Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Pesticides, a Love Story: America's Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Pesticides, a Love Story: America's Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals

Article excerpt

Pesticides, a Love Story: America's Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals. By Michelle Mart. CultureAmerica. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. [vi], 337. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-7006-2128-6.)

Michelle Mart asks a provocative question and then answers with evasions and non sequiturs. Some of the answers are diverting; some add to our knowledge. They do not cohere, however, into a unified, convincing, or novel argument. More's the pity, since she has done a tremendous amount of research, surveying the literature and reading closely through important archival collections.

Why, Mart asks, a half-century after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (New York, 1962), are pesticides ubiquitous? A raft of books have documented America's relationship with pesticides--what Mart calls a love story--and all count Carson's book as a turning point. After the publication of Silent Spring, some of the most problematic pesticides were outlawed, but the agricultural system that requires chemicals remains. Older pesticides have been replaced with still-dismal effects, including the disruption of humans' delicate hormonal systems and a reliance on genetically modified food.

Why this situation persists is less clear. Mart can be evasive: "Of course, there are different answers to this complex question," she says at one point (p. 58). She does offer a variety of possible answers: that the benefits of pesticide use outweigh the risks, that the chemical-industrial complex shapes policy and perception, that pesticide use is driven by liberal goals to modernize the world, or that entrenched powers have proved too hard for those opposed to pesticides to dislodge.

Rather than investigate these possibilities, though, Mart offers other answers. She focuses on "the narrative about pesticides found in the public culture and, most especially, how it was shaped by the mainstream media" (p. 8). Mart tracks the media's creation of a contemporary myth: that humans must control nature, that short-term thinking is preferable to long-term, that individual concerns trump collective ones, and that environmental decisions are to be based on what has already happened, not what might. …

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