Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Worldview: Learning to Love (or Hate?) Pesticides in the USA

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by Michelle Mart

As scholars, we spend time revisiting the turning points of history, seeking to understand what made particular periods or figures so significant. Thus, I looked back to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, trying to understand why the author and her book were usually credited with the birth of environmentalism and a new way of understanding the human place in the natural world. But the more I thought about it, the more I wrestled with the apparent contradiction that there was a revolution in cultural and political history in the years after 1962, while at the same time a strengthening of existing attitudes about and policies toward pesticides. How can a book change everything, and yet change nothing at the same time?

This question became the driving force of my recently completed book project, a cultural history of pesticide use in the United States from 1945 to the present. In Pesticides, A Love Story, I argue that the embrace of pesticides in the United States has been enduring even while there have been regulations on its use, the banning of particular chemicals, and its growth in the organic food industry.

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Book cover. Image: Michelle Mart, Pesticides, a Love Story: America’s Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, forthcoming 2015).

The book begins with a look at the period from 1945 to 1962, when DDT was used 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. Adoption of these chemicals fit 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 to do with 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. Production was way up and the direct costs of food production were way down. They seemed to work miracles.

But 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. When it was published, Rachel Carson’s book received enormous attention in the press, where majority were favorable to Carson. There was a political and cultural sea change with Silent Spring. And this brings us back to the beginning question of my research: Why were there both great change and a strengthening of the pesticide status quo? Why, for example, didn’t pesticide use go down after the birth of environmentalism? 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 in the 1960s was narrowly focused on DDT, and then on a particular group of chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides, such as dieldrin and heptachlor. But, the discussion did not address the modern agricultural system as a whole or the general question of chemical use in the environment.

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Discussing pesticide use in the US for an RCC interview. Photograph: Still taken from RCC video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAXPMvkcSb8.

By the end of the 1980s, there had been more than 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 of DDT and other chemicals. But there were 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. The first two stages of the broad American embrace of chemical pesticides, then, were characterized first by unqualified use, and then by questioning and reform. The third stage, from the 1990s to the present, incorporates these opposing trends into a compromise between reform and a recommitment to a technological, chemical order.

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 elicit—simultaneously—both strong support and criticisms. New technological interventions in agriculture, such as genetically modified organisms, had both their supporters, as well as detractors who instead embraced the growth of organic foods.

The discourse about pesticides in the early twenty-first century 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; environmental decisions must be made on the basis of clear evidence, not out of precaution.

In sum, then, I argue 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.

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