A report of the event “Mosquitopia? The Place of Pests in a Healthy World” (A Rachel Carson Legacy Symposium). For more on the topic, check out the three-part feature “Mosquitopia” in the ongoing series “Silent Spring Continued: A World without Insects.”
24–27 October 2019, Landshut (Munich)
By Marcus Hall
At the end of three days of meetings, our many mosquito experts from a dozen diverse disciplines had come to realize that, in the tradition of John Muir, when we tried to pick out a mosquito all by itself, we found it hitched to everything else in the universe. As a crucial transmitter of human illnesses, that has ushered untold suffering across the generations, this little buzzing insect had brought symposium participants together so that we could explore what might happen if somehow, people were successful at making this creature disappear. Is eradication, elimination, genetic modification, or control of mosquitoes even possible, and what would be the consequences of doing so? After all, armies of scientists and insect managers have attempted, and are actively attempting, all of these things, and we wondered about the aftermath of these projects, as well as the alternatives to controlling insects for managing disease and abating nuisance.
Our dual question about “could we/should we eliminate mosquitoes” was certainly not resolved by the end of our meeting. In fact, following our requested five-to-ten minute maximum presentations by all 23 participants—sometimes unsuccessfully reigned in by yellow cards and red cards—we found ourselves exploring many, many subjects: from the politics of decision-making, the rights of natural creatures, the realities of malaria and Dengue relapse, the dangers of insecticides, the challenges of gene drives, and the real horrors of human suffering. Keynotes were presented by Columbia University historian Nancy Ley Stepans, and Wageningen University medical entomologist, Willem Takken. Their joint interdisciplinary overview demonstrated the complexity of the mosquito question.
At the end of each of our main discussions—punctuated across our allotted sessions over two days that dealt with ecologies and physiologies, economics and institutions, attitudes toward mosquitoes, and new strategies for control—we decided to solicit single-sentence “concept summaries” from all participants. They were asked to jot them on little cards, so that we might succinctly summarize the main themes of the meeting. Sometimes such summaries came articulated as potential chapter headings for a possible book about “Mosquitopia”—which is that state at which humans and mosquitoes may learn to happily, or tolerably, coexist. Below is a sampling of some of our concept summaries.
Our group also considered that, as an alternative to the printed word, film is an additional way to communicate messages. We therefore brainstormed four potential film scripts for our own projects, in addition to watching a film produced by the U.K.’s WetlandLife group, which collected a series of thoughtful interviews with people who come into close and regular contact with mosquito, directed by Adriana Ford of Imperial College. Realizing that some of our participants are true hidden talents on the Silver Screen, we also interviewed each of them in front of the camera for our anticipated 5-minute production of Mosquitopia, directed by Samer Angelone of the University of Zurich. The question posed to them, which was to be answered in one minute while drawing a mosquito, was: “Do you believe mosquitoes should be eliminated?” We expect that our film will be completed by February, 2020, and can then be viewed on the websites of the Rachel Carson Center, University of Zurich, and the insect vector biology group, INFRAVEC2, who together were the sponsors of the meeting.
As a follow-up to our meeting in Landshut, plans were laid during our last morning (27 October 2019) to work on a jointly published article in a science journal about the complexities of mosquito eradication, as well as the general preference indicated by all participants towards mosquito control instead of mosquito elimination. Our attempt to articulate a Mosquitopia, whereby humans and mosquitoes might cohabitate in relative peace, is also the subject of an upcoming edited book planned by Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir, to include twelve to eighteen full chapters, and more space to explore this brave new world in which mosquitoes, at least in some places at some times, would be welcome to live alongside people.