Friday, January 06, 2006

Spreading the Gospel of DDT

I’ll get back to the rest of my trip to North Africa next time.

I normally avoid this kind of post on this blog, but sometimes things get so silly you have to say something.

I read a number of what most people would consider to be right wing blogs as well as blogs far to the left. I read 'em because I like to know what a variety of folks are thinking, and though they normally don't shed much interesting light you do sometimes come across something really fresh and significant.

But sometimes these kinds of blogs just get so loopy and ideological that they require a response. I'll go after the goofy left bloggers in a post soon, but for now I wanted to highlight our right thinking friends.

A Right Thinking Fable

One of the latest examples of right wing blogging is a mini-crusade to spread the use of DDT around the world.

DDT was a toxic pesticide used to control insects and malaria in the US decades ago. While highly effective against malaria, it also did tremendous damage to wildlife populations. In particular, it decimated bird groups. So it’s use was severely restricted in the US and eventually in most places around the world.

Turns out, according to some of our right wing blogging friends, that the restriction of DDT was really a “liberal conspiracy.” Yes, we might have known.

The right thinker moral fable goes something like this....

Weak minded and irrational white people decided that birds were more important than people.

These sorts of white people are very different from "rational" and right thinking people of all colors who believe that people are more important than birds.

Those arrogant limousine liberals have forgotten how they got to the top. Their ancestors slashed and burned and poisoned their way to economic self-sufficiency, and now that they’ve reached the top they want to pull up the ladder by sanctimoniously imposing irrational restrictions on things like highly toxic pesticides which could help poor people around the world.

As the right wing moral fable continues, millions of people in the developing world suffer from malaria and that disease takes a terrible toll. It kills millions and severely retards economic growth that could lift huge numbers of people out of poverty.

That last part of the fable—and only that part—is accurate.

The right thinking fable concludes by calling for a re-evaluation of DDT. They want to put a stop to liberal arrogance and cover Africa with a logical and right thinking blanket of DDT.

One guy on a blog I read regularly concluded a couple of days ago that the reason poor people in Africa aren’t getting help in the fight against malaria is that “liberals hate chemicals.”

I know it sounds like I’m making that up, but incredibly I’m not. That person may be sitting next to you in church next Sunday.

To their great credit, the right thinkers are trying to raise a life and death human and moral issue.

Of course, lots of other people are raising it too, but it doesn’t take away from the timeliness of their important take. Curable and preventable diseases like malaria are killing many millions and contributing to the severe poverty that afflicts people in much of the developing world, particularly in Africa.

It’s the rest of the fable that is so silly and needlessly divisive that’s it’s hard to know how to respond to it. You would think that on an issue like widespread disease and poverty, honest folks who are serious about addressing it would want to make every effort to draw in the widest group of people to help deal with it instead of driving ideological wedges and taking advantage of real human need to push their own ideological agendas.

An Alternative Approach

Here’s an example of the kind of positive and non-ideological approach I’m talking about. Bill Gates’ foundation is doing ground breaking, effective, and creative work in eradicating malaria in Africa.

They’re spending huge amounts of money on experimental approaches with strict and monitored feedback loops to insure increasingly effective procedures. The focus is on developing highly cost effective approaches that local people can make use of without extensive training or forcing them out of their cultural and social expectations. The focus is on widespread use of enhanced mosquito netting, simple and effective treatments for folks who already have the disease, and vaccines which may help huge numbers avoid getting the disease in the first place.

A high priority is avoiding the widespread use of highly toxic chemicals and pesticides, a goal that most responsible people--read non-ideological people who actually know what they’re talking about--agree on.

The decisive majority of experts consider the widespread use of DDT to be counterproductive, destructive, and unecessary. In spite of what some of the right thinking bloggers argue, there is no deep "controversy" over the use of DDT. As with any issue in science, there are some who argue with the prevailing view and believe that DDT could be used against malaria without the same kind of toxic effects to the environment, but they're in a small minority.

