Adam's Reviews > Silent Spring

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
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's review
Oct 20, 10

bookshelves: history, non-fiction, science, the-problem-of-civilization, environmental-history
Read from October 04 to 15, 2010 — I own a copy

Silent Spring is billed as the classic book that unleashed what we know as the modern environmental movement. I had vague expectations, thus, of emotional entreaties about the biological impacts of a host of human endeavors. Silent Spring is neither of those things. Carson presents, in stubbornly objective terms, the whole slew of consequences invoked by chemical pesticides. The story is an agglomeration of many scientific studies (though many more have been produced since, giving even more definitive results) and anecdotal accounts that illustrate the shameful tragedy of agricultural and residential pesticide use. Insecticides like organophosphates and chlorinated hydrocarbons (DDT and its much more toxic relatives) are the primary focus of the book, though some time is spent discussing herbicides like 2,4-D.

The book is frankly very scary. Globalization has done much to get around local pesticide bans in the US and Europe. The situation Carson describes in the US in the 1970's is essentially being replicated or “improved” upon in Latin America today. I am now adamant about the consumption of organic food, in a much more informed way than I was before. By necessity, perhaps, there were many questions the book left unanswered: how does the buildup of pesticides in our fatty tissues actually affect the consumer? Does eating conventionally grown food actually have a statistically noticeable impact on the population? Is it perhaps related to the growing occurrence of developmental disabilities and cancer? Since the industry develops and deploys pesticides with a far greater resource base and on a much shorter timescale than regulatory bodies can perform adequate tests, it's a matter of trial and error, and the world's population is the subject.

The really unbelievable part about the whole story is that insecticides don't really work: they destabilize the ecosystem, eliminating natural pest controls and leaving the situation worse than when they started. Pesticides are manufactured from petrochemicals and are thus inherently unsustainable and expensive. The alternatives (biological controls) are much cheaper and self-sustaining. It's an impossibly tragic, then, that incredible quantities of pesticides were doused across the world, slaughtering wildlife populations to an extent from which they likely have not and won't ever be able to recover, including many unrecorded but almost certain extinctions of small endemic species of insects and other small things, merely to provide a subsidy to chemical manufacturers. This is a perfect example of how insane and inhumane our system is, if it is judged in any reasonable terms.
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