Fifty years on, 'Silent Spring' still matters
SHE ONLY DISCOVERED the malignant growth in her breast when she was halfway through writing Silent Spring. The thought must have raged in her mind that her cancer was in some way caused by the environmental poisoning her book was designed to reveal. It must have made her all the more determined as she set out a wearing litany of how nature was dying at the hands of arrogant “control men”, spreading new insecticides and herbicides without due regard for the complex web of life we live within.
She was the first to make popular an understanding of ecology and how our living systems are interconnected. She was one of the first to challenge the authority of the military, industrial and scientific communities of the United States after the second World War. Having split and exploded the atom, they must have felt there were no bounds to their creative power.
Such energy riches were available to them that they thought nothing of drenching vast areas of land with an oil spray laced with chemical bomblets that killed more than just the bugs they were after.
She was already a skilled and recognised nature writer from her time as a marine biologist with the US Bureau of Fisheries. Her last and most famous work was made up of unadorned prose citing one example after another of the way the department of agriculture and the chemical companies were getting it wrong. It was not balanced but nor was it biased. It simply set out the facts as she saw them. When the book was published, 50 years ago next month, she was prepared for the fight she knew would ensue.
She was a “nature priestess”, a “bird lover”, a “communist”. A former secretary of agriculture wondered publicly “why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics”. Her dignified response in the few meetings or interviews she was able to conduct, as her health worsened, strengthened her case. An advisory report commissioned by President John F Kennedy backed up her scientific arguments, and her book became an unlikely bestseller.
She died in April 1964, but she remains a controversial figure. Her great legacy was the formation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970, and the subsequent withdrawal of the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, from use in agriculture. Her enemies claim she was responsible for the death of millions of people from malaria, who they argue might otherwise have survived had DDT been used to wipe out the mosquito populations that carried the disease. That narrative omits the fact that DDT can still be used for the control of malaria but is no longer effective in that role, the mosquito having developed an immunity because of the earlier misuse of the chemical, just as Carson had predicted.