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


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CONFLICT


Protagonist

The earth in its many aspects--earth, water, and creatures--which is under assault by the chemical poisons, but which is also capable on its own of controlling its insect populations.


Antagonist

The chemical poisons used as insecticides in the U.S. On a different level, the manufacturers of these chemical poisons whose economic interests run counter to the safe and limited use of chemical poisons.


Climax

The mid-twentieth century saw the climax of the use of insecticides in the war against insects.


Outcome

The shocking and dangerous reduction of all the earthís natural resources for balancing insect populations and, simultaneously, the recognition that chemical poisons kill insects only in the short term. In the long term, insects develop resistance to these chemicals. The chemicals therefore kill the natural predators of the insects and leave the way open for the pest insects to take over in greater and greater numbers.


SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Carsonís first chapter is where she derives the title of her book. She describes a community, in which all the elements of the natural world, including humans, work together, where people are able to enjoy the sound of birds and the growth of spring. Suddenly, chemical poisons are introduced and spring is silenced. There are no more birds to sing in spring. She ends the chapter on the note that this description is constructed out of a composite of many different cities and that it is the inevitable result of the irresponsible use of chemical poisons for insect control.

Carsonís second chapter begins the bookís goal of informing the reader of the nature of chemical poisons and how they affect the process of the world. In chapter 3, Carson describes in detail all the different kinds of chemical poisons; especially those used as insecticides. She explains how these poisons affect animals and birds by depositing themselves in fatty tissues where they are magnified. People and animals are poisoned over a long period of time. Poison passes through the food chain. All kinds of diseases ensue: liver disease, hepatitis, cancer and among others. Death is a common result.

In chapter 4, Carson begins a systematic examination of all the elements of the environment so as to show the reader how each element is affected by insecticides. She begins in chapter 4 with water, explaining how water pollution happens from the use of insecticides on the earth. Chemicals are washed into bodies of water and they even seep into ground water--the source of public water supplies. Once in the water, chemicals combine with other chemicals that have also been washed into the water. No one knows the likely results of the combination of chemicals or the natural chemical changes that happen to any chemical when it is released into the world. Chapter 5 describes the soil. It describes how soil is made out of the bodies of living creatures and how multiple living creatures live in the earth, creating new earth every day. Insecticides kill this multitudinous life and insecticides remain in the soil for years after their use. Chapter 6 describes plants as weed killers affect them. Carson documents the huge bird kills caused by weed killers. Weeds are killed by utility companies so they can run their lines and by highway departments to keep the highways clear. Itís very possible to kill unwanted plants in more responsible ways, ways that donít threaten the ecosystem of the area.

Chapter 7 begins a new section of the book on the affects of massive spraying campaigns. It is called "Needless Havoc" and describes the massive spraying operations, their ineffectiveness in killing target insects, and the horrible record of the massive killing of non-targeted birds and animals. One campaign against the Japanese beetle in the Midwest ignored the fact that the eastern states had successfully controlled the beetle with natural enemies of the beetle. In the Midwest, massive spraying occurred, killing huge numbers of wildlife: birds and animals. Carson notes that there is very little funding for natural controls of insects. Chapter 8 is devoted to the fact that birds are killed en mass with any spray operation since birds eat insects and worms. She focuses on the fight against Dutch elm disease with DDT. Birds were killed in massive numbers and the DDT didnít stop Dutch elm disease for any significant period of time. Alternative solutions would have been simple and cheaper. Chapter 9 is devoted to the massive killing of salmon when forestry officials wanted to kill the spruce budworm that was threatening forests. All river life was affected. Even the salmon that werenít killed were affected since their food was killed. Alternatives would have controlled the spruce budworm more effectively: natural parasites of the insect could have been introduced and natural diseases of the insect could have been introduced. Chapter 10 describes the campaign against the gypsy moth with massive spraying from airplanes of insecticides. Authorities even included cities, even though the gypsy moth is a forest dweller. People were sprayed as they went about their lives innocent of what was happening to them. Dairy farms and vegetable farms were wiped out, their produce rendered unfit for human consumption. Chapter 11 extends the problem of massive uses of insecticides to individual use of them. Every person on earth has some DDT residue in his or her body. Insecticides contaminate everyone.

Chapter 12 introduces another section of the book, that which deals with the affects of chemical poisons on the human body. Chapter 12 informs the reader of the make-up of the human body--its ecology, as Carson terms it, which is upset over a period of time of repeated poisonings. Chapter 13 describes the cells are the focus of this chapter. Through radiation and chemical poisoning, the natural process of cell oxidation is damaged and cells become cancerous. Scientists have also traced mutations to this kind of damage, including Downís Syndrome. Chapter 14 is devoted to the research linking cancer and insecticide poisoning.

Chapter 15 begins the last section of the book, that devoted to a careful description of insects, especially as they are so quick to develop resistance to insecticides. Carson explains that nature already has insect controls in place. Scientists should work with these natural controls to deal with pest insects. Only two per cent of entomologists are in this line of research. Chapter 16 describes the dangers of insects developing resistance to insecticides. Because insecticides donít just kill the target insect, but also its natural predator, when the target insect develops a resistance and returns, it has no natural check on its growth. This problem becomes most serious with disease-carrying insects.

Carson ends on a conclusion chapter which is devoted to the description of alternative methods of insect control. To control insects, we can introduce their natural enemies, introduce their natural diseases, and introduce parasites that will kill them. We can also sterilize them. Carson describes several campaigns in which these methods have worked rapidly, safely, and cheaply.


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