- DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide that Changed the World
In DDT and the American Century, David Kinkela untangles several DDT-related themes: the chemical’s role in the fight against malaria; its cultural significance, both as a symbol of American faith in technology and as a focus of environmental concern; and its somewhat looser connection to the spread of industrial agriculture. He examines each thread in a way that reveals an overarching tension between the ideals underlying Henry Luce’s notion of the “American century” and the limits of technology.
Kinkela first establishes how Luce’s publication Life helped to make DDT a symbol of the United States being a force for good in the world. He examines how the magazine chronicled the central role that DDT played in U.S. efforts to improve public health in postwar Italy. Evidence of the powerful cultural symbolism attached to DDT in that period is best seen in an Italian political cartoon from 1950. It shows Italy represented by a woman who is being sprayed with pesticides. However, the woman is not infected with lice but by lots of small hammer-and-sickles, which the spray is causing [End Page 945] to fall off. Clearly, DDT was seen as a foot soldier in the emerging cold war, with its role in fighting typhus and malaria helping to transform Italy into a modern democratic state capable of resisting Soviet rhetoric. Life, Kinkela notes, did not pay much attention to aspects of the story that did not fit Luce’s narrative, such as debates over whether the strategy of eliminating malaria by focusing solely on the eradication of mosquitoes was wise or how some Italians were unhappy with the fish kills and bee colony collapses that accompanied the spraying of DDT from planes.
Kinkela then shifts to DDT’s role as an agricultural pesticide. In the same way that public health campaigns came to be linked to cold war politics, so did efforts to increase food production through the application of agricultural technologies such as fertilizers, hybrid seeds, pesticides, and petroleum-powered machinery and pumps. Countries that could grow enough food to feed a thriving urban middle class, the logic went, would become better allies in the fight against communism. Even though environmental concerns, the growing resistance of insects to DDT, and the introduction of alternative pesticides were pushing the miracle powder out of the limelight, the compound retained its cultural importance as a symbol of American technology. Kinkela shows this by examining how those who embraced the spread of industrial agriculture vigorously opposed the efforts of environ-mentalists to have DDT banned. That DDT had become less potent as mosquito-fighter and crop-protector seemed to be beside the point.
As Kinkela notes, in her 1962 Silent Spring Rachel Carson neither focused entirely on DDT nor entirely rejected the use of chemical pesticides. He suggests, however, that Carson’s attack on the indiscriminate use of pesticides also challenged the cultural values—and the promise of Luce’s American century—that DDT had come to represent. That tension can also be seen in debates over later efforts to ban the use of DDT in the United States. The global nature of the issue further complicated matters, raising new questions that had no clear answer. Should, for example, American companies be allowed to sell pesticides to other countries even if those pesticides are banned in the United States? And was it right to project first-world concerns with a compound that threatened wildlife but posed no direct threat to human health on developing nations struggling with malaria and famine?
The epilogue notes that the story of DDT and its place in American culture is still relevant. Right-wing voices routinely blame Rachel Carson for the deaths of millions due to her role in transforming malaria-fighting and crop-protecting DDT into an environmental concern. That this charge ignores a whole host of...