After the First World War, when chemical weapons were used for the first time on a large scale, humans by and large decided such things were an abomination. But, as is our way, we finessed moral revulsion and never actually stopped manufacturing them, or using them (Zyclon-B, Agent Orange, sarin, etc.). Yet, considering the opportunities the 20th century presented, no major world wars since the first have been waged with them. That’s something better than nothing.
But we’ve never stopped conducting chemical warfare against the Earth itself.
When honey bee colonies started disappearing a few years ago, neonicotinoids were fingered by some as the cause. The industry predictably denied any such thing, government adjuncts — most notably the U.S. and U.K. — of these global corporations agreed, and ever-cautious scientists said let’s do some more studies. Well, now things do look as bad as some brave people suggested back then, even as they were attacked by the corporations/governments and the usual army of whoring lawyers and publicists working for those forces.
This year the European Union banned the use of these neurological agents for two years so more studies can be done. This was a compromise move if there ever was one, but it was stronger than “our” own EPA’s, which has just set some restrictions on the use of four neonicotinoids. “This product can kill bees and other insect pollinators” the EPA has finally, forthrightly stated, but otherwise carry on, albeit with some new rules to follow.
Neonicotinoids are now the most widely used insecticides in the world. They have the usual hideous names: Thiamethoxam, Clothianidin, Imidacloprid. Manufacturers include such corporations as Bayer, Syngenta, and Aventis. As their class name suggests, they are related to nicotine. They attack the central nervous systems of insects. They are like nerve gas. And yet we know virtually nothing about the long-term effects of these things as they make their way into the insects, soil, water, plants… and then, of course, into the flesh, blood, and bones of all living things. Because that is what happens in this world, of which we are all a part. The honeybees were the poor canaries in the coal mine.
As George Monbiot notes with some justified passion, the same thing that happened with DDT has happened again. And while you still find a few libertarian and other cranks insisting that the DDT ban was a mistake because we still have malaria and other mosquito-vectored diseases, it is notable that DDT was being warned about for thirty years — before its ban in agriculture.
This chemical warfare is waged against insects, “pests” as we say, mostly in agriculture (but your pets are given neonicotinoids, too, btw) but until now the insects have always won. There’s this little trick called evolution, you see, wherein some survivors of whatever is thrown at them may adapt to whatever is hitting them, necessitating more and/or different things to hit them. It’s the madness of an arms race. By now, we know this doesn’t work, but the food and chemical companies have too much at stake here to do stop it.
Does the world have too much at stake? The world never counts, of course, but let’s take a subset of this abused world we know well, humans. Feeding all of us is a serious problem — of politics and justice more so than than grain harvests, of course, particularly when some of us eat enough for entire families. (Considering it takes more than ten pounds to grain to make one pound of meat, that’s not an exaggeration.) Monocrop agriculture based on a few genetic strains is particularly susceptible to insect and other damage.
And then there’s this: most of the tens of thousands of chemical compounds we produce have never been tested for their effects, in the short or the long term. Those that are tested are tested by their makers, an enormous conflict of interest. These chemicals accumulate, concentrate, and interact with other natural and synthetic compounds. To what effects? The DEET and oxybenzone sunscreen we slathered on all summer? In the water supply. So too the chemicals millions of us swallow every day, to then excrete, and bypass sewage treatment to end up in back in our water supply: antibiotics, caffeine, hormones, pain-killers, anti-depressants, anticonvulsants, nicotine byproducts, anti-anxiety, and anti-inflammatory meds. We depend on the world to absorb all this shit. Sometimes it does, to no evident effect, or no effect that can be seen at the moment. Sometimes it doesn’t, and then there’s hell to pay.