Bringing views from the arts, humanities, natural and social sciences, this October five members of the WetlandLIFE team joined a diverse array of participants at the Mosquitopia Symposium in Landshut, Bavaria, to tackle a question that is perhaps more pertinent now than it has ever been.
Organised by the Rachel Carson Center as a Rachel Carson Legacy Symposium, the three-day meeting was a timely opportunity to reflect on whether there is a place for mosquitoes in a healthy world. The key questions of the symposium focused on whether it is possible to eradicate mosquitoes and, more importantly, if it is, what are the arguments for and against doing so. What might be the consequences of achieving this, or indeed attempting this endeavour and failing?
The meeting was a fantastic opportunity to explore how we think about this tiny but impactful insect, and question our own values, priorities and perspectives. With twenty-three participants from at least a dozen different disciplines, there was much ground to cover, and much to learn. Historical views on mosquito eradication in South America and more biorational approaches in contemporary mosquito control, presented by keynote speakers Nancy Leys Stepan (Columbia University) and Willem Takken (Wageningen University), provided a launch pad for subsequent sessions. Over a series of themed talks and discussions, participants reviewed successes and failures in mosquito control operations, their impact on human and environmental health, and the rationales behind these campaigns. Context is key, as was revealed by fascinating archival work by Melissa Graboyes (University of Oregon) on practices and philosophies in past control campaigns in areas endemic for mosquito-borne disease, and ethnographic research reported by Luísa Reis-Castro (MIT) on how mosquitoes, and our bodily relationship to them and the diseases they carry, are perceived and conceptualized by specific communities.
This also came to the fore in contributions from the WetlandLIFE team; understanding the diverse values associated with English wetland habitats, and how mosquitoes in this (currently) disease-free environment influence these values, has yielded some surprising results, highlighting important distinctions between nuisance and disease risk. WetlandLIFE researcher Adriana Ford screened Mosquito and Me, a short documentary on how people living in English wetlands perceive mosquitoes, while WetlandLIFE artists Kerry Morrison and Helmut Lemke embarked on an after-dinner tour de force in which they shared their approach to placing the mosquito front and centre in the mind of the public, challenging preconceptions and sparking conversation. Project entomologist Frances Hawkes explored the fascinating biology and diversity of mosquitoes, the overwhelming majority of which pose no threat to human health at all, and ways in which this knowledge can be applied in developing alternative control approaches to insecticides, and Peter Coates, WetlandLIFE’s environmental historian, took a long view of mosquito control, bringing to life the endeavours of the British Mosquito Control Institute, operating nearly a hundred years ago on England's Channel Coast.
The breadth and depth of topics was astounding. Reflecting on the meeting, Mosquitopia convener Marcus Hall (University of Zurich) said “We found ourselves exploring many, many subjects: from the politics of decision-making, the rights of natural creatures, the realities of malaria and Dengue relapse, the dangers of insecticides, the challenges of gene drives, and the real horrors of human suffering.” Detailed technical discussion in topics from such diverse disciplines as bioethics and environmental ethics, the arts, evolutionary and molecular biology, history and anthropology was challenging, thought-provoking and sobering. Areas around the world where mosquito-borne diseases have been eliminated, leaving only the insect behind, provide hope for the future and the energy and enthusiasm for tackling mosquito-borne disease in sustainable, context-sensitive ways.
Returning to the central construct of the symposium regarding whether we could or should eliminate mosquitoes, it was apparent that there are no simple answers, no one-size-fits-all solution. Participants in the symposium are now preparing a book with Routledge based on these discussions and a short film made during the symposium will be released shortly. But what was clear is that the Anthropocene—a world of changing climate and rapidly advancing technology—poses new challenges (and some old ones) with respect to how we face the tiny mosquito, in our complex, globalizing world.
You can read more about the symposium in this three-part blog from the Rachel Carson Centre, written by symposium conveners Marcus Hall and Dan Tamir:
- Mosquitopia Part 1: Killing mosquitoes? The pros and cons
- Mosquitopia Part 2: A few reasons for saving mosquitoes
- Mosquitopia Part 3: Key reasons for killing mosquitoes