Rachel Carson and the Bed Bugs

Reprinted from Laissez Faire Today

A month ago, a family I know returned from a trip in which they stayed in an ordinary hotel off the interstate in Virginia. They are arrived late and left the next morning. The parents slept in the bed while the kids slept on the sleeper sofa. The kids had red welts all over their faces and backs the next day.

The parents had no idea what the red marks were. They were gone in a few days. In the meanwhile, they looked it up and found what many Americans are discovering day by day. This country is being overrun with bedbugs. The reports began trickling in about eight years ago. Three years ago, the sightings were common enough to make the headlines.

When the reports of bedbug infestation first came along, it was all rather shocking. Bedbugs had been eradicated, so far as anyone knew, sometime after World War II, in both the United States and Europe. It was a major advance for civilization, a bedbug-free life.

Generations knew nothing of these ghastly creatures that come out at night, inject numbing poison so that you don’t feel them, feast on your blood as you sleep, and then sneak away again in the morning gorged and bloated at your expense.

The reason for the eradication? DDT, the lifesaving insecticide discovered by Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller, who received the Nobel Prize in 1948 for having saved millions from malaria. DDT was the miracle drug that gave mankind a fighting chance against its great enemies in the insect world.

Recall that it was insects that carried the diseases that several times wiped out major swaths of the world’s population in the Middle Ages. Gradually over the centuries, as sanitation improved, prosperity arose, the swamps were drained, and medical science discovered the cause of the yellow fever, the plagues diminished and were finally controlled. DDT delivered that final glorious blow, to the wild cheers of a world in love with progress and confident in humanity’s capacity to control its future.

Then sometime in the 1960s, all that began to change. There was a dramatic shift in the philosophy of government and in popular culture. The landmark book that appeared 50 years ago this week was Silent Spring by popular writer Rachel Carson. The purpose of the book was to ban DDT. But there was more going on: the advance of a philosophy that turned everything on its head.

Carson decried the idea that man should rule nature. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.” This anthropocentrism she decried.

She suggested that killing a bedbug is no different from killing your neighbor: “Until we have the courage to recognize cruelty for what it is — whether its victim is human or animal — we cannot expect things to be much better in this world… We cannot have peace among men whose hearts delight in killing any living creature.”

In fact, she spoke of animals in patently untrue ways: “These creatures are innocent of any harm to man. Indeed, by their very existence they and their fellows make his life more pleasant.”

I guess she never heard of the Black Death.

In short, she seemed to suggest that bedbugs — among all the millions of other killer insects in the world — enjoy some kind of right to life. It was a theory that could be embraced only in a world without malaria and bedbugs. But embraced it was. By 1972, DDT was banned. And not only DDT. The whole enterprise of coming up with better and better ways to further human life and protect its flourishing was hobbled.

Even now, there are pesticides that were available only five years ago that have disappeared from the shelves. You can buy and buy, spray and spray, but find that you can control the bugs only a bit, not finally. Even now, the typical suburban house dweller and summer home tourist imagines that pesticides constitute a greater threat than insects, and they will tell you this while swatting mosquitoes off their face.

Today, the Bed Bug Registry logs anywhere 30-100 new reports of bedbugs per day, and this must be a small fraction. How many people who deal with this problem never think to go to the Internet to log their experiences?

Here is a report from yesterday in San Francisco that I just grabbed at random:

“We have lived here for seven months. Starting in March 2011, we noticed we first had bedbugs. We washed and packed up everything right away and left it that way for six weeks during extermination. That whole process did nothing and we ended up with bedbugs again after two weeks. Finally, by June, we stopped getting bitten. We thought everything was OK until a neighbor at the end of the hall told us they had had bedbugs three or four times in the past two years and that they need to be sprayed every few months (and were in the process of getting sprayed again). A few weeks after hearing that, two new people moved in next door to us and told us they had bedbugs as well. We now have bedbugs AGAIN!! The management has agreed to exterminate, but only when the two neighbors next door were ready as well ‘so that we could get it all done in one shot.’ It’s disgusting to see that this building is still operable. There is CLEARLY a HUGE problem and the building needs to be condemned. This is a totally uninhabitable place to live!!”

In this one report, you can see the problem. Getting rid of bedbugs is very expensive. There are multitudes of companies that promise to do this, but they are forbidden from using serious chemicals on them. DDT is out of the question. And there is no way to know if they really succeeded in the end, since bedbugs can lay dormant for a year before coming out again at night. The sheer terror that they might reappear can cause insomnia and even insanity — and I can fully see why.

So contrary to Rachel Carson, you don’t sleep better knowing that the bedbugs are enjoying their right to life at your expense. In the end, it is them or us. Their bloated and red bodies appear that way only thanks to your blood, which they have stolen like thieves in the night.

The bedbug problem in this country is epidemic compared with two decades ago. And it is getting worse. And strangely, in the meanwhile, the whole subject has fallen out of the national news. It appears sometimes in local papers, but there is no national controversy about this. A pest that vexed the whole history of humanity and was smashed within the last century has reappeared, a fitting symbol of our regression into decivilization with the advent of a humanity-hating regimentation that protects the physical integrity of swamps and uses the power of government to uphold the rights of insects to live and thrive at our expense.

Instead of alerting us to the bedbug epidemic, what do the media focus on? The pious lovers of nature are right now celebrating their modern saint, Rachel Carson, the woman who manufactured the allegory that drives the decivilizing policies our time.

Most everyone recognizes that the scientific specifics of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring are dated at best, and often wholly fabricated. What stuck was the narrative: If people thrive, nature dies, and that harms all of us spiritually. Therefore, the story goes, we’d better stop all this stuff about economic progress.

To see our possible future does not require imagination. Look at the situation with malaria around the world today. It is a wholly preventable disease, provided that we want to prevent it. But with the banning of DDT, here is the situation, according to the truth-telling website Rachelwaswrong.org:

“Malaria is often a fatal disease caused by a protozoan that is transmitted to humans via mosquito bites. According to the World Health Organization, malaria kills more than a million people a year — mostly children — and makes more than 300 million seriously ill. Ninety percent of malaria’s victims live in Africa, and most of them are children under the age of five. In Africa, one in 20 children dies from malaria, according to one estimate. The malaria death toll is equivalent to about 3,000 children dying from the disease a day — which amounts to one child dying every 30 seconds.”

There is no shortage of websites run by greenheads who imagine that bedbugs can be controlled by airing out mattresses, washing sheets, or using Tarot cards, or whatever. It’s all nonsense. There is a chemical you can use, but it is not approved for indoor use.

In other words, you are going to have to break bad to do this. You can’t even get it at your local big box hardware store, because they fear carrying it. It is called malathion. You can still buy it from Amazon and other online dealers. If you have a bedbug problem, load up on this stuff while you can. Even if you don’t have a problem, it is not a bad idea to prepare.

I’m not at all surprised at the rise of popular culture memes about vampires sucking blood and zombies eating brains. Why are these tropes being trotted out again and why do they tap into our cultural moment in such a penetrating way? Perhaps it is because we are living in the age of real-life vampires and zombies, symbolized most commonly by the bedbug epidemic, but ultimately embodied in the ruling class that lives off the proceeds of our labor and banishes intelligence by the promotion of policies that promote the well-being of things that destroy us, rather than the things like private capital that give us life.

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