Learning to Love Pesticides: A Look at Popular American Attitudes

Post by Michelle Mart

Since the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, there have been numerous popular and scholarly studies of pesticide use in the United States. Environmentalists and others have credited Rachel Carson with awakening people to the dangers of overuse of these chemicals. Such praise is warranted, and it is clear that Silent Spring did change the course of modern American history, changing people’s understanding of the environment and the human role in it.

I don’t disagree with the power and significance of Carson’s work. But at the risk that some might charge me with trying to tarnish her image, I suggest that the story is more complicated than this. While Carson helped to introduce a new way of thinking about the environment, her book also—unintentionally—helped to strengthen the status quo of which widespread pesticide use was a part. This, of course, contradicts how people usually describe Silent Spring. How can the book change everything, and yet change nothing at the same time?

At first glance, the answer is easy: history is rarely so simplistic, and is certainly not an all-or-nothing proposition. Silent Spring was masterful, because it helped Americans to understand a balance of nature concept. But in order to get people to listen, the author was determined to present a moderate argument. This shifted the focus to the worst abuses of DDT, away from the modern agricultural system as a whole. So it allowed people to maintain their belief in the industrial status quo. This was, I think, a necessary trade-off in order to open a dialogue on this issue, but one that nonetheless had consequences.

The story of synthetic pesticides starts with the use of DDT during World War II against typhus and malaria in the wartime theatres. The transition to domestic use in the US was almost immediate after the war, as it quickly proliferated in civilian products that were marketed as safe and effective, and soon other pesticides were domesticated as well. The new pesticides were easy to use, cheap, and soon ubiquitous.

A World War II poster encouraging the domestic use of DDT. Source: National Archives and Records Administration
A World War II poster encouraging the domestic use of DDT. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Adoption of these chemicals fits with trends of US history at the time. This was a period of a great increase in per capita wealth and rising expectations about quality of life and material comforts. There were also changing aesthetics due to suburbanization, which accentuated the idea of possessing and shaping your very own part of nature. Pesticides could help people to do this.

Of course, DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons were increasingly widespread in agriculture, not just suburban homes. They seemed to work miracles. Production was way up and the direct costs of food production were way down.

Amid celebrations of the new chemicals, there were also increasing criticisms of their effects. By the late 1950s, wildlife biologists, conservationists, and others became increasingly alarmed at the environmental consequences of heavy use of persistent chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides. The dangers were most visible in the dramatic impact on bird populations. This was, of course, one of Rachel Carson’s most enduring images in 1962: a silent spring due to the absence of bird song.

It’s worth noting that Carson’s impact was so great, because she was not the first voice to talk about this issue. Pesticide use was discussed frequently in the press in the late 1950s, especially over controversies about two large US Department of Agriculture eradication programs, one for gypsy moths and one for fire ants.

When it was published, Carson’s book received enormous attention in the press and became a bestseller. The majority of articles about the book were favorable to Carson, often citing her argument as common sense.

There was a political and cultural sea change with Silent Spring, leading, eventually, to the birth of environmentalism, new political activity in Washington, and the banning of DDT and other chemicals a decade later. Yet, if everything was fundamentally changed after 1962, why didn’t pesticide use go down? And, why did it take a decade to ban DDT?

One way to look at these questions is to understand that much of the discussion about pesticides was narrowly focused on DDT, and then on a particular group of chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides, such as dieldrin and heptachlor. But, it did not question the modern agricultural system as a whole or the general question of chemical use in the environment.

Further evidence of the strength of the status quo was seen in the use of pesticides in Vietnam. Herbicides—most commonly, Agent Orange—were used as chemical weapons in Vietnam to defoliate the jungle and destroy crops that supposedly fed enemy fighters. There were few criticisms of this policy while it was going on. When the policy was mentioned in the press before 1968, the stories most often repeated the military justification that Agent Orange was a strategic tool. A survey of the press from much of the 1960s, then, shows a legitimation of the Agent Orange policy, often by omission.

U.S. Army armored personnel carrier spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Source: Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection: Agent Orange Subject Files, The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University.
U.S. Army armored personnel carrier spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Source: Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Collection: Agent Orange Subject Files, The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University.

Towards the end of the war and after it was over, there was much more controversy in American politics over Agent Orange, most especially its impact on American veterans—not on the Vietnamese, nor their environment, nor on the use of chemicals in agriculture more generally.

While Agent Orange was being sprayed across Vietnam, there were concrete political changes taking place in the US. There were new laws passed, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, and the regulation of pesticides was also changed with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had oversight of both the registration and environmental impact of pesticides.

But the ink was barely dry on new pieces of legislation when a backlash against new environmental legislation began building in different parts of the country, and soon came to Washington with Ronald Reagan in 1980. These voices criticizing new environmental regulations were pro-business and argued that the government measures were unnecessary and economically harmful.

