Fifty-five years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a groundbreaking text that brought into view the dangers of pesticides and their overuse. In 2017, social friction in the United States over how and when and if to use pesticides has never been sharper. In the face of Trump-appointed EPA director, Scott Pruitt’s, controversial decision to reject his agency’s recommendation to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to lower IQ and developmental delays in children, Americans are consuming more organic food than ever before and waging campaigns to “Save the Bees,” whose alarming global decline is thought to be related to agricultural pesticide use and climate change.  Fifty-five years after the publication of Silent Spring, the threat of arthropodic “pests” and the diseases they carry has also sharply increased (Lemon et al. 2008). Driven by climate change’s warmer temperatures and increasing humidity, as well as the changing patterns of domestic and commercial land use, the decline of the bee has been accompanied by the rise of the tick, an arthropod that carries in its gut a range of microbial menaces—foremost among them, Lyme disease, the most prevalent vector-borne disease in the United States.
Elsewhere, I have explored how, for many individuals in Lyme-endemic areas in the United States, Lyme disease is just one risk in a constellation of environmental risks—such as pesticides, flame retardants, heavy metals, and electromagnetic radiation—that can be broadly described as a “toxic environment” (Dumes 2014:174). As ticks increasingly take up residence on human bodies, the challenge for these individuals is to navigate which perceived toxins—both chemical and microbial—are “less risky” than others. In this way, environmental risk is located “less in the wildness of nature and more in the diffuse and ubiquitous quality of a toxic environment,” a risk as frequently perceived to exist “indoors” as it is perceived to exist “outdoors” (Dumes 2014:179). The stakes here are two-fold: in the United States, ideas about what constitutes environmental risk are changing and ideas about what separates the self from the environment are also changing. There has been a plume of new work on interspecies engagement in our Anthropocenic times. Where Eduardo Kohn looks to the analytic possibilities of “an anthropology beyond the human” (2013:7) and Donna Haraway puts stock in the agentive potential of a “multi-species becoming-with” model (2017:63), Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing traces pathways of “coexistence within environmental disturbance” (2017:4). In this short piece, I build on these conversations to explore the singular but complicated example of individual and collective decision-making over pesticide use as a means to prevent tick bites.
Like any difficult decision, the decision to use pesticides or to risk tick bites is often a choice between imperfect options. Over the course of eighteen months of ethnographic research on Lyme disease in the United States between 2010 and 2011, I found that disagreement over how and when to use pesticides was best demonstrated at the monthly meetings of a precariously assembled committee comprised of public health officials and Lyme disease advocates. The purpose of these meetings was to discuss and plan tick-borne disease prevention strategies in a particular region of that state. One of the most contentious meetings I observed centered on a tick-borne disease prevention acronym that had been created in collaboration between health officials and patient-advocates, the name of which remains anonymous here to protect the identity of those involved in its creation. While it had been given a seal of approval by state officials who deemed it sufficiently based on credible scientific evidence, the acronym came under attack when it began to circulate locally because over half of the prevention directives encapsulated in it were related to pesticide use, an issue that proved controversial among residents less concerned about exposure to ticks and more concerned about exposure to pesticides. Although support of pesticide use among Lyme patients appeared to be relatively high, support of pesticide use among the general population in affluent suburbs of that state appeared to be much lower. In the end, several health officials (each of whom represented separate townships) responded to or anticipated the concerns of their constituents by changing the acronym directives related to pesticide use, which meant that the Lyme disease prevention equivalent of “Stop, drop, and roll” recommended different tick prevention practices depending on where and by whom it was used.