I have a confession to make. About 50 years ago as a college student, I worked a few summers for the Union County (New Jersey) Mosquito Extermination Commission (UCMEC). In this capacity, I was personally responsible for the death of billions of mosquitoes and countless other innocent organisms unlucky enough to come into contact with the deadly stuff I sprayed. This despite my father’s warnings I was poisoning myself. Archie was a union organizer, concerned with worker health. As a member of the “Book of the Month Club” he had gotten a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I ignored his advice and continued my biocidal activities – where else could an 18-year old earn $2.95 an hour (the minimum wage at the time was less than two bucks). And of course mosquitoes bite and carry dangerous diseases.
Wigglers: Vinnie was our crew boss. An Italian immigrant pushing retirement, he had little formal education. Yet his knowledge of mosquitoes and their environments was formidable. He showed us how mosquitoes (which have many generations per summer) lay their “egg boats” in stagnant water. Each “boat” has dozens of eggs which hatch into little mosquito larvae less than ¼ inch in length; these feed on algae and bacteria. Spraying the pesticide-laden oil forms a thin slick over the water depriving the larvae of oxygen and their chance to mature and fly away as adults. Only the females feed on the blood they need to produce eggs. The males are content to dine on nectar.
Occasionally I would see a dead bird lying in a drainage ditch which I had sprayed the week before.
The best breeding grounds were the shallow ponds found in the local garbage dump which consisted of huge, uncovered mountains of rotting garbage. The ponds, surfaces black with the little wigglers, were a flavorful broth. Despite, the visceral satisfaction I got by killing billions in a single hour, our visits to the aromatic dump was not my favorite tour of duty. (Garbage dumps were replaced by “sanitary landfills” during the 1970’s and 80’s.)
Ecology: Vinnie’s territory had the most swamp land in the county. Yet he had the lowest mosquito trap counts. Much of the credit goes to Vinnie’s ecological savvy. He showed us that most freshwater in marshes invariably had lots of predators, water beetles, skates, fish, dragon flies, etc.. “If I ever see you spray water with water beetles, you fired.” The need to spray less allowed us to finish the work by lunchtime leaving afternoon for (a) sleeping (b) playing horseshoes in the swamp (c) weeding Vinnie’s garden.
There was only one problem with this happy arrangement. Once in a while there was far too much oil left in the tank. And if the yard boss found out he would suspect that Vinnie and and crew were slacking off. To avoid this indictment, Vinnie drove the truck to a secluded spot where he attached a hose to the tank, turned on the spigot and let the oil flow into a storm sewer and nearby stream. These streams ultimately flow past the huge Bayway refinery area into the Arthur Kill and ultimately into the New York Bay and the Atlantic fisheries beyond.
An ecological perspective: From standpoint of our crew, we did what was efficient and expedient. However, we externalized the damages and costs of our actions. What we did on a small scale was to follow the dominant economic paradigm which defines efficiency from the standpoint of individual entities. Large corporations have an exponentially bigger capacity to impose environmental as well as economic damages on the “whole.”
There is however, an alternative approach – one which emphasizes the efficiency and well being from a systemic and holistic viewpoint, an approach which values actions which contribute to the well being of the whole. This leads us to the next question: What role should governments play in protecting the natural and economic resources needed to maintain healthy and resilient societies and our ecological life support systems. We will take up this issue in the next post.
Eventually, I did read Silent Spring and came to acknowledge my father’s wisdom. My atonement also included an itchy red rash on my back – the place where the oil periodically leaked from my spray can. This leads me to some unpleasant thoughts: If I must spend time in purgatory, what if it’s administered by hordes of angry mosquitoes? Worse, yet, karma: I might be reincarnated as a mosquito in Union County.