To highlight the history of U.S. efforts to control insects we offer a quiz to test your knowledge of this fascinating story as explored by James E. McWilliams in American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT. Also of interest is a video of James McWilliams discussing the book and an excerpt from American Pests.
In American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT, James E. McWilliams investigates the attitudes, policies (often misguided), and practices that have influenced our behavior toward and extermination of insects. While it might be easy to dismiss insects and pests as peripheral to the history of the United States, our attempts to eradicate them reveals much about changing attitudes toward agriculture and the environment over the last 400 years.
While by no means perfect, the methods employed by farmers in the early republic to controls pests were experimental, flexible, vernacular, and reversible. These were in essence local responses to local problems. However by the late nineteenth century the effort to exterminate insects had become dominated by a national bureaucracy buttressed by increasingly powerful industrial efforts. The results were that a number of possibly effective control tactics were pushed to the side, while a single, simplistic, and widely applicable approach culminating in the use of DDT became standardized.
Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring helped to change attitudes and to inspire the modern American environmental movement but the United States is still hindered by both the environmental devastation caused by insecticides and the rationale, attitudes, and interests that have dominated our policy to controlling insects over the past 100 years.