The Obligation To Endure – Summary

‘The Obligation to Endure’ is the second chapter from “Silent Spring”, a book on the ill-effects of pesticides on environment, by Rachel Carson.


Rachel Carson says that the history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their environment. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been moulded by the environment. Recently human beings have acquired significant power to alter the nature of the environment. Man’s assault upon the environment has done irreparable damage the environment. The most alarming of all man’s assault upon the environment is the pollution of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and lethal materials. Rachel Carson says that the pollution for the most part is irrecoverable because the chain of evil it initiates in the very nature of the world and the life it supports is irreversible. For instance, Strontium 90, released through the nuclear explosion, lingers in the soil, air and water, and enters into living organisms, creating a chain of disaster and deaths.

The new chemicals for killing insecticides are produced in laboratories in large amounts and they find their way into actual use. Many of them are used in man’s war against nature. Insecticides used for killing insects, weeds, rodents and other ‘harmful’ organisms are really biocides, says the author. They are not selective killers; instead they kill all life, good or bad, though their target is only a few weeds or insects. Thus they become agents of poisoning and death. People have to develop deadlier and more toxic chemical materials to combat pests because insects have evolved super races immune to the particular insecticide used. In other words the destructive insects develop immunity through generations. Chemicals can bring about even gene mutation. The harmful insects often undergo resurgence, after spraying, in numbers. Thus the chemical war against the insects is never won.

The central problem of our age has become the contamination of man’s total environment with deadly materials. The writer is pretty well aware of the insect problem. She does not deny the need to control insect. However, she asserts that ‘control must be geared to realities and the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.

More than half a million species of insect have come into conflict with human welfare in two principle ways: (i) as competitors for the food supply and (ii) carriers of human disease. Disease carrying insects become important where human beings are crowded in conditions such as that of poverty and natural calamities. Then control of some sort becomes necessary however the method of massive comical control has had only limited success. It may also worsen the condition.

The insect menace started with the intensification of agriculture in modern times. Under the primitive agricultural practices with crop diversity, there were few insect problems. Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape. But man is tampering with the built-in -checks and balances of nature by devoting immense acreages to a single crop. One important natural check is a limit on the amount of suitable habitat for each species. Obviously then, an insect that lives on wheat can build up its population on a farm devoted to wheat than on one in which wheat is intermingled with other crops to which the insect is not adapted. The same thing happens in other situations. For example, when the US towns lined their streets with elm trees, the beauty they hopefully created is threatened with complete destruction as disease sweeps through the elms, carried by a beetle that would have only limited chance of survival if the elms were intermingled with other plans.

Import of plants from abroad is another cause of the spread of insects. Nearly half of the major insects which are harmful to plants in the US are accidental import from abroad. Importation of plants spread insect species because quarantine (restraint upon the transport of goods to prevent the spread of disease or pests) and massive chemical campaigns are expensive. Decision makers are ignorant of the potential of chemical insecticides to harm life. The author does not argue that the chemical insecticides must never be used. But she is against the indiscriminate use of poisonous and biologically potent chemicals totally ignorant of their potential for harm. Rachel Carson concluded the chapter by saying that if people have an obligation to endure the risks and hazards involved in the use of insecticides, they certainly have the right to know the true facts.

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