Silent Spring by Rachel Carson Rachel Carson's Essay

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Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962, 8 years before the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency and more than 50 years before the writing of this essay. At that time, there was little common knowledge about the sometimes terrible effects of chemicals on the environment, plants, animals and humans. Carson's unflinching, educated examination and explanation of these effects helped create a dramatic cultural movement that is far more knowledgeable and responsible about the environment and the role of human beings within it.

What lessons does Carson extract from the stories about spraying for the gypsy moth and the fire ants?

Carson places the chemical campaigns against the gypsy moth and fire ant in the context of a culture conditioned by: chemical industry greed, power and money; government officials' naive acceptance of the chemical industry's claims, issuance of propaganda, misuse of power and negligence; public ignorance and gullibility; and local activists' growing awareness and outspokenness. The chemical industry was a multi-million dollar enterprise that gained considerable knowledge and newly developed chemicals during and after World War II. Intent on making as much money as possible and accepting no responsibility for protecting the environment, the chemical industry poured money into researching insecticides, including the development of large research grants in universities. With much deeper pockets than the governmental institutions that would otherwise fund studies, the chemical industry was handsomely paying the very scientists/entomologists/biologists who were supposed to study insecticides and their effects; consequently, major studies about insecticides tended to exaggerate their usefulness and downplay their harmful effects. Meanwhile, despite government officials' duty to safeguard and warn the public about danger, officials such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued propaganda films and literature, sometimes with very little scientific support, for pet projects that were forced upon a gullible and ignorant public. Local activists, such as local agricultural advisors, rare scientists, farmers, veterinarians, doctors and hospitals, who either knew better ahead of time or began to notice the harmful effects of chemical campaigns, reported noticeably harmful effects of those campaigns and safer alternatives. All these businesses, individuals and groups played roles in the gypsy moth and fire ant incidents.

Gypsy moths were accidentally introduced into America's environment in 1869 in Medford Massachusetts, and then spread throughout the northeastern United States. From that time until the 1950's, the gypsy moth was considered a nuisance because its larvae attack oak tree foliage in the northeastern United States for a few weeks each spring. Though moderate local control of the gypsy moth population already existed in the 1950's, the chemical industry and government officials were determined to completely destroy the gypsy moth population through an irresponsible large-scale chemical campaign that failed and was ultimately very damaging. Using a host of relatively new chemicals, including DDT and Heptachlor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to use airplanes to spray millions of acres with deadly insecticide. The Department conducted this campaign for years (from approximately 1954 -- 1959), though it had never sufficiently studied the effects of spraying deadly insecticide from the air. What is more, the Department paid spray planes per gallon of insecticide rather than per acre, which compelled pilots to spray as much insecticide as possible, sometimes drenching a piece of land several times, in order to be paid as much as possible and without regard for the proper amount of insecticide per acre. The results were severe: the chemicals contaminated milk and farm produce, killed numerous birds including one swarm of migrating robins after another, killed fish and crabs, and harmed or killed pets and other animals. Local activists in the form of regular citizens, fishermen, farmers and veterinarians reported the incidents and also pushed for local, moderate control of the gypsy moth population through sex attractants, parasites and predators of the gypsy moth. In addition, the chemical warfare failed to eliminate the gypsy moth from the northeastern United States. As a result, the public rightfully lost confidence in and good will toward the Department of Agriculture.

The fire ant incident occurred in the southern United States. Fire ants were a nuisance in approximately 9 southern States due to their painful venomous bites and high-mound nests. However, by the 1950's the chemical industry had developed powerfully lethal insecticides and government support for chemical warfare against the fire ant was obtained by information that was later discredited. Through films and documents released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the fire ant began to be portrayed…[continue]

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