April 16, 2007

Comment from Moderator Mark Madison

Death and Taxes

The Ides of March and tax day are both suitably grim holidays to lead us into this week’s readings. Chapters 12-14 in Silent Spring explore (some would claim speculate upon) the impacts of pesticides on human health. In these three chapters Carson walks the reader through the various physiological pathways through which our bodies might be poisoned by chemical contaminants. A rich and chilling section of the book, it almost certainly helped open up the modern age of chemical contaminant research and, at least indirectly, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In rereading this section two elements and questions arise in my mind.

1) Is it necessary to draw the reader back to the “human impact” of pesticides to arouse interest? That is, if Silent Spring had only been about dead robins and poisoned fish would it have aroused the same level of popular interest? Are we an inherently narcissistic species whose attention can only be sustained when the consequences are personal? I would suggest the answer to this question may have serious implications for the environmental movement.

2) How much of our interest in Silent Spring derives from Carson’s poignant biography? Most readers know that by the time Silent Spring was published Carson was already seriously ill with the cancer that would eventually kill her. It is this melding of the biographical and ecological that makes these three chapters especially moving and grave. I doubt only the most cold-hearted reader could finish Carson’s chapter “One in Four” without being moved by her mortality:

“For those in whom cancer is already a hidden or visible presence, efforts to find cures must of course continue. But for those not yet touched by the disease and certainly for the generation as yet unborn, prevention is the imperative need.”

To look to the future while her own lifespan was in eclipse was a testament to Carson’s persistence and humanity.

April Reading Schedule


a. r. said...

Mark, your questions are good ones! I would have to say yes, most of the time it is necessary to relate the impacts to humans because that is how we can understand or grasp things, i.e., in terms of ourselves. This may not necessarily only be because humans are narcissistic (although often it is because of that), but it also has to do with a survival instinct. Given a choice they could understand, most people would rather not see animals go extinct. But I'm convinced that most people don't really understand what's at stake. That's why we need the Rachel Carsons among us. It takes those of us who do understand, to inspire and lead.

Tom Dunlap said...

I agree with Mark and A.R. about our need to relate the impact of things to ourselves, but I think it more fundamental than narcissism or survival. Humans have bodies and live in the world, and intellectual arguments that do not touch us in some way do not interest us. She also, to turn things around, does not just relate the impact to humans but insists we are part of nature. We should care about pesticide policy because the residues might kill us but also because we are part of nature (however much we may live apart from it), citizens of the biotic community. She preaches a very grown-up message of responsibility, pointing to the consequences of our actions.
The immediate dangers she discussed made the book a best-seller, but this deeper message of responsibility made it an environmental classic.

Lisa said...

I think Carson showed the environmental movement a truth that we often forget -- that we must constantly remind humans that they are part of nature and not separate.

As the most powerful species on the planet, we have a tendency to believe that we operate outside of nature, and that our technological advances can remove us from the impact of natural processes.

In some parts of the political world, there is even an aversion to calling things "natural" because it infers that we are tied to nature and dependent upon it -- as if this is a great weakness on the part of humans.

But the more we see ourselves as tied to nature, the more we will appreciate the impact of even one species going extinct.

The web of life is so vast and complex that we are still struggling to understand it. Admitting that requires a humility that world leaders often lack.

The environmental movement should continue to work hard at creating an awareness within all humans that says when something happens to nature, it also happens to us.

Locations of visitors to this page