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FW: Drake on Buhs, _The Fire Ant Wars_

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  • Amos J Wright
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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
      fore!
      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
      biologist!
      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
      the toxic!
      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
      secondary sou!
      rces, arranges them into a compelling and perceptive narrative,
      addresses vital questions in the field, and does it all in just over two
      hundred pages.

      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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