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Originally published Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"American Pests": Our wrongheaded approach to insect control

Bugged to death: James E. McWilliams takes on insects, agriculture and pesticides in "American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT."

Special to The Seattle Times

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

by James E. McWilliams

Columbia University Press, 296 pp., $24.95

Fleas, weevils, grubs, ticks, locusts, worms, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, aphids: You name it. If it flies, crawls, burrows, digs, eats, kills, lays eggs in or damages our plants, animals, homes or ourselves, we Americans have probably tried to exterminate such pests rather than study how to live with them.

Therein lies what author and Yale University fellow in agrarian studies, James E. McWilliams, dubs the central paradox of his fascinating new book: the "futile quest" to eradicate insects and the "ongoing quest to strike a compromise between economic ambition and environmental responsibility."

At the start of the United States' almost 400-year history, settlers "sought to control the environment." They had specific survival goals, and thought they knew how to achieve them. Hindsight, however, proves they could hardly have been more wrong.

Ironically, as McWilliams explains, clear-cutting forests increased light reaching the ground and "encouraged exponential proliferation of insect populations throughout North America." Eradicating native plants and their diversity in favor of Old World imports (and the bugs accompanying them) meant insects must consume whatever was left: farm crops, for which they soon developed a preference. Standard agricultural practices included growing ever-larger areas in monocultures, employing almost no crop rotation, wiping out beneficial bugs, planting too near any remaining woods or during times when insects' life cycles were most likely to cause havoc, and allowing cattle to overgraze. This latter practice compacted and cut up soils, decreasing oxygen, water and nutrient absorption while increasing erosion.

In this articulate, well-organized if sometimes repetitious history appropriate for readers concerned with the environment, food production and the safety of insecticides, McWilliams explains why these techniques and others still widely used today are so destructive, and how they often promote rather than prevent insect proliferation.

His excellent primer introduces a vastly complex topic for which the public has traditionally had far more complacency than concern. Like Rachel Carson's 1962 classic exposé, "Silent Spring," "American Pests" offers a wake-up call. Carson's book revealed DDT's toxic effects; McWilliams' book describes how early naturalists' and farmers' experiments with cultural, manual and chemical methods to control insects — short-term local remedies — were gradually supplanted by government bureaucracies and greedy corporations promoting one-size-fits-all solutions.

Why, McWilliams asks, if insecticides are effective, do we use more every year? Why, if these substances kill not only bugs but also other life, do we humans at the top of the food chain imagine that chemicals will make us and our world healthier?

The transformation of the New World environment from old-growth forest hosting life that had co-evolved for millennia to sudden, widespread deforestation took a frighteningly short time, but its long-term effects are still being learned.

Early in his book, McWilliams draws a contrast. Unlike colonial settlers, he notes, Native Americans harvested or burned only enough timber for domestic needs and small gardens. The people grew crops neither for export nor cash. Their environment "enjoyed a high degree of genetic diversity and natural ecological dynamism, qualities that ... protected against perennial outbreaks of insect infestations." Resources were not appreciably depleted.

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McWilliams reminds readers not to picture an idyllic existence perfectly in harmony with nature before Europeans arrived. Instead, he focuses on the differing approaches. One utterly remakes its world while the other adapts.

This large metaphor, he suggests, is timely. Instead of imposing unsustainable short-term solutions nationwide, perhaps we should work cooperatively with our ecosystem's various intricate needs. Increased public involvement concerning chemical legislation would be wise as well.

Individually, it's easy to embrace colonists' advice to put up bird houses, so these natural bug hunters might grace our land each nesting season with their skills. We might handpick aphids from a rose, leaf-rollers from an apple tree, and dig up dandelions rather than calling a chemical company. Each small contribution leads directly to more successful coexistence with insects.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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