- DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World by David Kinkela
Pesticides have been some of the most controversial substances implemented in modern American history. Following World War II, there was a significant increase in agricultural chemicals which changed the country’s environments, social relationships, and politics. These chemicals gave American farmers new weapons in the ongoing war against weeds, insects, and diseases that were constantly being waged on crops. This growth of pesticides, particularly DDT, also influenced ideas about agricultural health both on domestic and international soil. Along with American farmers, communities in South American, Asia, and Europe discovered the valuable protection of these substances. Diseases that had long plagued nations like that of malaria and typhus fever had become controllable.
However, these pesticides acted as a double-edged sword, poisoning as much as they protected. Though many warnings had been issued by scientists before Rachel Carson, her book Silent Spring (1962) solidified the dangers of pesticide use, which led to the beginnings of an environmental movement that reevaluated the use of pesticides and its effects on the environment. Though many scholars have provided insights into the domestic effects of pesticides, few have addressed how these toxic substances have shaped international relationships and environments throughout the mid-twentieth century.
Several other scholars have explored the rise and fall of DDT, with its eventual domestic ban in the United States in the early 1970’s. In David Kinkela’s book, DDT and the American Century, he recognizes that the story of DDT is a diverse story that requires combining political, economic and social examinations together with science to truly understand its account. In his book, Kinkela agrees that the narrative of DDT, though significant historically, hardly gives way to an easy interpretation or conclusion due to the complex nature of the topic.
In DDT and the American Century, Kinkela argues of the chemical’s importance as part of America’s Cold War efforts to promote prosperity and freedom. America embraced the “Green Revolution” with an unchecked faith in technological innovation, which promoted science as the key to improving crop yields in developing countries and even eradicating malaria. Kinkela emphasizes DDT’s part in the larger Cold War project of using American technology to improve the lives of the third world. The early success against infestations made DDT a prime tool in the war effort, as it killed many disease-bearing insects while also protecting crops from invasions. This double use and effectiveness of the chemical as Kinkela explains, removed any notion of possible risks associated with long-term use and exposure to the chemical. [End Page 497]
The value of Kinkela’s book on DDT is that it places it in a broader context, adding more discussion on DDT’s international influence. Kinkela adds some diplomatic history into the already complex story, noting the importance of DDT, both practically and symbolically, for America’s standing in the world. His discussion by no means downplays the negative ecological consequences of DDT, though he does give a more global perspective on the positive impact of the chemical, suggesting that if properly controlled, keeping firmly in mind the lessons of the past, the controversial chemical can have at least some positive impact in the future. In fact, the chemical has been re-introduced to Africa in recent years with the aim of controlling malaria.
In short, DDT and the American Century expands our knowledge and understanding of the politics, policies and environmental problems that surrounded the controversial and complex issues regarding the substance. The story told by Kinkela is well sourced and detailed, yet also holding a practical narrative that can appeals not only to scholars across many disciplines, but also to general readers.