All the while the issues were debated in the United States, American chemical manufacturers, agricultural companies, and the US government promoted the export of chemical agriculture in the Green Revolution. This policy began in Mexico in the late 1940s and was aimed at the export of modern, industrial agricultural techniques using technological inputs (including hybrid seeds, fertilizers, modern equipment, irrigation, and pesticides).

The export of chemical agriculture had many consequences, the worst of which was the poisonous gas leak that took place in Bhopal, India in December 1984, when at least 3,000 people were killed immediately and tens of thousands more died or suffered life-long injuries. The poison, methyl isocyanate (MIC), was used as a component in a common insecticide, carbaryl. Initially, the tragedy received much press attention in the United States, but there was almost no mention of “pesticides” and almost no questioning of the larger agricultural system.

By the end of the 1980s, there had been two decades of controversies about pesticides and environmental policies, and there had been some big changes in direction, including environmental legislation, the establishment of the EPA, and the banning DDT and other chemicals. But there are also examples of continuities in the use of pesticides and attitudes about them. These include a strong backlash against regulations, little use of non-chemical methods of pest control, and cynicism about environmental health risks.

In many ways, then, these two decades were a time of great advances and a story of roads not taken and of possibilities not followed, as pesticide use continued to rise in the years after Silent Spring.

So far, I’ve given a broad description of the first two stages of the love affair with chemical pesticides: what we could call “honeymoon” and “restlessness.” Continuing with the relationship metaphor, we can think of the third stage, from the 1990s to the present, as a period of reconciliation, compromise, and recommitment to a technological, chemical order.

Preparing a pesticide. Source: USDA
Preparing a pesticide. Source: USDA

Beginning in 1990, there were what might appear to be contradictory developments in attitudes toward pesticides. Some celebrated the ban on DDT and other persistent chlorinated hydrocarbons, while other people blamed this policy (and Rachel Carson, who inspired it) for the resurgence in malaria and the deaths that resulted. Environmental regulations continued to simultaneously elicit strong support and criticisms. New technological interventions in agriculture, such as genetically modified organisms, had both their supporters and their detractors, who instead embraced the growth of organic foods.

These developments are more sophisticated than being either pro- or anti-pesticide. And, oftentimes, developments were ways to negotiate tensions between the poles of the debate. For example, the embrace of organic foods by some has been made easy by the corporatization of organics; individuals feel they need not sacrifice choice or perceived quality of life to benefit themselves and the environment.

Today’s discourse about pesticides is more sophisticated and complex than it was in 1950. But I would argue that the commitment to an industrial, agricultural order and chemical interference in the environment is no less strong. There has not been a paradigm shift about pesticides or the environment, even if environmental historians and activists would like to think otherwise. In essence, there is no indication that most Americans have given up three bedrock assumptions of their cultural outlook: modern human society has some ability to manipulate or control the environment; short term interests are more important than long term ones; and environmental decisions must be made on the basis of clear evidence, not out of precaution.

I’ve framed American attitudes toward pesticides as a love affair, but like many metaphors, this might be overstated. In less colorful language, I’ll conclude by reiterating my argument that American popular and political attitudes toward pesticides have been remarkably favorable and stable over time, even when there has been declining efficacy of pesticides, increasing costs of chemicals, disasters which have harmed the environment and humans, and numerous opportunities to change directions.

Pesticides are not disappearing any time soon.

Michelle Mart is an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, Berks campus in the US, as well as a current Carson Fellow. This post reflects her current book project: a cultural history of synthetic pesticides in the United States from 1945 to the present.

4 Comments on “Learning to Love Pesticides: A Look at Popular American Attitudes

  1. Michelle does a wonderful job of using America’s relationship to pesticides to exemplify major core problems of our relationship to the environment in general. Another good article on this topic was published yesterday in The New York Times, in which the author discusses the fact that 50 years after Silent Spring, US agriculture uses more pesticides than ever before. Check it out! http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/pesticides-now-more-than-ever/?ref=markbittman


  2. Thanks so for this article. You’re absolutely right, Michelle “Pesticides are not disappearing any time soon” but the price we pay and the detrimental impacts on both environmental and human health will be horrific. The unbridled power of the global biotech chemical/pesticide cartel is very troubling:
    The Global Chemical Biotech Cartel – An unprecedented power over world agriculture and human health http://sco.lt/9MtkYL

    So I offer you the following:
    Food Allergies, Cancer, Ill Health Linked to Pesticides http://sco.lt/4megAz
    What Pesticide exposure is doing to your body http://sco.lt/7IKHmD
    YOUR FOOD, YOUR HEALTH: http://ow.ly/g7p29


  3. Pingback: Week 4 Discussion Prompts: Prosperity & Poison in the post-war era – Pests / Tests / Pollution / Peace? | American Environmental History Online Summer 2017

  4. Pingback: Week 4 Discussion Prompts: Prosperity & Poison in the post-war era | HIST 480 / AMST 425 (ethics focus) Summer 2018

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