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The not-so-hidden costs of Green enthusiasms

A few decades ago, the curse of malaria, which for centuries had made large parts of the world uninhabitable and killed millions, had been largely eradicated because of the pesticide DDT. However, as many will know, this chemical was banned after a long campaign by environmentalists, concerned that the substance worked its way through the entire food chain, possibly causing cancers and other ailments. The writer Rachel Carson, in her famous, or perhaps infamous, book Silent Spring, helped focus Greens’ righteous anger on DDT.

The outcome may have been splendid for the mozzies, and possbily may also have had beneficial consequences for various species of flora and fauna. However, its impact on those awkward beings known as humans has been drastic. Millions are now dying at a high rate as malaria stages a virulent comeback.

I like to be a charitable chap and imagine that a lot of environmentalists feel worried about this, but I suspect that a good deal of do-gooders who had argued for the abolition of DDT feel not a nano-second’s qualm about the impact of what has happened.

Malaria is not a subject that may get pop singers like U2’s Bono all excited, as is the case with AIDS, but the death toll is huge, and it is growing.

28 comments to The not-so-hidden costs of Green enthusiasms

  • Samuel Tai

    Observe that a large part of Green thinking derives from their belief that Homo sapiens, being at the apex of the food chain, requires predation in order to re-balance the unnatural advantages of technology. It matters not if the predation is accomplished by other humans or pathogens. It is an article of faith there are too many humans for the Earth’s carrying capacity.

  • Thanks for providing still more evidence that the Left has no regard for human life. AIDS is a cause only because it is associated with homosexuality and drug abuse. You even have to wonder if the Left’s professed fondness for animals is mainly a matter of finding an excuse to put the screws to farmers, developers, loggers, and human society in general.

  • J

    Van Helsing

    You are confusing Green and Left. I certainly agree that there’s a significant element in the green movement who think that the ‘gaia’ is more important than humans. However, it’s a bit silly to think that British socialism isn’t deeply concerned with human life (and the quality thereof). It may be wrong about how to improve it, but you can’t really argue that it doesn’t care about it.

    Anyway, back on the subject of greens and their misanthopy. I’ve never had any problem with sacrificing human happiness for non-human causes. For instance, a world that contains tigers is easily (IMO) worth the price of a few eaten villagers and a few more eaten cattle each year. This isn’t a utilitarian argument (although I think it could be – I think tigers bring more happiness than they bring sorrow, to mankind at large). I’m just saying that tigers are worth letting people die for.

    As for DDT, it is no more my duty to kill other people’s mosquitoes than it is my duty to save other people’s birds of prey (DDT kill birds of prey). If some 3rd world swamp wants to manufacture DDT and spray it around the place, that’s fine. And if some western consumers want to boycott that country’s exports because of its behaviour that’s fine to. It’s just the market at work. Personally I wish more 3rd world countries would forget about trying to get in the West’s good graces, and just do what they see fit. But it’s up to them if they want to appease the Green movement.

  • largely eradicated because of the pesticide DDT

    I disagree with nothing you say here Jonathan- certainly the ban on DDT costs a great many lives – but this is an exaggeration. DDT played a part, but antimalarial drugs starting with quinine and advancing from there probably played a bigger part.

    The resurgence of malaria since the 1970s has two causes: one is the fact that DDT is no longer used and the other is that there has been little money spent on further development of antimalarial drugs since the end of the Vietnam war in the 1970s. When America was fighting a tropical war they spent a lot of money fighting malaria. There hasn’t been an incentive like that since.

  • Jacob

    Could it possibly be a case of racism ?? Greens against blacks ? (It’s mostly Africans that are dying of malaria).

    Impossible ! Every one knows that racism is an one way accusation – only from left to right, never vice-versa.
    I would also not dare to doubt the nobelness of the greens’ intentions. They did not MEAN to kill (black) people. Thet fell prey to the cruelty of unintended consequences.

  • Sylvain Galineau

    Michael, grasping at straws to try and mitigate the disaster of the anti-DDT campaign won’t cut it. South Africa has suffered terribly from the DDT ban.

    South Africa stopped using DDT in 1996. In 1996, 8000 were infected. By 2000, they were at least 42,000. The South African Department of Health tells anyone who asks that DDT is the single biggest factor in the control of malaria. The country has since reintroduced it, together with new drug therapies.

    And spending on malaria treatment did increase during the 1996-2000 period. It just couldn’t keep up with the disease’s rate of growth. So the lack of drugs or new treatments was not an issue as much as the fact that they are simply insufficient today. We knew that. They knew that. That’s why they used DDT.

    New drugs, they take a decade to engineer. You know that. I know that. So did the advocates of the DDT ban. But their priorities were elsewhere. At the end of the day, tens of thousands of people – most of them children – got infected so a few South-African government officials and a group of sanctimonious NGO assholes could brag about ‘eradicating DDT’. Genius.

  • Sylvain: I’m not attempting to downplay the disaster of the DDT ban. It is catastrophic. And it is a consequence of incredible and morally abominable stupidity and callousness on the part of its proponents. I was simply nitpicking the original observation that Malaria was “largely eradicated due to DDT”. There was more to it than that, although DDT played a very large role. And the fact that we now have drug resistant strains of malaria that we didn’t have in 1970 does play a part in the resurgence of the disease, although the role of the DDT ban is almost certainly much greater.

  • Oh, please. This meme has been done to death in the blogosphere. DDT is not and was never banned from use as an insecticide in the developing world. In fact, here is a quote from the WHO’s FAQ on DDT:

    WHO recommends indoor residual spraying of DDT for malaria vector control.

