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Copyright © 2002 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Steen-Adams, M. 2002. Russell, E. 2001. War and nature: fighting humans and insects with chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, New York, USA. Conservation Ecology 6(2): 1. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol6/iss2/art1/

Book Review

Russell, E. 2001. War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, New York, USA.

Michelle Steen-Adams

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Published: August 12, 2002

War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (2001), by Edmund Russell, breaks new ground in environmental history. Compared with such well-established subjects in the field as conservation and wilderness, few environmental historians have focused on warfare. Even fewer have examined environmental change from a chemical perspective; an ecological viewpoint is much more typical. Yet, both warfare and the chemical industry have shaped our environmental history in powerful ways, on both national and global scales. Military combat has transformed ecosystems, with concomitant social, political, and economic consequences. Chemical introductions and manipulations have altered ecological webs, often in obscure, latent ways. As a new addition to Cambridge University Press’s Studies in Environment and History series, Russell’s book broadens the field and contributes to our understanding of the relationships between humans and their environment in an important, but little-studied research area.

Scholarly and cultural traditions have commonly depicted warfare and human control over nature as unrelated. Edmund Russell disputes this assumption, arguing that the two spheres coevolved. He asserts: “The control of nature expanded the scale of war, and war expanded the scale on which people controlled nature” (p. 2). To test his hypothesis, Russell employs a case study of the histories of chemical warfare and of pest control during the period between World War I and 1962, the publication date of Rachel Carson’s classic, Silent Spring. He builds upon this focused case study to give readers insight to much larger questions: Why did governments shift away from contained warfare to “total war”? What are the roots of the early environmental movement? Did America unwittingly wage environmental war upon itself?

Russell develops this history in a logical, well-organized, and illuminating manner. Chapter Two, “The Long Reach of War (1914–1917),” discusses the foundation of the synergistic alliance between the U. S. military and the chemical industry. Subsequent chapters explain how the chemical industry grew into an increasingly powerful military and social force during the interval between World Wars I and II. Institutionally, technologically, and ideologically, the chemical industry and the U. S. military have coevolved, he argues. For example, the creation and development of two institutions, the Chemical Warfare Service and the Bureau of Entomology, constituted a way in which knowledge generated by the military contributed to the growth of the chemical industry, and vice versa. As institutional, technological, and ideological factors coalesced, periods of “Total War (1936–1943)” (Chapter 6) and of “Annihilation (1943–1945)” (Chapter 7) ensued. The last part of the book discusses the unanticipated consequences of the cooperation between chemical warfare and pest control institutions, which culminated in a period of “Backfires (1958–1963)” (Chapter 11), and the gradual unraveling of this alliance. By examining the rise and fall of this military–scientific relationship, Russell explains the roots and consequences of complex turns in our environmental history, such as how the U. S. came to institutionalize practices to control insect populations with chemical toxins, such as DDT and dieldrin, and to treat humans—enemy soldiers—in a similar manner.

The quality of the research is first rate. It is thorough and wide ranging, and is the product of a sound research design. Russell draws upon an expansive range of archival material, including technical and scholarly articles, correspondence, histories, newspaper accounts, advertisements, biographies, and records from Congress, the Army, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Bureau of Entomology. Although he does not investigate an important archival source, chemical company records, this is an understandable omission given their general inaccessibility. This study’s research design, an examination of his hypothesis from ideological, institutional, and technological perspectives, enables Russell to weigh his argument carefully. For example, his examination of ideological history revealed that, during World War II, the Office of War Information tapped into popular, negative ideas about insect pests, that were simultaneously promoted by the chemical industry, to heighten the public’s military resolve. Poster propaganda claimed that enemy troops must be “eliminated” like disease-carrying insects (p. 133). This department portrayed “war as pest control [and]... pest control as war” (p. 99). After making preliminary conclusions based on a study of ideology, Russell cross-checks his findings with an investigation from institutional and technological perspectives. Through the process of testing his hypothesis from multiple viewpoints, he develops balanced, carefully considered conclusions.

There is one shortcoming in the execution of Russell’s research, however. At times, the reader must labor to distinguish the overarching story line from the detail. To an extent, I feel that Russell sacrifices some degree of clarity for complexity. At points, the reader must wade through extensive detail to find Russell's core message. For the most part, however, he uses detail effectively to provide the reader with a nuanced understanding of the book’s subject matter.

Readers who approach this book hoping to gain insight into the ecological dimension of this story may come away somewhat disappointed. Surely ecological responses to chemical applications influenced attitudes about the wisdom of their use, and ultimately the persistence of these practices. Whether people applied chemicals to wage war against enemy troops or undesired insects, the side effects of these compounds rippled through food chains and habitats. Public and expert reactions to these unanticipated ecological consequences played a role in this environmental history. Although Russell's scope of investigation does encompass scientific and political debate over biological responses to pesticide application to some extent (e.g., Chapter 11, "Backfires"), he does not methodically trace the ways in which toxic chemicals moved through food chains, nor does he apply an ecological framework. For example, he writes that, in 1958, experts found dead songbirds, rabbits, and quail in response to dieldrin aerial spraying in Alabama (pp. 214–215). Yet, his research does not explain how conservationists tried to make sense of the ways in which chemical effects on these animals' prey species subsequently contributed to their deaths, or what the loss of these birds and mammals might mean to other populations within their ecological communities. In contrast, a writer like Rachel Carson helps readers to see how some scientists understood chemical effects on ecological communities and processes. An ecological perspective would have deepened the explanation this environmental history provides its readers.

War and Nature should interest a wide audience, including scientists, policy makers, industry employees, conservationists, and environmental activists. Russell’s historical, distanced, integrative perspective enables him to write a history that compels the reader to reflect on the often tightly connected relationship between the ways that societies treat both nature and human beings. In this environmental history, institutionalized practices brought about effects dramatically unlike those promised. The very chemicals that experts labored to develop to combat disease, crop loss, and military enemies created new environmental and social problems. And yet, out of blind faith, proponents were unable to acknowledge or respond to the harmful consequences these chemicals brought in their wake. Russell’s book untangles the historical reasons why this unexpected turn of events occurred. Similarly, members of the conservation ecology community are likely to search for explanations to comparably complex environmental surprises, such those related to genetically modified organisms, mercury contamination, or introduced species, to name a few. The ability to understand these complex topics from chemical and historical perspectives is important, and promises to become more so in the future. War and Nature compels its readers to reflect on ways that scientists, politicians, and industry interact to make the world both a better and a worse place, in both anticipated and unanticipated ways.

Book Information

Russell, E. 2001. War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, New York, USA. 315 pp., hardcover, U. S. $54.95, ISBN 0-521-79003-4, paperback, U. S. $19.95, ISBN 0-521-79937-6.


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Russell, E. 2001. War and nature: fighting humans and insects with chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, New York, USA.

Address of Correspondent:
Michelle Steen-Adams
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Department of Forest Ecology and Management
Institute for Environmental Studies
120 Russell Labs, 1630 Linden Drive,
Madison, Wisconsin 53706 USA
Phone: (608) 249-0235

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