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With Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson helped give birth to the modern environment movement. But what difference did she really make, and what is her legacy today?
Published in America in 1962, two years before the death from cancer of its author, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring dropped an ecological bombshell on the society of its time. It gave a panoramic analysis of the damage which synthetic pesticides were doing to the American environment, wildlife and inhabitants, and it traced the etiology of the pesticide problem back to the chemical companies and their place in the capitalist economy. In this sense, it was a transparently political book, though not, Carson claimed, one written with political intentions.
Before writing Silent Spring, Rachel Carson worked for 15 years as a marine biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. During that time, she became internationally renowned for her populist writing on the sea. Silent Spring was a long time in its gestation. Almost 20 years before its publication, Carson had expressed concern about the damaging effect of UWF&WS pest control programmes on wildlife. She had submitted a synopsis for a series of articles to Readers Digest and they had been turned down.
As happens in the life of many artists, Carson's last work was her most enduring; a distillation of her life's knowledge and experience, Silent Spring arrived with a complementary understanding of both form and content. The book's publication precipitated Carson to a position of instant national and international fame and she became one of the first post-war social and cultural personalities to become 'a household name' in America.
Amongst environmentalists, her name became synonymous with a radical response to the way in which industry was treating the Earth and its wildlife. She was portrayed in the public media, in interviews and cartoons, as a crusading, sometimes wacky, often opinionated slip of a woman who had set her face against the conservative wisdom of the male farming and business communities. Out of public view, her character was assassinated by misinformation and propaganda issued by the chemical companies, and she was portrayed as a spinster communist, a lesbian, a scientific amateur and a devout member of such un-American organisations as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.
By the end of the 19th century, in America, the conflict between the powerful and the people inside and outside the labour unions had become the essence of much investigative writing. Battle lines materialised, especially in popular journalism, between the corrupt and venal power of City Hall, the corporations, cartels and trust funds and the resisting voice of the citizen. This sense of conflict between corporate capitalism and the common people became central to the culture and politics of American society in the first quarter of the 20th century.
In 1897, Samuel S. McClure, the owner and editor of McClure's magazine, asked Ida Tarbell, his associate editor, to research the Standard Oil Company, an industrial trust at the centre of the Rockefeller empire. Tarbell, who had studied writing at the wanted …