What This Is Really About

In the end, any debate about the use of DDT has to rest on the science. If a way can be found to use some derivative of DDT without the severe toxic effects it produced in the past, that's great. In that case, in my view, start spraying tomorrow.

But this isn't really a debate about science.

In my mind, the right thinking fable I laid out above is only partly about malaria or poor people in Africa. It’s at least as much about a long term ideological agenda that’s hostile to environmental protection if that gets in the way of free markets and often even if it doesn’t.

It’s the same old repetitive thing we’ve been hearing for 40 years. These folks are pretty much as boring as the doctrinaire environmentalists who have just as cartoonish a view of the world as the committed right thinkers.

DDT has become an issue in the self-referential world of right thinker blogging these days because that was the pesticide that Rachel Carson originally highlighted in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring in the 1960’s. That book helped launch the environmental movement that the right thinkers dislike so much.

So supporting the use of DDT is a right thinker ideological milestone and is--like drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve--an important symbolic benchmark in their increasingly annoying "ideological struggle."

So I guess people can either approach an issue like eradicating disease in Africa from a pragmatic and practical approach or they can approach it from a silly, if sometimes entertaining, ideological approach. The great thing about the latter, though it rarely produces anything but hot air and blog hits from the true believers, is that you can blame those irrational and sub-moral people. Particularly the ones who “hate chemicals.” They’re the worst :^)


Anonymous alex said...

Interesting post - I have a couple of comments. It seems to me that one way to understand conservative opposition to environmental protection is to recognize the connection many conservatives make between protecting the environment and increasing government regulation. If the conservative mantra is "big government is evil," then their opposition to environmental regulation starts to make sense.

Of course the problem with this approach is that protecting the environment is probably the cardinal 20th century example of "liberal" government regulation making peoples lives better. It has unquestionably worked - and who can argue with cleaner air and cleaner water? And it's not as if companies that were toxic polluters woke up one day and decided to mend their ways. They had to be forced and in this case the federal government did what needed to be done for all of us.

Civil rights legislation is perhaps another good example of "liberal" government intervention working. Who argues that the United States would be better off with Jim Crow laws and explicit segregation? Nobody.

But where I get frustrated with both sides (both liberal and conservative) is their inability to admit that the opposing camp may be making valid points on certain issues. So, for example, I think there are in fact many issues for which intrusive government intervention has had decidedly mixed results, and may have even made things worse as opposed to better. I'm thinking of some of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs whose legacy, in my mind, becomes more and more problematic over time.

For me the truth on many of these issues is in the details - sometimes government helps, but many times it doesn't. One of the interesting things about the Gates foundation efforts that you highlight is that they are private, which as I understand it has allowed their approach to be much more creative, flexible and efficient than might be the case if more government funding were involved.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

We're on the same page.

8:54 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

yes, interesting post.

Besides its toxicity to wildlife (not so much to humans, actually), the other issue with DDT is resistance. It only took about 10 years in the US for mosquito populations to become about 90% resistant to DDT. Covering Africa with a blanket of DDT (or any other pesticide) would only work until resistance built up.

Then, of course, another pesticide would be needed, then another, thus ensuring job security for chemical company employees ad infinitum.

Ha! You see? All part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy!!

1:15 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yes, undoubtedly there are hordes of malevolent conservatives plotting in a back room somewhere :^) There's a really interesting article in this week's Economist which addresses this whole American propensity toward paranoia and believing in conspiracy theories. The author argues it is--in small doses--one of the best things about the US which was founded on deep suspicion of an imperial government (Britain). He believes--and I tend to agree--that a little paranoia about power is all to the good. But he argues it's gotten way out of hand and way too ideological. I thought his take was pretty relevant.

3:55 PM  
Blogger jon said...

To be fair, I just spoke to a liberal friend about this, and he admitted that he has a gut reaction against a lot of chemicals. He currently is against using chemical fertilizers and DDT, but he freely said that he had "no evidence or real reason for this opinion at all". There are plenty of people out there who do "hate chemicals" and are just going to have negative reactions against them regardless. Now he is a reasonable guy and said that if he was shown evidence that chemical fertilizers did not do long-term damage to the soil, or that DDT could be used for a short period of time to wipe out mosquito populations without destroying animal populations in the long term, then he would support both propositions. But it is true that some people do dislike chemicals and try to avoid their use whenever possible.

