In Praise of Localism; An Excerpt from "American Pests: Losing the War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT"

James E. McWilliams

McWilliamsEditor's Note: The following is the epilogue to James E. McWilliams new book, American Pests: Losing the War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT. The book is available from Columbia University Press.

"Some very learned men are the greatest fools in the world"

The story does not end with Rachel Carson, of course. Neither does it end on a note of triumph. The most frustrating aspects of the insect paradox are its durability and its persistence. Silent Spring certainly changed the way Americans, in particular, conceptualized the environmental consequences of insect control in an ever-expanding landscape of factory farms. Carson provided a timely warning, one that sparked a vocal segment of the American public to rethink the impact of dangerous chemicals on both human and nonhuman forms of life. The banning of a long list of toxic insecticides, the growing popularity of integrated pest management among professional entomologists and managers of agribusiness, and the increasing difficulty and expense of winning approval of new insecticides from regulatory agencies (no matter how politically corrupt) are generally welcome developments in the insect wars. Add to these factors the growing popularity of insect-resistant seeds for cotton, soybean, and corn monoculture, and it is not diffi cult to appreciate how the current skepticism of many Americans about chemical insecticides speaks to the great
potential for a profound structural change in approaches to protecting the environment.

But this assessment is, I think, overly optimistic. Silent Spring and its ability to inspire a more popular and human-centered understanding of "ecology" was indeed a breakthrough. But in the grander scheme, one that includes the past, the impact of Carson's book remains necessarily limited. Readers of this book who have carefully  followed the main trajectory of insect control tactics over almost 400 years will have been struck by a rash of wrong turns, but if there is one that stands out, it is the consolidation of authority over environmental issues in the hands of a relatively few powerful decision makers. This development, I would argue, was a recipe for environmental disaster.

Recall the main lines of this story. The earliest efforts to control insect pests were initiated and carried out by farmers. Before the emergence of the Division of Entomology in 1878, the men and women who worked the soil pioneered experimental, flexible, vernacular, and reversible responses to insect invasions that were, in many ways, the result of their own nonsustainable agricultural practices. By no means was this a golden age of insect control-these solutions were haphazard, of variable quality, woefully unsystematic, and somewhat undermined by the farmers' addiction to monoculture. But they were, in essence, local responses to local problems-derived  from honest, firsthand observations of the natural world at work-that could be promoted if they worked and discarded if they did not. The first economic entomologists - scientists who were not organized in a single bureaucracy - respected these tenets and, alongside farmers, confronted and negotiated the insect paradox in a variety of provisional ways. They did so with a collective attitude that might best be glimpsed in Asa Fitch's commonplace book, in which the tireless economic entomologist wrote, "Some suppose every learned man is an educated man. No such thing. The man is educated who knows himself and taken accurate commonsense views of men and things around him. Some very learned men are the greatest fools in the world." Common sense, a reliance on homegrown knowledge, and an appreciation for the "chaos of experimentation" thus kept the quest for insect control from becoming a monolithic environmental hazard.

insecticidesBureaucratizing the national effort to control insects from coast to coast, by contrast, was a critical pivot away from responsible insect control. Rather than serving a regulatory role, entomologists who worked for the Department of Agriculture assumed (as they were charged to do) a promotional and authoritative role. For a wide variety of reasons, most of them perfectly sensible, federal entomologists sensitive to the expansive nature of American agriculture were inclined to adopt a simple, applicable,
and moderately effective program of insecticidal control of invasive insects. This program - perpetuated through well-funded channels of information and buttressed by increasingly powerful industrial interests - gradually weakened the flexibility and ingenuity of biological and cultural methods of insect management. The bureaucratic approach not only had little motivation to deal with the insect paradox in its innumerable specific manifestations, but became a target of corporate power in the often insidious effort to protect chemicals that were known to be public-health hazards.

The scale and scope of this government-industry conglomerate had no tolerance for the genuinely democratic debates that had characterized insect management under more decentralized circumstances. As a result, a number of possibly effective control tactics - many nonchemical - were pushed to the periphery, while a single, simplistic, and widely applicable approach culminating in the use of DDT became standardized as the only viable way to survive as a profit-minded commercial grower in the United States. Rachel Carson could change the way we think about ecology, but her work, for all its impact, had little infl uence on the perspective and practices of the federal agencies that continue to oversee and promote an influential and largely monolithic approach to insect control.

So what does this analysis suggest about the future of insect control? Given that American agriculture continues to have little reason to systematically reform its monocultural ways and that the federal government has become more solicitous then ever of corporate interests, the insect paradox persists as a woefully ignored environmental problem. What is perhaps most alarming about the failure to even contemplate a widespread embrace of integrated pest management structured around more sustainable farming practices is the forecast that, come 2050, there will be some 9 billion people for the world to feed. The demand for food will be greater, the markets will be bigger, and the companies primed to profi t from a formalized global trade in insecticides will be more powerful and monopolized than ever before. In the past ten years alone, a distinct trend has developed: agribusiness has joined forces with agrichemical and biochemical companies, hired market-research fi rms to identify global markets for new chemical insecticides, lobbied for approval of new insecticides, and taken the fight against insects to the developing world. This behavior, seen from a benign angle, is consistent with the main currents of American history - a history of innovation, entrepreneurship, ambition, greed, and a belief that happiness comes through a better material standard of living (however superficially conceived). But, from a more ominous perspective, it also points to a discouraging and persistent view of the environment.

American PestsIndeed, as I finished writing this book, I could not help but be deflated by the possibility that the small story I have told about a nation's quest to kill insects is a reflection of Americans' behavior toward the environment in general. Considering what we know about the looming consequences of global warming, water limitations, coal mining, and so many other massive, human-driven ecological transformations, it is hard not to think that the obstacles to effective and safe insect control - the failure of centralized solutions, the corporate obfuscations, the inability to face the environmental impact head on, and the tendency to think in the short term - are not
limited to this single issue. Likewise, it is equally hard not to wonder what would happen if the spirit of innovation, civic involvement, and cooperation that seems to thrive so well in local contexts was encouraged to address the environmental problems that we have done an excellent job of identifying but, paradoxically, an inadequate job of managing. History, at the least, suggests something of an answer.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Columbia University Press and copyrighted © 2008 by James E. McWiliams. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers.

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  • Posted on July 18, 2008. Listed in:

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