Ticks, Pesticides, and Biome-Subjectivity

By Abigail Dumes, University of Michigan §

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. [1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

The takeaway from this example, of course, is that environmental risk is relative, slippery, and deeply subjective. For individuals in Lyme-endemic areas who have not experienced Lyme disease, the risk of pesticides is often perceived to be greater than that of Lyme disease. But for many Lyme patients, few risks exceed Lyme’s. As one scientist and pesticide advocate I interviewed declared, “Human health will always prevail. Before the West Nile scare happened, who could have imagined that helicopters would be flying over New York to spray pesticides? New Yorkers are the most toxic paranoid outside of San Francisco.” “The decision is easy,” he said. “Either spray pesticides or get Lyme disease.” But among the individuals with whom I spent time, the decision was rarely so easy. Indeed, even though individuals who are concerned about Lyme disease often choose the risk of pesticide use over that of Lyme disease, concerns about pesticide toxicity often continue to haunt them.

It is also true that, for all of those who weigh the “two evils” of ticks and pesticides and choose pesticides, there are still those who are acutely concerned about tick exposure, cannot bring themselves to spray pesticides, and look to other creative solutions. This was the case with an experimental “green school” in Maryland, a representative of which spoke at an EPA conference held in Washington D.C. in the spring of 2011. The representative explained how, when planners chose the 17 acre forested site upon which the school was built, they were not aware that it was infested with ticks. Upon realizing that it was, the school unanimously agreed not to spray. Because they were a Quaker school, the representative explained, they considered themselves “stewards of the earth” and, given their proximity to wetlands, were concerned about the effect their actions would have on local amphibians. Among the tick management solutions they had put in place were free-range guinea hens, duct taping the pant legs of every child who went outdoors, and limiting recess play to the blacktop. In the end, the representative concluded, she was not sure if any of their efforts were effective, but the school consoled itself in recognizing that they had, at least, created “quite a discussion piece.” For members of this Quaker school and for many other individuals in Lyme-endemic areas, the boundary between the self and the environment has never been more porous, and the realization that “what is bad for the environment is bad for the self” has never been more palpable.[4]

For anthropologists, subjectivity is often a matter of “inner life processes and affective states” (Biehl et al. 2007:6). But as scientific discoveries like the microbiome gain traction in the collective imagination and reconfigure everyday understandings of self and non-self, and as “tentacular” enmeshment between, for example, humans and ticks become harder to avoid, subjectivity seems to hinge less and less on the distinction between interiority and exteriority and, in many cases, is more fully captured by what I call “biome-subjectivity,” a relational and reciprocal “being” and “doing” among and between a range of human and non-human organisms and their environments (Haraway 2017).[5] Like the mathematical Klein bottle, a one-sided non-orientable surface with no distinction between “inside” and “outside,” the simultaneity of biome-subjectivity’s interiority and exteriority can be understood as a Deleuze and Guattarian “field of immanence” that “is not internal to the self, but neither does it come from an external self or a nonself” (1987:156).

And, indeed, for many individuals in Lyme-endemic areas, ticks and pesticides are not mere externalities but organisms and objects that form a “field of immanence” with their bodies. This is the case when an individual discovers that what she thought was an expanding mole on her back is, instead, a blood-feasting tick. Or when, because of ticks’ small size and their preference for hard-to-reach parts of the human body, the specter of a tick attachment leads individuals to check each other’s nooks and crannies over and over again. Or even when, after daily applications of insect repellant, an individual attempts to therapeutically “detox” the very toxins that keep her “safe” from ticks. Thinking about ticks and pesticides, then, also asks us to think about the ever-pulsing possibilities of biome-subjectivity, a collective and interactive “being” and “doing” with a toxic environment that, for many, is increasingly a part of the body and not apart from it.

Works Cited

Biehl, Joao, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman
2008 Rethinking Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari
1987[1980] A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dumes, Abigail
2014 Paradise Poisoned: Nature, Environmental Risk, and the Practice of Lyme Disease Prevention in the United States. In A Companion to the Anthropology of Environmental Health, Merrill Singer, ed. Malden, MA: Wiley and Sons.
Haraway, Donna
2016 Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kohn, Eduardo
2013 How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lemon, Stanley M. et al.
2008 Vector-Borne Diseases: Understanding the Environmental, Human Health, and Ecological Connections. Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt
2017 The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


[1] https://www.ota.com/news/press-releases/19681; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/us/politics/epa-insecticide-chlorpyrifos.html?mcubz=3&_r=0; http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6229/1255957. Accessed November 5, 2017.

[2] http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2013/p0819-lyme-disease.html. Accessed November 5, 2017.

[3] “Stop, drop, and roll” is a widely used and nationally recognized fire safety message that instructs individuals what to do in the event of a fire.

[4] Elizabeth F. S. Roberts makes an important observation that while “anthropocenic exposure” might be an experience shared by “all,”  “exposure burdens have never been equally shared.” https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1152-exposure. Accessed November 5, 2017.

[5] Here I use “enmeshment,” a popular psychological term that describes a relationship “between two or more people in which boundaries are permeable and unclear,” to emphasize the deeply affective dimension of individuals’ relationships with their environments. https://www.fulsheartransition.com/enmeshment-symptoms-and-causes/. Accessed November 5, 2017

Abigail Dumes received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from Yale University. She is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, and her book, Divided Bodies: Lyme Disease, Contested Illness, and Evidence-Based Medicine in the United States, is under contract with Duke University Press.

This post is part of our series Toxic Bodies.