The Fire Ant Wars: Nature, Science, and Public Policy in Twentieth-Century America

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9780226079820: The Fire Ant Wars: Nature, Science, and Public Policy in Twentieth-Century America
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Sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, a coterie of fire ants came ashore from South American ships docked in Mobile, Alabama. Fanning out across the region, the fire ants invaded the South, damaging crops, harassing game animals, and hindering harvesting methods. Responding to a collective call from southerners to eliminate these invasive pests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a campaign that not only failed to eradicate the fire ants but left a wake of dead wildlife, sickened cattle, and public protest.

With political intrigue, environmental tragedy, and such figures as Rachel Carson and E. O. Wilson, The Fire Ant Wars is a grippingly perceptive tale of changing social attitudes and scientific practices. Tracing the political and scientific eradication campaigns, Joshua Buhs's bracing study uses the saga as a means to consider twentieth-century American concepts of nature and environmental stewardship. In telling the story, Buhs explores how human concepts of nature evolve and how these ideas affect the natural and social worlds.

Spotlighting a particular issue to discuss larger questions of science, public perceptions, and public policy—from pre-environmental awareness to the activist years of the early environmental movement—The Fire Ant Wars will appeal to historians of science, environmentalists, and biologists alike.

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About the Author:

A scholar of the overlap of politics, biology, and ecology in twentieth-century America, Joshua Blu Buhs has written articles that have appeared in Isis, Environmental History, The World of Genetics, and Journal of the History of Biology.

Review:

"Surprisingly effective in reminding us that the battlefields of this war between disparate social animals-fire ants and humans-were often far removed from the insects' habitats, Joshua Buhs's absorbing narrative is laced with anecdotal details extracted from official documents and private letters, and he elegantly uses tact and intelligence to navigate through the minefields of the fire ant wars whose combatants included agricultural agencies, environmental groups, conservationists, and university scientists. A stimulating analysis of the cultural, political, environmental, and biological consequences of the war against the fire ants." (Murray S. Blum, author of Fundamentals of Insect Physiology)

"Joshua Buhs uses the story of the fire ants in the American South after World War Two to show just how intricate the connections between 'nature' and 'culture' were, how culture shaped what humans saw in nature, and how the ant took advantage of human disturbances in ecology of the post-war South to expand across the region." (Thomas Dunlap, author of Saving America's Wildlife: Ecology and the American Mind, 1850-1990)

"The story of the imported fire ants is an American entomological epic and a classic in the history of development versus environment. Buhs's study is thorough and will be the history of record for this subject." (Edward O. Wilson)

"Joshua Blu Buhs documents the extraordinary story of PR, public expectations, politics and panic as the pressure for the fire ant eradication campaign took hold. He describes how the excesses of the campaign altered popular perceptions of the pest and played no small part in the emergence of the grass-roots environmental movement in the US. He shows how the balance of bureaucracy and power shifted, and indeed still shifts, from the eradicators to the environmentalists and back." (Gaden S. Robinson Times Literary Supplement 2005-04-01)

"Buhs had access to a vast amount of unpublished archival material in private and public collections, so that his book must be considered the definitive historical account of the 'fire ant wars'. . . . What really sets this book apart is the historical detail Buhs provides of interactions among federal bureaucracies, universities, individual scientists, and the American public. . . . All of us who work on fire ants should read this book and take its lessons to heart, as should anyone interested in the interaction between science and public policy"

(Donald H. Feener Ecology)

" In The Fire Ant Wars Buhs has produced a clearly written, impressively researched, and fascinating account of the postwar campaign to  eradicate what is perhaps the American South's most famous insect  pest,Solenopsis Invicta, the imported red fire ant. The human side of the story is especially interesting, and where The Fire Ant Wars really shines is in its exploration of clashing scientific egos, 
bureaucratic maneuvering, ruthless ecological management and the changing historical context that brought such management into question. . . .An excellent example of sophisticated environmental history, a book broad in its reach and full of nuance in its interpretations. In particular it serves as a focused yet inclusive case study for a number of topics—the history of pesticide use and risk, the evolution of federal environmental policy, the role of science and scientists in environmental advocacy." (Brian Allen Crake H-Environment 2005-12-01)

"Joshua Buhs has written an engaging history of the life and times of the fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) in its invasion and conquest of
the USA. In doing so, Buhs offers a variety of ‘books’ within this one work: it is a natural history of fire ants, a case study of USA environmental policy and politics, an environmental history of the American South (with both regional and transnational aspects), a glimpse into the history of USA entomology, and a blend of agricultural history and the history of science and technology, all
based on impressive multi-archival research. . . . Author and publisher should be applauded for including such a wealth of useful figures, photographs, and illustrations. . . . A fine work of scholarship that I will enjoy using on classes in environmental and agricultural history. Others could find it useful for courses on environmental policy, history of science, and entomology, and the book will assuredly be warmly received by audiences within the general public." (Sterling Evans Enivronmental Conservation 2005-12-01)

"Buhs has written a fine book – interesting, accessible and one that ambitiously works to integrate the specific with the general....For those with an interest in the changing images of nature, Buhs should be applauded for untangling the history of the way one particular species has been ‘constructed’ according to political as well as scientific forces. For those with environmental sympathies, Buhs should be thanked for reminding us that the cure is often worse than the disease when dealing with alleged pests."—Alan Marshall, Metascience (Alan Marshall Metascience)

"This is a fascinating and highly readable book, the definitive treatment of one of the invasions that produced the field of invasion biology as well as catalyzed the development of American environmentalism." (Daniel Simberloff Biological Invasions 2006-01-01)

"The Fire Ant Wars provides an excellent overview of attempts to eradicate Solenopsis invicta. Moreover, Buhs has achieved a wonderfully effective synthesis between the history of science and environmental history that should serve as model for future studies of the fascinating dynamic between nature and culture." (Frederick R. Davis Journal of the History of Biology 2005-12-01)

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