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American Pests

American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT

James E. McWilliams
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    American Pests
    Book Description:

    The world of insects is one we only dimly understand. Yet from using arsenic, cobalt, and quicksilver to kill household infiltrators to employing the sophisticated tools of the Orkin Man, Americans have fought to eradicate the "bugs" they have learned to hate.

    Inspired by the still-revolutionary theories of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, James E. McWilliams argues for a more harmonious and rational approach to our relationship with insects, one that does not harm our environment and, consequently, ourselves along the way. Beginning with the early techniques of colonial farmers and ending with the modern use of chemical insecticides, McWilliams deftly shows how America's war on insects mirrors its continual struggle with nature, economic development, technology, and federal regulation. He reveals a very American paradox: the men and women who settled and developed this country sought to control the environment and achieve certain economic goals; yet their methods of agricultural expansion undermined their efforts and linked them even closer to the inexorable realities of the insect world.

    As told from the perspective of the often flamboyant actors in the battle against insects, American Pests is a fascinating investigation into the attitudes, policies, and practices that continue to influence our behavior toward insects. Asking us to question, if not abandon, our reckless (and sometimes futile) attempts at insect control, McWilliams convincingly argues that insects, like people, have an inherent right to exist and that in our attempt to rid ourselves of insects, we compromise the balance of nature.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51136-0
    Subjects: Zoology, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION. ″the dunghill of men′s passions″: THE INSECT PARADOX
    (pp. 1-4)

    The professional fight against insects in the United States began with a man who refused to ignore his passion. Thaddeus William Harris was born on November 12, 1795, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His father, the Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris, was widely known for his personal manifesto, The Natural History of the Bible, a book that became popular in educated circles. Thaddeus′s mother, Mary Dix Harris, also approached nature with considerable reverence. The young Thaddeus, in fact, was able to grow up wearing silk shirts because his mother cultivated silkworms in their backyard. From an early age, the boy was immersed in...

  5. CHAPTER 1 ″the insect tribes still maintain their ground″: INSECTS AND EARLY AMERICANS
    (pp. 5-25)

    The insect paradox began well before the time of Thaddeus William Harris and Solon Robinson. Unfamiliar insects greeted the first European settlers of North America with unprecedented authority. Oliver Goldsmith, in An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, summed up the popular attitude toward these creatures: ″Even in a country like ours, where all the noxious animals have been reduced by repeated assiduity, the insect tribes still maintain their ground, and are but the unwelcome intruders upon the fruits of human industry.″¹ Not only were indigenous insects making life difficult for planters, but even those that they inadvertently had...

  6. CHAPTER 2 ″there is no Royal Road to the destruction of bugs″: THE RISE OF THE PROFESSIONALS
    (pp. 26-55)

    American farmers revealed a quiet sort of ingenuity as they worked to minimize the threats posed by insect pests in the early republic. Attacking striped beetles before the dew lifted from their wings, luring ants into empty lobster claws, storing grain in salted barrels and close to sheepskin, and soaking the ground in ham brine were tactics that revealed an intimate connection to local conditions and the natural world. Farmers may not have had ″a systematic study of chemistry″ in their repertoire, but they were the ones who best knew how to ″increase the vigor of vegetation.″ It was knowledge...

    (pp. 56-80)

    It is unlikely that Solon Robinson knew, or had even heard of, Thaddeus William Harris. Had they met, however, they would have found that they had little in common. Robinson was an adventurer; Harris, a librarian and scientist. Robinson was an explorer; Harris rarely left Cambridge. Perhaps most notably, Harris worked under the assumption that the essence of American agriculture was embodied in east coast farms and plantations. But Robinson, deeply familiar with the Old Northwest, envisioned a scale of farming and ranching that would soon transform agriculture into a kind of commercial enterprise that rendered Harris′s work irrelevant. In...

    (pp. 81-110)

    As American farmers were experiencing unprecedented outbreaks of insect attacks throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the nation′s foremost government entomologists—Charles V. Riley and Leland O. Howard—drank a lot of beer. ″In those early days,″ Howard later recalled, ″entomology and beer went together.″ Riley and Howard, who respectively served as director and deputy director of the Division of Entomology in the Department of Agriculture, had formed the Entomological Society of Washington in 1884. At their weekly meetings, they and a few other entomologists hashed out the entomological news of the day. Contrary to Howard′s whimsical remark...

    (pp. 111-143)

    As for leisure activity, when Leland O. Howard was not quaffing a beer, he was, of all things, riding his bicycle. Howard′s interest in cycling was genuine enough for him to have joined a local club that went on weekend outings around Washington, D.C. The men rode on tall models fashioned with oversize front wheels. ″The old high bicycle had made its appearance in the streets,″ he recalled, ″and it fascinated a lot of us.″ The only thing that may have been higher than Howard′s bike at that point in his life was his optimism. Howard′s assumption of Charles V....

    (pp. 144-167)

    Through his tireless work as director of the Bureau of Entomology, Leland O. Howard disrupted the continuity that had characterized the field of economic entomology from 1840 to 1900. The mosquito menace and the world war were pivotal events that allowed him to envision a way to end, rather than manage, the paradox of commercial expansion and insect proliferation, thus liberating the field from the commandments that its founders, including Thaddeus William Harris and Charles V. Riley, had articulated. The commandments favored experimentation with a wide variety of means to control predacious insects, communication with farmers and farm journal editors,...

  11. CHAPTER 7 ″complaints are coming in″: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN INSECTICIDE NATION, 1938
    (pp. 168-193)

    June 25, 1938, was not the only day that year on which entomologists filed frustrating accounts of insect infestations with the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine. No fewer than 126 agents representing all 48 states sent an estimated 6,000 such reports from March to November. The agents toured their territories on a monthly basis to survey the status of insect infestations and send their findings to Washington, D.C., where the bureau concentrated these dispatches into the monthly Insect Pest Survey Bulletin.¹ The eighteenth volume, published by the Department of Agriculture in 1938, was issued at the end of a...

  12. CHAPTER 8 ″Let′s put our heads together and start a new country up″: SILENT SPRINGS AND LOUD PROTESTS
    (pp. 194-220)

    Few books published in the United States have enjoyed the influence of Silent Spring. Rachel Carson′s attack on DDT and related insecticidal compounds had an impact that has been compared with that of Thomas Paine′s Common Sense and Harriet Beecher Stowe′s Uncle Tom′s Cabin. First serialized in the New Yorker in 1962, Carson′s book has sold millions of copies, has been released in numerous editions (the most current one with an introduction by Al Gore), and sparked the modern environmental movement in the United States. No matter how one feels about the viewpoint of Silent Spring, it ranks as one...

  13. EPILOGUE. ″Some very learned men are the greatest fools in the world″: IN PRAISE OF LOCALISM
    (pp. 221-224)

    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...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 225-256)
    (pp. 257-286)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 287-296)