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Americans Have Death Wish - for Bugs


The other day we ran across a striking advertisement in the USA Today national weekly newspaper. In large letters, it promoted A GREENER WAY TO KILL A ROACH. The ad, for a product called Harris Famous Roach Tablets, went on to describe bait for the skittering pests that's laced with an old household remedy - boric acid, a mild, water-soluble chemical that messes up roaches' metabolism and ultimately kills them.

The advertisement reminded us how far America's so-called green revolution has spread. And how obsessed we have become with living as far away as possible from bugs, rodents and other pests. Obsessed to the point that each year, American farmers and homemakers spend $15 billion dollars on pesticides and pest-control services.

In his book, American Pests: The Losing War on Insects, Texas State University historian James McWilliams notes that only relatively recently have Americans fixated on the complete extermination of vermim.Our ancestors tried to keep them at bay, yes, but creepy-crawlies were accepted as a part of everyday life. Our homes did not have window screens until the mid-1800s. Pest control consisted of wrens' nests around gardens, cats out on rat patrol and natural pesticides, like extract of orange peel.

But home became our fortress, Professor McWilliams told us in a telephone conversation. It became an urbane and civilized place to escape the natural world - a sort of sterile laboratory that we wanted to keep free of insects and dirt and germs.

McWilliams adds that our irrational attention to pest control is partly a product of our affluence. We can afford to buy pest sprays and traps and exterminator services. And we do, enthusiastically. So much for the old live-and-let-live approach to roaches and spiders and flies.

[The full title of James McWilliams' book, published by Columbia University Press, is American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT. DDT was a highly toxic, synthetic pesticide widely used to combat mosquitoes and moths. The chemical was banned in the United States in the 1970s after it was discovered that DDT was killing wildlife and so weakening the eggshells of birds that entire species were threatened.]

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.

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