Pesticides, a love story

We just can’t seem to quit bug-killing chemicals.

Michelle Mart, an historian at Penn State Berks, investigates why Americans cling to their love of pesticides despite warnings, rising costs, and declining effectiveness in her recently published book, Pesticides, A Love Story: America's Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals (University Press of Kansas, 2015).

The book grew out of a research fellowship Mart was awarded by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) in Munich, Germany, in 2012 to explore the cultural history of pesticide use in the United States from 1945 to the present. She examined popular and political attitudes, synthesizing scholarly work on familiar turning points in the history of pesticides, and juxtaposing those with contemporary media discussions.

According to Mart, America’s love affair with synthetic pesticides started with the use of DDT during World War II to kill the organisms that carry typhus (lice and ticks) and malaria (mosquitoes). After the war, the transition to domestic use in the United States was almost immediate.

In a blog post she wrote for the RCC, Mart explains how the adoption of DDT use fit with larger trends in the U.S. 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. They seemed to work miracles. Production was way up and the direct costs of food production were way down.”

In the 1950s, many citizens began to question the health and environmental effects of synthetic pesticides, and when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, it received enormous attention and became a bestseller. After intense public debate, the use of DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.

“I would argue that the commitment to an industrial, agricultural order and chemical interference in the environment is no less strong.”

Mart explains that much of the discussion about pesticides was focused on DDT and did not question the modern agricultural system as a whole or the general question of chemical use in the environment. Meanwhile, 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 at the time. When the policy was mentioned in the press before 1968, the media often repeated the military justification that Agent Orange was a strategic tool.        

“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 or their environment, nor on the use of chemicals in agriculture more generally,” explains Mart.  

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, new laws were passed in the United States, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, and the regulation of pesticides was changed with the establishment of the EPA. These laws and regulations were met with resistance from business groups, which argued that the government measures were unnecessary and economically harmful. At the same time, American-made pesticides and herbicides continued to be marketed overseas.

“All the while that the issues were debated in the United States, American chemical manufacturers, agricultural companies, and the U.S. government promoted the export of chemical agriculture in the Green Revolution,” says Mart.

She goes on to explain that beginning in 1990, there were contradictory developments in attitudes toward pesticides. While some Americans celebrated the ban on DDT and other persistent chlorinated hydrocarbons here and abroad, others blamed this policy for a resurgence in malaria, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, and the millions of deaths that resulted. Since then, environmental regulations have continued to elicit both strong support and criticism.

“The discourse about pesticides today is more sophisticated and complex than it was in 1950,” asserts Mart. “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.”

Mart's research on cultural history has appeared in a number of journal articles and book chapters. Her first book, Eye on Israel: How America Came to View Israel as an Ally, examined American culture and U.S.-Israeli relations since the Jewish state’s founding in 1948.  

 

 

Michelle Mart is an associate professor of history at Penn State Berks.

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Last Updated December 02, 2015