Life; with living populations and all their pressures and counter pressures, their surges and recessions.
Only by taking account of such life-forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves.
The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account these most fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life; a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back at us in unexpected ways.
These extraordinary capacities of Life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control, who have brought to their task no "high-minded orientation," no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.
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 modem and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the Earth.