The current outbreak of desert locusts in eastern Africa and northern India is the largest in seven decades and it is threatening the food security of millions of people and devastating economies. This ongoing event gives us cause to reflect on the natural history of locusts, our fraught relationship with them, and how American popular culture, and other cultures, portray them.
We show that symbolic representations of locusts span millennia and that most representations have roots in the locust’s natural and astounding life cycle––they transform, they swarm, they devastate specific food crops. There is also a recurring tendency to exaggerate the body size of individual locusts and the effectiveness of human control efforts. Human expressions of futility are rare, except in the form of ironic humor, which people express in diverse ways. We conclude by suggesting that we humans indulge in hyperbole and dark humor about locusts to normalize and inure ourselves to the psychologically unbearable, and that this tendency is a precondition for the techno-optimism and creativity that drives the inception and development of anti-locust technologies.
Although there is no substitute for the proven effectiveness of international monitoring and control programs, the importance of new and emerging anti-locust technologies is expected to grow with projections of increased cyclone activity in the northern Indian Ocean. The symbolic role of desert locusts in popular culture helps create the conditions for technological solutions and is likely to continue with increasing climate change.