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									                         Questions for Class Discussion, H106, Scarpino
                                Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

A reminder that we are reading only Chapters 1-6 and 15-17.

I. Background:

Silent Spring is not a novel; it is a work of non-fiction written by Rachel Carson. The author was
trained as a marine biologist and had already written other science-based best sellers by the time
Silent Spring was published in 1962, e.g., The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea.

As was the case with Looking Backward and The Grapes of Wrath, this book represents one
person’s account of an important series of events in recent American history. We will be reading
the book as part of the context of post WWII America, which gave rise to the modern, ecology-
based environmental movement. There is no requirement that you agree with the author -- only
that you read the book and try to understand what the author is attempting to communicate. Note
that when Silent Spring was published in 1962, it was a very controversial book. It did not set
well with the manufacturers and distributors of the compounds that she criticized.

Here are some questions for you to consider as you read the book:

A. Carson's goal was education. Education about what?

Carson intended to call people's attention to the dangers to the environment -- and to human
beings -- from indiscriminate use of nonselective, synthetic, organic pesticides and herbicides.
You will need to be able to define: “indiscriminate,” “nonselective,” “synthetic,” and “organic.”

B. This is a book about the interplay among values and technology and the environment. What
is the environment? What values towards the environment were predominant before WWII?

To illustrate the degree to which interaction with nature is based on attitudes and values, consider
the meaning of the terms "weed" and/or "pest." How do people define and explain these terms?
Do you think that the definitions of “weed” and “pest” have changed over time? Why?

C. What about technology? Be sure that you can define, technology. Then, ask yourself, where
does technology fit into Carson’s “story”?

Here's the key: After the war, as new technologies like DDT became widely available, people
used them in the framework of an earlier value system. In a sense, they now had significantly
more powerful technologies that they continued to use within the context of a traditional value
system. Note: One of the "points" of Silent Spring is that Rachel Carson calls for new values to
define and govern the relationship between people and their surroundings.
D. Another important concept in the book is ecology. If you cannot define the term, start by
looking it up in the dictionary.

1. What does ecology have to do with Silent Spring or recent U.S. history?

For reasons that I'll explain in class, the modern environmental movement came into existence
during the 1960s. That movement was a direct response to conditions that developed after
WWII, including the widespread availability and use of new technologies. The post-WWII
environmental movement was different from earlier "conservation" movements. This post-
WWII interest in environment had a scientific and philosophical underpinning rooted in a
popularized understanding of ecology. Rachel Carson popularized ecology; she made the basic
ideas of ecology understandable to ordinary people. She did not create concern about, and
interest in, the environment where it had not previously existed. What she did do was provide
issues and a vocabulary and way of understanding and explaining.

2. So what? Using the popularized science of ecology, she called peoples' attention to the
widespread indiscriminate use of DDT and other synthetic, organic pesticides and herbicides.
She argued that people needed to change fundamental attitudes and values towards nature.

3. Notice how she uses references to atomic fallout to drive home her points about pesticides
and herbicides. Why do you suppose she does this? You can read in the text, and we will talk in
class, about the Cold War and above-ground testing of nuclear weapons and the atomic fallout
that resulted from those tests. She uses fallout, which people were already worried about, to
drive home an ecological point, i.e., the natural world and human surroundings are
interconnected and interdependent.

II. The book:

In discussion sections, we'll start with Chapter II, "The Obligation to Endure"

This chapter contains a great deal and needs to be read carefully. It is the chapter in which
Carson lays out what she thinks the problem is.

1. Pay attention to what Carson says about new technologies and peoples' attitudes and values
towards nature.

She also offers some explanation in the following categories:

** evolutionary time and human time
** ecology
** the place of people within the natural system
** the war on nature becomes a war on people
2. First paragraph. Read the whole paragraph; concentrate on the following: "The history of life
on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. . . Only
within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -- man -- acquired
significant power to alter the nature of his world."

Explain what this means.

3. p. 5 Read the whole page, to provide context for the following: "During the past quarter
century [before 1962 when the book came out] this power has not only increased to one of
disturbing magnitude but is has changed in character."

Explain what she is saying here.

4. Bottom of p. 6 Read from the middle of p. 6 to the bottom of p. 7 in order to concentrate on
the meaning of this line: "For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no


5. p. 8 Read all of page 8; concentrate on the following: "Thus the chemical war is never won,
and all life is caught in its violent crossfire."

What does this mean?

6. pp. 8-9. "How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method
that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to
their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done. We have done it, moreover, for
reasons that collapse the moment we examine them."


7. p. 9. "The problem whose attempted solution has brought such a train of disaster in its wake is
an accompaniment of our modern way of life."

Explain. See pp. 9-11.

8. From the bottom of page 12, "It is not my contention. . . ." to the bottom of page 13, Carson
lays out the "so what?" "the point."

Read this section and be prepared to discuss her contentions. What points does she make? Write
down what she "contends" and use your lists as the basis for discussion.

9. End with p.13 "In the words of Jean Rostand, 'The obligation to endure gives us the right to
What does this mean?

Chapter 3. "Elixirs of Death"

This is not a science class, but you will need to be able to handle the basics.

1. pp. 15-16. Keep in mind that this book was published in the early 1960s. What does she say
were the major changes that took place in pesticides?

