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Free Study Guide for Silent Spring by Rachel Carson - Book Summary

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CHAPTER 7 - Needless Havoc


For a long time people have wanted to conquer the earth. The buffalo were slaughtered, the shorebirds were massacred, the egrets were almost exterminated for their feathers. Now with insecticides, people are killing all forms of life on a massive scale. There are many incidental victims of insecticide campaigns, victims such as robins, pheasants, and domestic cats. The citizen who wants to get an idea of whatís happening is confronted with two very contrary stories. The conservationists and wildlife biologists say the loses have been severe and even catastrophic. The control agencies flatly deny that insecticides hurt any other than the insects they target and if they do hurt other creatures, their loss is negligible. Citizens should look to the credibility of the witness. Wildlife biologists are best qualified to discover and interpret wildlife loss. Entomologists tend to be so specialized that they donít understand the side effects of their programs on other creatures and on the earth. Even so, the insect control people are the ones who are in charge.

People can make up their minds by looking at major control programs and seeing how theyíve worked. Bird watchers, gardeners, hunters and fishermen and -women know that anything that destroys the plants and animals of their interest deprives them of pleasure. Even when an animal or bird population is able to re-establish itself after a spraying, real harm has been done. Yet this re-establishment is often not allowed because spraying is repeated. If an area is sprayed, the plants and animals of that area are hurt, but also the migrating creatures who visit that place regularly are hurt. If a very large area is sprayed, thereís no place for the creatures to take refuge.

One example of a large-scale control program is instructive. IT happened in Michigan in the fall of 1959. 27,000 acres were dusted with Aldrin, one of the most dangerous of chlorinated hydrocarbons. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture worked together on this project. They did it to get rid of the Japanese beetle. Strangely enough, there were no signs that the Japanese beetle was causing much trouble in the area. One of the best naturalists of Michigan noted that the Japanese beetle had been around for thirty years and had not increased in recent years. No one would say why the beetle was targeted for extermination.

The Japanese beetle had been imported into the U.S. by accident from Japan in 1916. It was found in the eastern states and people went to work to figure out what to do about its growing population. The eastern states set up natural controls and the beetle population stabilized. Despite this history of reasonable control, the Midwestern states began a campaign of all out extermination through insecticide. This program resulted in a shocking loss of life in many different animal and bird populations.

There wasnít even any good reason for using Aldrin. It was merely the cheapest of the insecticides. Officials assured the citizens of Michigan that there was no danger in the use of Aldrin despite the large body of evidence showing it to be extraordinarily dangerous. Michigan had a pest control law that allowed the state to spray indiscriminately without permission by landowners. Planes flew over Detroit, dumping the insecticide over the city. People began calling into city agencies worried about the low flying planes. The city announced over the radio that there was no danger whatsoever and that all the planes had a special provision to drop their complete load of any trouble occurred. The pellets of Aldrin fell on people, houses, pets, birds, and people went about their lives as usual. People found the pellets coating their houses and trees and when the snow and rain came "every puddle became a possible death potion."

After a few days, the Audubon Society began receiving calls about dead birds. People were finding dozens of dead birds in their yards and no live birds were to be seen. When they found the dead ones, they could tell they had died the horrible death by poison. Veterinarians reported that people were brining their pets in with symptoms of poisoning. Cats were most affected since they are such clean creatures that they lick their feet and fur so thoroughly. People were advised to keep their pets in or to wash their feet when they came in from outside, but such a precaution was useless since itís impossible to wash chlorinated hydrocarbons off even vegetables. The City claimed that the birds must have died from another cause and that the outbreak of throat and chest irritations among people were caused by something else as well. Doctors reported that people were coming in with severe symptoms of vomiting, nausea, chills, and fever.

What happened in Detroit has happened over and over again in other cities as well. In one city of Illinois, hundreds of dead and dying birds were picked up. 80 per cent of the songbirds were exterminated. In another area of Illinois where a different chemical was used to kill Japanese beetles, the local bird population was almost completely wiped out. Other animals such as rabbits and muskrats were also devastated.

