FW: Drake on Buhs, _The Fire Ant Wars_
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Subject: Drake on Buhs, _The Fire Ant Wars_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Environment@... (December, 2005)
Joshua Blu Buhs. _The Fire Ant Wars: Nature, Science, and Public Policy
in Twentieth-Century America_. Chicago and London: University of Chicago
Press, 2004. x + 216 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, references, index.
$55.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-226-07981-3; $22.50 (paper), ISBN 0-226-07982-1.
Reviewed for H-Environment by Brian Allen Drake,
Department of History, University of Kansas.
Science, Bureaucracy, and the South's Red Menace
"This book is about nature," writes author Joshua Blu Buhs in the first
line of _The Fire Ant Wars_, and "the ways that Americans thought about
it during the twentieth century, the ways we have transformed it, and
the ways, in turn, that we have been changed by nature" (p. 1). Such a
thesis will hardly surprise environmental historians, for the middle
ground between the human and nonhuman is our intellectual home turf.
That thesis might also seem a bit too ambitious for such a small book.
From economics to science to religion to philosophy, the ways Americans
have interacted with nature are almost innumerable, and at 216 pages
_The Fire Ant Wars_ could hardly deal with them all. Indeed, the book is
less about Americans' broader interaction with the natural world than
certain Americans' reactions to one of its more troublesome denizens.
But this particular study's specificity is also its strength. In _The
Fire Ant Wars_ Buhs has produced a clearly written, impressively resear!
ched, and fascinating account of the postwar campaign to eradicate what
is perhaps the American South's most famous insect pest, _Solenopsis
Invicta_, the imported red fire ant. The human side of the story is
especially interesting, and where _The Fire Ant Wars_ really shines is
in its exploration of clashing scientific egos, bureaucratic
maneuvering, ruthless ecological management and the changing historical
context that brought such management into question.
If you have lived or spent time in the Deep South, you are likely on
painfully intimate terms with the fire ant, a rust-red insect whose
mounds dot the region's yards and fields and whose burning sting belies
its tiny size. _Solenopsis Invicta_ evolved in the floodplains of South
America, where it resided in the open and disturbed landscapes created
by regular torrents. Like so many other exotics, it came to the United
States via international trade, entering Mobile, Alabama in the 1930s
amid the cargo or ballast of some unknown ship. The fire ant's numbers
might never have exploded across the South had it not arrived during one
of the region's great historical transformations. In the 1930s and 1940s
the South was in the midst of a vast human-engineered ecological
transformation, a "bulldozer revolution," as Buhs calls it, echoing the
words of C. Vann Woodward (p. 24), that made it ripe for invasion.
Urbanization and industrialized agriculture turned much of the South's
sts, scrublands, and small tenant farms into a routinized and highly
disturbed landscape of giant soybean fields and livestock operations.
The fire ant, ever the opportunist, found the new ecological South an
ideal habitat, feasting on its crops, native insects, and even its
wildlife. It was helped along significantly in its spread by the South's
nascent nursery industry, hitching rides in the soil of nursery stock to
cities across the region. By the late 1950s the ant could be found from
South Carolina to east Texas. But was _Solenopsis Invicta_ a real threat
to human and nonhuman life in the South, or just a regrettable nuisance
(or perhaps even a boon)? In the varying answers to this question lay
the seeds of the eponymous fire ant wars that raged from the 1950s
through the 1970s.
For some, particularly the entomologists of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's new Plant Pest Control division (PPC), the fire ant was a
plague of biblical scale. Steeped in a culture that emphasized the
efficient, scientifically oriented control of nature, they accused the
fire ant of all manner of crimes against wildlife, agriculture and
humanity and highlighted studies about its dangers, including those of
future environmentalist and Harvard professor E. O. Wilson, then a young
ant researcher. Meanwhile the PPC and its associates publicized lurid
and sometimes questionable tales of ant-induced misery and fatality,
even invoking Cold War fears by comparing the ant's communal social
structure and relentless expansion with Soviet-style
Communism--_Solenopsis Invicta_ as a literal red menace. With the
support of allies in national government, the South's legislatures,
chambers of commerce, and newspapers, in the late 1950s the PPC launched
a campaign of total eradication th!
rough the liberal use of chemicals like heptachlor, dieldrin, and,
later, the seemingly ideal ant-killing pesticide Mirex. The real
severity of the fire ant threat was not as clear as the PPC claimed, but
in retrospect that was somewhat beside the point, for the "eradication
ideal" involved more than merely stopping the ant (p. 61). As Buhs notes
perceptively, the PPC was "a new, unproven division" of the USDA which
had "come into bureaucratic being" with "new and audacious goals" of a
pest-free world courtesy of artificial pesticides. Thus "its officials
chose to eradicate the ant in order to prove the validity of those goals
and the power of their bureaucracy" (pp. 78-79). For pest control as for
other federal conservation programs like reclamation, timber, grazing,
and the like, bureaucratic self-preservation often trumped science and
economics in setting policy.