2. pp. 16-19. Carson notes that as deadly as arsenic-based sprays might be modern insecticides
are even more deadly. She points out that modern insecticides are "organic," i.e., built of carbon
atoms. She notes that there are two basic families of synthetic, organic pesticides. Those are
"chlorinated hydrocarbons" and "organic phosphorous insecticides." Her goal here is
education. How can people understand what they are dealing with if they don't have basic

All you need to know here is that there are two basic families of synthetic, organic pesticides,
that grew out of WWII technological developments. You should be able to identify and give the
significance of DDT, chlorinated hydrocarbon, and organic phosphate -- in simple, basic terms.

3. pp. 22-23. Carson explains one of the significant environmental features of chlorinated
hydrocarbons; they concentrate in the food chain. What does this mean and why does she raise
this issue as being important?

Chapter 4 "Surface Waters and Underground Seas"

1. Note that chapters 4, 5, and 6 address the impact of pesticides, herbicides, and other
chemicals on key portions of the environment -- Water, Soil (chap. 5), and Plants (chap. 6,
"Earth's Green Mantle").

Why are these three chapters on water, soil, and plants grouped together?

2. p. 39. "In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential
needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference."

What does this mean -- keeping in mind that her goal is education with an emphasis on values.

3. Mid-46, Carson makes another key point in educating people on two scores, pollution by
chemicals and the basics of ecology. The concept of food chains is basic to the science of
ecology. One of the things about ecology in this story is the fundamental idea that 'everything is
connected to everything else,' and that includes people and their health and needs.
4. p. 51. She offers another lesson in ecology and brings the problem home to people; she makes
it personal. "Here again we are reminded that in nature nothing exists alone."

Chapter 5 "Realms of the Soil"

1. Carson begins by pointing out the absolute importance of the natural world to people who live
in an urban/industrial society and are largely insulated from "nature."

p. 53. "The thin layer of soil that forms a patchy covering over the continents controls our own
existence and that of every other animal of the land."

What does this means and why it is important in Carson's story?

2. The key concepts are on p. 56.

       A. "The soil community, then, consists of a web of interwoven lives, each in some way
       related to the others -- the living creatures depending on the soil, but the soil in turn a
       vital element of the earth only so long as this community within it flourishes."

       B. "The problem that concerns us here is one that has received little
       consideration: What happens to these incredibly numerous and vitally necessary
       inhabitants of the soil when poisonous chemicals are carried down into their
       world. . . ?"

       C. "The plain truth is that this critically important subject of the ecology of the
       soil has been largely neglected even by scientists and almost completely ignored
       by control men."

3 Balance of the chapter summarizes research into the impact of pesticides on soil. The big
problem she identifies is the accumulation of residues in the soil. The risk is that the
productivity of the soil, upon which all living things depend directly or indirectly could be

Chapter 6 "Earth's Green Mantle"

1 pp. 63-64. Read the first paragraph that begins "Water, soil, and the earth's green mantle" and
ends with "associates of the unwanted plants."

What is she saying here? Explain.
2. p. 64. Read the paragraph that begins "The earth's vegetation is part of a web of life" and
ends "plant-killing chemicals."

What is she saying in this paragraph? How does she work out these ideas in the chapter? See,
for example, the lengthy discussion of sage brush on pages 64-68.

Chapter 15 "Nature Fights Back"

1 p. 245. "To have risked so much in our efforts to mold nature to our satisfaction and yet to
have failed in achieving our goal would indeed by the final irony. Yet, this, it seems, is our

The top of p. 246 notes two ways in which she asserts that the failures have outweighed the risks.
One of those is the subject of chapter 16. What is it? The other is the subject of this chapter.
What is it? How does she explain and illustrate this point in the chapter?

2. Ask yourself: How does she claim that nature is fighting back? Then ask, how does the
content of this chapter fit the goals of the book, especially as described in chapter 2. What are
her educational goals? What does she say about values? How does ecology fit in?

Chapter 16 "The Rumblings of an Avalanche"

1. What is the avalanche and what are the rumblings?

Start with the first line on p. 263: "If Darwin were alive today the insect world would delight
and astound him with its impressive verification of his theories of the survival of the fittest.
Under the stress of intensive chemical spraying the weaker members of the insect populations are
being weeded out. Now, in many areas and among many species only the strong and fit remain
to defy our efforts to control them."

What does this mean? How does she illustrate this in the chapter? See, for
              example, p. 264. "But is was the advent of DDT and all its many
              relatives that ushered in the true Age of Resistance."      See
              also, 272-73.

Chapter 17 "The Other Road"

1 p. 277. "We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's
familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively
easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.
The other fork of the road -- the one 'less traveled by' -- offers our last, our only chance to reach
a destination that assures the preservation of our earth."

What is she saying in this paragraph?
How did she illustrate these points in the portions of the book you have already read?
How does she illustrate them in this chapter?

2. pp. 177-78. "The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last
asserted our 'right to know,' and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take
senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us
that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other
course is open to us."

What is she saying in this paragraph?
How does she illustrate these points in the portions of the book you have already read?
What is the "other course?" How does she explain and illustrate this in Chapter 17?

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