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Pandora's Box 04 - Goodbye Mrs. Ant

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Description

Pandora's Box

Adam Curtis

Episode Four

Goodbye Mrs. Ant

This part focuses on attitudes to nature and tells the story of the insecticide DDT, which was first seen as a savior to humankind in the 1940s, only to be claimed as a part of the destruction of the entire ecosystem in the late 60s. It also outlines how the sciences of entomology and ecology were transformed by political and economic pressures.

The episode appears to be named after the 1959 film Goodbye, Mrs. Ant. Clips from the 1958 horror movie Earth vs. the Spider and the 1941 grasshopper cartoon Hoppity Goes to Town are also featured.

Insects were a huge problem in the United States and farmers saw whole crops destroyed by pests. Emerging in the 1940s DDT and other insecticides seemed to be the solution. As more insecticides were invented, the science of entomology changed focus from insect classification, to primarily testing new insecticides and exterminating insects rather than cataloging them. But the insecticides had side effects. As early as 1946-48 entomologists began to notice that other species of wildlife, particularly birds, were being harmed by the insecticides.

Chemical companies portrayed the battle against insects as a struggle for existence and their promotional films from the 1950s invoke Charles Darwin. Darwin biographer James Moore notes how the battlefield and life and death aspects of Darwin's theories were emphasized to suit the Cold War years. Scientists believed that they were seizing power from evolution and redirecting it by controlling the environment.

In 1962 biologist Rachel Carson released the book Silent Spring, which was the first serious attack on pesticides and outlined their harmful side effects. It caused a public outcry but had no immediate effect on the use of pesticides. Entomologist Gordon Edwards retells how he made speeches critical of Carson's book. He eats some DDT on camera to show how he'd demonstrate its safety during these talks.

The spraying of DDT in the growing suburbs brought the side effects to the attention of the wealthy and articulate middle classes. Victor Yannacone, a suburbanite and lawyer, helped found the Environmental Defense Fund with the aim to legally challenge the use of pesticides. They argued that the chemicals were becoming more poisonous as they spread, as evidenced by the disappearance of the Peregrine Falcon.

In 1968 they got a hearing on DDT in Madison, Wisconsin. It became headline news, with both sides claiming that everything America stood for was at stake. Biologist Thomas Jukes is shown singing a pro-DDT parody on America the Beautiful he sent to Time magazine at the time of the trial. Hugh Iltis describes how in 1969 a scientist testified at the hearing about how DDT appears in breast milk and accumulate in the fat tissue of babies. This got massive media attention.

Where once chemicals were seen as good, now they were bad. In the late 60s ecology was a marginal science. But Yannacone used ecology as a scientific basis to challenge the DDT defenders' idea of evolution. Similar to how the science of entomology had been changed in the 1950s, ecology was transformed by the social and political pressures of the early 70s. Ecologists became the guardians of the human relationship to nature.

James Moore describes how people try to get Darwin on the side of their view of nature. In The Origin of Species nature is seen as being at war, but also likened to a web of complex relations. Here Darwin gave people a basis for urging us not to take control of nature but cooperate with it. In popular imagination a scientific theory has a single fixed meaning, but in reality it becomes cultural property and is usable by different interested parties.

Twenty years later the story of DDT continues with a press conference announcing the stop of construction in a skyscraper due to a nesting Peregrine Falcon. Ornitologist David Berger criticizes the event for fostering the myth of the sensitivity of nature.

Joan Halifax talks about ecology as a gift to human beings and all species, a moral lesson that gave rise to not utopia, but ecotopia.

Politics Professor Langdon Winner theorizes that social ideals are being read back to us as if they were lessons derived from science itself. The scientific notions of the 1950s, the ideas of endless possibilities for exploitations of nature, are now seen as ill-conceived. And the ideas of ecology today may in 30 or 40 years seem similarly ill-conceived.

The episode ends with a quote from Darwin about seeking divine providence in nature: "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can."

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