The Fruits of Civilization (78-1) History


Famers have always lived at the mercy of the Nature they hope to exploit, determined to rule the land, yet subject to the vagaries of soil and sun, wind, and rain, to sudden outbreaks of crop diseases, to unpredictable invasions of insects and other pests. ~ American chemist James Whorton

The plying of pesticides extends into antiquity. Farmers in ancient Sumer dusted sulfur on their Mesopotamian crops 4,500 years ago. Contemporaneous Indian texts mention using poisonous plants for pest control.

Ancient Romans slayed insects by burning sulfur. Weeds were treated with salt.

By the 15th century, toxins such as arsenic, mercury, and lead were applied to crops to kill pests. In the 1600s, ants were fed a mixture of honey and arsenic.

Organic pesticides were also employed. Beyond their ample use as produce, plants have long been treasured as both medicines and toxins.

Pyrethrum, derived from chrysanthemum flowers, is an insecticide known since 400 bce. In the Middle East, pyrethrum Persian powder long served as a lice remedy.

Rotenone is got from the seeds and roots of tropical plants. It is a broad-spectrum killer that stymies electron transport in the mitochondria of cells. Rotenone had been used to poison fish for centuries before it became popular as an insecticide in the mid-19th century, particularly for caterpillars.

Chemists in the 17th century extracted nicotine sulfate from tobacco leaves as an insecticide. By the late 19th century, US farmers were applying a variety of chemicals to field crops to kill insects. The results were often unsatisfactory, owing to the primitive chemistry and inapt application.

The rise of modern pesticides began after World War 2, when a variety of potent formulas found favor. Among them were DDT and 2,4–D. These were products of government-sponsored research during the war: potent pesticides that were quickly adapted to civilian use when the guns stopped. The triumphalist rhetoric used to describe the war effort was readily translated into the need to fight and win the war on pests.

Get rid of weeds – now that chemistry had developed an easy, economic method for their destruction. ~ 1946 herbicide advertisement

These new chemicals were inexpensive and enormously popular. Americans were especially enthusiastic and naïve in their embrace of modern technologies and view of economic growth as progress. Another aspect was the mistaken assumption that increasing agricultural output was by definition good, and that this bounty was inextricably tied to modern techniques, particularly pesticides.

Airplanes swoop over a field leaving a trail of vapor, engaged in chemical warfare against crop-destroying pests. You’ll also see spray machines squirting selective chemicals which kill weeds but don’t harm the crops. ~ Saturday Evening Post (23 October 1954)

Lulled into a false sense of security about “better living through chemistry,” people liberally applied pesticides in pursuit of habitats “sterilized” of pests. In the 3 decades following World War 2, pesticide use in the US leapt tenfold.

By the end of the 20th century, the post-war chemical revolution was an entrenched institution. Synthetics of all sorts pervaded modern life. Pesticides were merely exemplary.

Since the mid-1940s, over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms descried in the modern vernacular as “pests.” These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes – nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil – all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the Earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.” ~ American marine biologist Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962)

Under constant chemical attack, some victims developed genetic resistance. Meanwhile, the swath of environmental damage was far more than reckoned.