As far as the specific two propositions go...

My thoughts on organic farming are largely shaped by Norman Borlaug (, who I first learned about two years ago. Reading a feature article about him actually made me seriously consider pursuing a graduate program in agricultural science (I registered for the first two courses) as a means of serving the poor in Africa. There are people who disagree with him, but it really seems that the work he did was ultimately a very good thing.

As far as DDT goes, I grew up as a radical environmentalist and DDT was one of our greatest demons. At the same time, I grew up fascinated by stories of animals killing people, and mosquitos were one of the greatest killers. I used to read accounts about how DDT was used to eliminate malaria in many places and how huge strides were being made in eliminating malaria in Africa until its use was seriously cut back. Once DDT application was limited, malaria sprung up again in force. I always just considered this a bad situation - it didn't occur to me that using DDT again could be a reasonable option. I thought that humans were being overly favored in every way and anytime that nature got preference over man was a good thing.

Nowadays though...I don't know. It would depend on some factors. What are the exact effects across the food chain? Egg-softening is always given as the main effect. A lot of aquatic life is also affected in a negative way. And insects, of course. Most other things (including people) appear to escape without harm. How long would application have to be for malaria to be eradicated? DDT eradicated the disease in NA and Europe in less than 10 years, I believe, but Africa would certainly produce a more technically challenging problem. Then again, I'm sure that our technology and techniques are much better now. If we could eliminate malaria in Africa in 10 years, while doing some damage to aquatic populations and birds of prey, would be worth it? What if we could do it in 5 years? Can/should a line be drawn? I don't know where I would draw it, but I believe that this is a legitimate question.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thoughtful stuff as always Jon.

I kind of like specifics, pragmatism and openess. I'm not too excited about true believing ideology. Too many people who like controversy for controversy's sake and too many folks building a career in that game.

9:21 PM  
Blogger jon said...

heh - just saw this headline in the LA Times:

Scientists Debate Bill to Restrict Chemicals,0,1294608.story?coll=la-home-local

For now I'll ignore the question of why the writer chose such a vague headline. My question is - do you think anybody looks at that headline and reflexively thinks "I hope the chemicals get restricted" without knowing anything about the chemicals involved?

1:50 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

hmmm.... I think it would take more than 10 years to eradicate malaria from Africa. In North America it's not just the previous use of DDT, it's vector control programs that continue to monitor and control mosquito populations, which Africa is not set up for. Plus in Africa you have populations of alternate hosts and continuous mosquito breeding throughout the year.

mmmmm, 20 years of DDT maybe? The thing is that even if application is short-term, the effects are long-term. It does build up in human fatty tissue... the effects are not immediately toxic, but if I recall correctly it can depress the immune system. And it just never breaks down... sticks around a long time, unless it washes into the ocean.

9:32 AM  
Blogger jon said...

I don't think all of that information is quite accurate. DDT reduced annual malaria deaths in India from 1,000,000 to a few thousand in less than 15 years, and that was 50 years ago - I'm hoping that current techniques could work much better. Perhaps not eliminate in 10 years, but bring it down to a controllable state.

It does build up in fatty tissue, but once exposure is decreased it will slowly leave. And studies have not shown any long-term harmful effects on humans.

And it does break down - its half life in the air is only 2 days. It lives much longer in the soil, but eventually breaks down there as well - half life of anywhere from 2 years to 15 years, depending on which study you believe.

9:08 PM  
Blogger jon said...

ooh - I found a good article on India and malaria:

It makes the situation look quite complicated.

One positive factor for Africa - one of my African friends told me that malaria-harboring regions are quite isolated from each other. I think that Africa has less of a rainy season and a higher percentage of its malaria-harboring land is broken up than India does.

9:15 PM  

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