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

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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.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Seattle Times - Irene Wanner
"[An] articulate, well-organized... excellent primer.
Time Magazines Literary Supplement
[McWilliams'] book should resonate in these times of GM temptations and global food shortages.
American Historical Review - Sarah T. Phillips
a solid contribution to U.S. environmental history, one that is refreshingly ambitious in its chronological scope.
Technology and Culture - David Kinkela
An engaging and important book.
Journal of Southern History - Joshua B. Buhs
...a rewarding read...
Highly recommended.
Seattle Times
[An] articulate, well-organized... excellent primer.

— Irene Wanner

Times Literary Supplement
[McWilliams'] book should resonate in these times of GM temptations and global food shortages.

Highly recommended.

American Historical Review
a solid contribution to U.S. environmental history, one that is refreshingly ambitious in its chronological scope.

— Sarah T. Phillips

Technology and Culture
An engaging and important book.

— David Kinkela

Publishers Weekly

McWilliams's (A Revolution in Eating) knowledge of American history and food production (he's a fellow in agrarian studies at Yale) provides a firm foundation to this colorful chronicle of pest management in the United States. The author traces a history in which timber harvesting, monoculture and various forms of development contributed to the spread of insects that feed on crops. McWilliams marks the beginning of "the professional fight against insects" with the 1841 publication of a book for farmers by Thaddeus William Harris, a self-taught entomologist. Agricultural journals advised farmers on how to protect tobacco crops from hornworms and wheat from weevils. Trains and barges hastened the spread of the Colorado potato beetle and chinch bugs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture added a Division of Entomology, but early biological and cultural methods soon faded as companies found profit in selling pesticides; DDT, first a miracle for eradicating malaria-carrying mosquitoes, became the bane of environmentalists thanks to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. McWilliams's treatment is as well written as it is thorough and should appeal to readers interested in history as well as environmental issues. Illus., maps. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

McWilliams (history, Texas State Univ., San Marcos; agrarian studies, Yale Univ.) knows how to address unusual historical topics in rich detail. His previous book, A Revolution in Eating, delved into the evolution of food in colonial America. This time he uses his talent for detailed research across time, beginning with the colonial era and ending with the present, to describe the ongoing and ever-changing battle with insects. It is particularly poignant that his description of the colonists' struggle with insects shares similarities with problems people still face today. The early settlers had to deal not only with pests new to them but, more important, also address the invasive species that they inadvertently brought with them from the old country. Regarding pest management today, the author cogently argues that government regulations have influenced current approaches as much as the science itself. McWilliams has a lot of ground to cover and could have written about the topic as a grand time line. Instead, although the narrative shifts quickly across the years, he gives each event thorough coverage and enough facets to put the story on a human scale. Recommended for all academic and larger public libraries.
—Marianne Stowell Bracke

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231139427
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 6/10/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

James E. McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos and a recent fellow in the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, among other publications, and he is the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America and Building the Bay Colony: Local Economy and Society in Early Massachusetts.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

AcknowledgmentsIntroduction. "the dunghill of men's passions": The Insect Paradox1. "the insect tribes still maintain their ground": Insects and Early Americans2. "there is no Royal Road to the destruction of bugs": The Rise of the Professionals3. "Let us conquer space": Breaking the Plains and Fighting the Insects4. "a great schemer": Charles V. Riley and the Broken Promises of Early Insecticides5. "let us spray": Mosquitoes, War, and Chemicals6. "vot iss de effidence?": Residues, Regulations, and the Politics of Protecting Insecticides7. "complaints are coming in": A Year in the Life of an Insecticide Nation, 19388. "Let's put our heads together and start a new country up": Silent Springs and Loud ProtestsEpilogue. "Some very learned men are the greatest fools in the world": In Praise of LocalismNotes Bibliography Index

Columbia University Press

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