The worst case is that of Sheldon, Illinois. The campaign against the Japanese beetle began there in 1954. First, they sprayed Dieldrin on 1400 acres. Later, they sprayed anther 2600 acres a year later. They thought they were finished, but found out that the treatments hadnít worked, so they sprayed even more. They sprayed 131,000 acres by the end of 1961 even though they kept getting reports of heavy losses among populations of wildlife. They never consulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Illinois Game Management Division. They testified in Congress that the Congress shouldnít pass a bill requiring such consultation because they already did it.

Funding was biased in favor of the chemical control methods. Funds for biologists at the Illinois Natural History Survey to survey the damage dried up. Despite the lack of funds, biologists managed to study the damage and reported unparalleled wildlife destruction. Biologists found that the conditions for killing insect-eating birds were present at every phase of the treatment. In the early stages, Dieldrin was applied at a rate of three pounds per acre. In laboratory experiments, Dieldrin was found to be 50 times as poisonous to birds as DDT. When the poison sunk into the ground, the grubs of the beetles and other insects came out of the soil where birds could eat them. All kinds of birds were almost annihilated. Dead earthworms poisoned robins and other birds that ate them. Birds that drank or bathed in water puddles were doomed. Surviving birds were sterilized. Mammals were also affected. Squirrels almost disappeared completely. They were found dead in attitudes showing they had suffered the horribly violent death of poison victims. Rabbits and muskrats were also found in high numbers. Domestic cats were wiped out. Domestic livestock were also harmed by the spraying. Sheep died and the ones that survived behaved as if they were disoriented from the poison.

From 1955 to 1960 funds for the study of the affects of insecticides were almost completely cut off. In the meantime, the control agencies had switched to the more deadly Aldrin, 100 to 300 times as toxic as DDT. By 1960 every species of wild mammal had suffered heavy losses in population. Despite the losses, the treatment of more than 100,000 acres only temporarily stopped the growth of Japanese beetles. The government had spent $375,000 on the control project and only one percent of that amount on research projects that would have studied the affects of the program.

These Midwest programs were conducted as if the Japanese beetle represented a crisis. If they had done any reading, they would have learned from the example of eastern states which encountered the Japanese beetle before synthetic insecticides had been invented. In the first twelve years after people discovered the beetle in eastern states, they recognized that it had increased in population very much, but had caused minimal harm. States imported parasitic insects from the Far East that would fight the Japanese beetle and they also imported disease organisms that would attack the beetles. They found 34 species of predatory or parasitic insects that would attack the beetle. Both methods limited the Japanese beetle population. The most effective of these was the disease called milky disease.

The insect control officials of the Midwestern states said the importation of the milky disease was too expensive. In this assessment, they didnít take into account the high costs of the affects of their use of insecticides on the human and animal populations. They also said the milky disease could only be effective where the beetles had established a large population. This claim is also unfounded. The bacterium kills more than just the Japanese beetle; it infects at least 40 other species of beetles. Therefore, the disease could thrive even where the Japanese beetle is relatively rare. These officials are looking for immediate results. They are working with chemical companies that operate on a principle of built-in obsolesce: their product isnít effective once and for all. It has to be reused again and again, hence giving them continued profits.

The Illinois case raises not only scientific but moral questions. Can civilization wage war on life without killing itself? Insecticides arenít selective poisons. They kill more than insects. They kill cattle, rabbits, domestic animals, birds, and people. If people allow the act of such destruction to happen, their own humanity will be diminished.


In chapter 7, Carson dwells longest on a particular case of needless destruction by chemical insecticides. The case of the state of Michiganís attack on the Japanese beetle in the late 1950s demonstrates all of Carsonís earlier points: that following the advice of chemical companies results in widespread and needless destruction, that the alternative course of using natural enemies of particular insects is a cheaper and longer-lasting solution, which is also entirely safe to other forms of life, and that the mass destruction of life hurts the dignity of humanity.

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