But other scientists, sportsmen, and associated nature lovers rejected
the eradication ideal as economically inefficient, too narrowly focused,
and harmful to humans and animals alike. To them the fire ant was a
nuisance at worst, and the quest to eradicate them more dangerous to
health and life than _Solenopsis Invicta_ could ever be (some even saw
the ant as a kind of mascot, an admirable example of perseverance in the
face of persecution). Entomologists at a number of southern
universities, for example, attacked the PPC's science and chastised it
for its exclusive focus on chemical control and its naive faith in the
possibility of eliminating the ant completely. Like the PPC scientists,
Buhs observes, these researchers were not without their own subjective
motivations--questioning E. O. Wilson's ant studies in particular helped
them carve out a professional foothold in their field even as it
revealed weaknesses in the eradication ideal (pp. 82-92, 122). Wildlife
s at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and elsewhere (influenced by
their own set of professional interests and assumptions) documented a
frightening trend of bird and animal fatalities in the wake of
eradication treatments. Sportsmen and birdwatchers sounded their own
alarms in newspapers and trade journals. All of this took place as the
new "environmentalism" blossomed in the fertile soil of postwar economic
growth. It was no coincidence that in _Silent Spring_ (1962) Rachel
Carson, drawing on wildlife biology and downplaying the PPC's concerns,
portrayed the ant not as a villain but as the object of an irrational
campaign of chemical destruction. Postwar conservative-style fears of
centralized government power informed critics of the eradication ideal
as well, who saw in the PPC a rogue bureaucracy intent on forcing its
authority on the public, willing or not.
The champions of total eradication had the lion's share of funding,
promotional apparatus, and influence in government, but it would be
their adversaries who would win the fire ant wars and end the
eradication program entirely by the late 1970s. The program's Achilles'
heel was the toxicity of its preferred pesticides. First, the FDA banned
the presence of heptachlor when residues were found in food in 1959.
Then Mirex, which had once seemed the perfect fire-ant killer, because
it could be administered in bait form and required only tiny doses for
effectiveness, proved highly toxic to shellfish and a potential human
carcinogen. But historical context helped kill the eradication program
as well. By the 1970s environmentalism had become an influential social
force and environmentalists had gained powerful weapons in bureaucracies
like the Environmental Protection Agency and advocacy groups like the
Environmental Defense Fund (their motto: "sue the bastards!"). Citing
ity problem and battling eradication supporters in court,
environmentalists finally brought the USDA fire-ant program to an end in
1978. The irony of their victory, however, was that the fire ant turned
out to be more of a threat than the environmentalists were willing to
admit. By the late 1980s and early 1990s the ant, now left to fend for
itself, was on the resurgence, helping to fuel an anti-environmental
backlash across the South as it once again seemed less of a mere
nuisance than a scourge.
The best thing about _The Fire Ant Wars_ is Buhs's use of
sources--multiple archives, previously unused document collections, oral
interviews, a broad sampling of secondary literature--and his subtle
understanding of the intricacies of scientific rivalries and
bureaucratic imperatives. Buhs also never loses sight of the fact that
the fire ant is more than a mere "construction," that its own "agency"
(for lack of a better term) had much to do with its success in the
South. Nonhuman nature, we are reminded, has an irreplaceable role in
creating the world we humans live in. Buhs's political evenhandedness is
also admirable. He rightly excoriates the ecological simplemindedness of
the eradication ideal, but is not afraid to call out environmentalists
on their own assumptions, as when he notes Rachel Carson's dismissal of
certain USDA studies (p. 112-114) and other environmentalists'
characterization of _Solenopsis Invicta_ as essentially harmless. The
larger lesson, Buhs conclud!
es in the book's last chapter, "The Practice of Nature," is that humans
can neither control nature utterly nor abandon the attempt entirely--our
needs and our power force us at times to play God with the natural
world, like it or not. But it is not an entirely convincing argument.
While the fire ant might be something of a serious pest after all,
Buhs's own story of the PPC's zealousness suggests that efforts to
control the ant all too easily became dangerous in their aggression and
arrogance, and that leaving _Solenopsis Invicta_ alone was the far
better choice. One can imagine similar scenarios elsewhere.
Nevertheless, in the end _The Fire Ant Wars_ is an excellent example of
sophisticated environmental history, a book broad in its reach and full
of nuance in its interpretations. In particular it serves as a focused
yet inclusive case study for a number of topics--the history of
pesticide use and risk, the evolution of federal environmental policy,
the role of science and scientists in environmental advocacy--and pairs
well with broader studies such as Edmund Russell's _War and Nature:
Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent
Spring_ (2001). Meanwhile, historians of science will find a familiar
story in Buhs's treatment of the complex interplay between scientists
and bureaucratic interests both friendly and hostile. In the classroom
_The Fire Ant Wars_, while probably too narrow and exhaustive for
undergraduates, would be a good model for graduate students training in
environmental history, for it pulls together extensive primary and
rces, arranges them into a compelling and perceptive narrative,
addresses vital questions in the field, and does it all in just over two
Finally, a word about the book's delightful cover art. The outside of
_The Fire Ant Wars_ is stark white with bold black, red, and gray print
except where a cluster of fire ants swarm across the lower-left corner,
over the spine, and onto the back. Having lived and worked as a guide
and outdoor educator in Georgia for years (before moving to Kansas), my
first inclination upon pulling the book from my mailbox was to throw it
down and begin brushing myself off frantically. It was a testimony to my
enduring memories of _Solenopsis Invicta_ and, at that moment at least,
the eradication ideal did not seem like such a bad idea after all.
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