Sunday, April 18, 2004

What the World Needs Now Is DDT

A fascinating piece in the New York Times Magazine touching on Africa, malaria, and global warming:
Yet what really merits outrage about DDT today is not that South Africa still uses it, as do about five other countries for routine malaria control and about 10 more for emergencies. It is that dozens more do not. Malaria is a disease Westerners no longer have to think about. Independent malariologists believe it kills two million people a year, mainly children under 5 and 90 percent of them in Africa. Until it was overtaken by AIDS in 1999, it was Africa's leading killer.
Today, westerners with no memory of malaria often assume it has always been only a tropical disease. But malaria was once found as far north as Boston and Montreal. Oliver Cromwell died of malaria, and Shakespeare alludes to it (as ''ague'') in eight plays. Malaria no longer afflicts the United States, Canada and Northern Europe in part because of changes in living habits -- the shift to cities, better sanitation, window screens. But another major reason was DDT, sprayed from airplanes over American cities and towns while children played outside.
In 1970, the National Academy of Sciences wrote in a report that ''to only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT'' and credited the insecticide, perhaps with some exaggeration, with saving half a billion lives.
In her 297 pages, Rachel Carson never mentioned the fact that by the time she was writing, DDT was responsible for saving tens of millions of lives, perhaps hundreds of millions.

DDT killed bald eagles because of its persistence in the environment. ''Silent Spring'' is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.

Obviously, Richard Tren and the libertarians at Africa Fighting Malaria have been advocating DDT use for years now. To read something like this coming from the pen of an editorial writer at the New York Times though is groundbreaking. Let us remember, when we hear of scare reports, like, ‘World Health Organisation report concludes that "global warming could cause the spread of malaria and other tropical diseases to millions of people presently free of them,"’ that malaria is a poverty disease that requires just a bit of development and social organization to be combated, not for a stop to the world’s economic engine, as some, including Greenpeace, would insist.

Tina Rosenberg deserves great kudos for this article. I do however have to take issue with her statement that "Rachel Carson started the environmental movement." Influenced by Romanticism, the evil movement that gave us “orientalism” and bourgeois revolutions,
by the end of the nineteenth century an explicit concern with the environment was at the centre of a wide range of works, from Gerard Manley Hopkins's 'Binsey Poplars' (1879) to Sarah Orne Jewett's 'A White Heron' (1886) and Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1897).

At the end of part one of "Uncle Vanya" (David Mamet's translation, which is very close to the original), Dr. Astrov, the country doctor, says:
"Billions of trees. All perishing. The homes of birds and beasts being laid waste. The level of the rivers falls, and they dry up. And sublime landscapes disappear, never to return, because man hasn't sense enough to bend down and pick fuel up from the ground. Isn't this so? What must man be, to destroy what he never can create?"

Is the environmental movement today saying anything all that different? Are its policies being driven by any more facts than a hundred years ago? (Via Jens 'n' Frens)

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