    It was banned in the US and other industrialised countries for agricultural use in 1972. While pressure from international NGO’s was a factor, there were other more important factors, such as mosquito population resistance and cost concerns given the low number of malaria deaths in many countries at the time.

    As with global warming, much of what passes for commentary on this issue from the Right of the blogosphere is simply parroted nonsense cut-and-pasted from the websites of think-tanks. To be fair, the other side is not much different – but at least their appeals to authority are directed at those who are actually authorities on the subject.

    There is more information about the DDT ban myth here and a typical example of spin versus facts in the DDT debate here.

  • Clarification: the sentence beginning “While pressure from international NGO’s was a factor…” was intended to refer to reduced use of DDT in the developing world, rather than the 1972 ban.

  • jon

    The overuse of DDT was part of the reason it got its bad reputation (and subsequent not-exactly-a-ban bans). The stuff was just used too much, got all over the environment, and had too many unintended consequences to go on unchecked. Birds dying off just isn’t a good thing, and it causes people to wonder what’s next.

    I’m reminded of another environmental cause that gets a lot of sympathy: activism against the clear-cutting of forests. Most people support some level of logging, use paper products, and don’t want loggers and millworkers on welfare. But they don’t want ugly, blighted landscapes, rivers and streams clogged with dust, and a loss of fishing and hunting possibilities. (Of course, the environmentalists didn’t really want massive forest fires and animal overpopulation, either. But that’s another story, as is the issue of cattle ranching)

  • Findlay Dunachie

    I can’t expect many bloggers to trawl my Author Archive to read more than one of my past reviews on the DDT ban, but the fight to get it lifted has been going on for years.

    Greenpeace was – perhaps still is – pressurizing the Indian Government to close down the only plant in the world that still makes DDT. WHO may be backtracking a bit, but is doing nothing to actively promote DDT use that I know of.

    It all goes back to long ago, when, despite a US Government sponsored report that DDT didn’t harm humans and wildlife, the person actually in charge of authorizing or banning insecticides banned it anyway, due to ill-informed public pressure. And the rest of the world followed suit.

    Ceylon (Sri Lanka) had nearly eradicated malaria, then stopped using DDT and malaria returned. Much the same happened in India. All the Mediterranean countries where malaria flourished post-war were cleared before Carson’s book started the scare, so who was worrying after that?

    My belief is that the demonizing of DDT is partly due to the fact that most people have never heard of any other insecticide – organochlorine, organophosphorous or other.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    “I have never had any problem with sacrificing humans for non-human causes”, writes “J”. Perhaps the humans being “sacrificed” might like some say in the matter. There does need to be a much more honest appreciation of the costs and benefits of bans on stuff like DDTs, and the Greenies need to be more straight with the public in framing their case.

    Michael Jennings nitpicks my original claim but from what I have read — and that is quite a bit — DDT was the prime cause of the initial reduction in malaria. I’ll be willinging to stand corrected.

    Chris V claims that the pesticide was never banned in the “Third World” and the ban mainly applied to industrialised nations like the United States. That is not what I read. There has been a lot of focus on outlawing DDT in non-industrialised nations, which is where a lot of breeding grounds for mozzies are. Check out this link:



  • Tim Lambert does a good job debunking the junk-science myths about DDT here (and on various other posts).

    I recommend reading it before future spouting off on the evils of environmentalists…

  • Having suffered from malaria more times than most people I know (at least a dozen times if memory serves correctly), I read this piece with some interest. It is a shame that “green” thinking helps keep some under-developed regions just that way. But some of the ridiculous claims made for re-instating DDT are equally ludicrous:

    Professor Edwards in his classroom occasionally ate a tablespoon of DDT to illustrate to his students that it is not harmful.

    FYI every synthetic drug known to mankind is harmful. One of the problems with DDT in certain countries in Africa was its misuse for fishing, for example. Large stocks of fish were wasted not to mention the large numbers of people who were made ill from eating the said catch. In the village where I lived in the eighties, necking a decent quantity of DDT was the favoured means of stopping-the-world-so-you-could-get-off amongst suicidal peasants.

    Decent arguments for the return of DDT as part of a controlled programme that includes anti-malarial drugs is welcome.

    Utter nonsense about the “harmlessness” of DDT does not wash with those who actually have firsthand knowledge.

  • Johnathan

    John B, for some reason I cannot open the link, but will try again later.

    There has been a lot of stuff about the pros and cons of DDT and the impact of the ban of this substance and the subsequent rebound in malaria deaths to make me feel that I was not just “spouting off” about environmentalist but making a considered point. I am fed up to the back teeth with the moral posturing of too many Greens and believe the DDT/malaria issue is a case in point.


  • It’s only because DDT was banned for agricultural use that it is still useful in some places against malaria. Because DDT was used in agriculture in Sri Lanka, mosquitoes developed resistance and DDT stopped being effective against malaria. They had half a million cases in 1975 despite extesive DDT spraying. They only got it under control again when they switched to the more expensive malathion. You should be thanking Rachel Carson for all the lives she saved.

    More here

  • Johnathan

    I will reserve judgement about whether Carson saved more lives than her campaign may have endangered. Alas, there is no easy way to decide this, but the data in the original article I linked to above is pretty grim.

    Of course species do develop resistance against pesticides, which is why the effectiveness of DDT may have waned in time in certain areas. The same applies to a lot of drugs, antibiotics, etc. Like all substances, it has to be used intelligently. I am not a defender of its indiscriminate use.

    For another take on DDT in Africa, look at this:

  • Johnathan, the original article claimed that malaria was caused by a virus. If they make an error that bad, it’s probably wise not to take the rest o ftheir claims too seriously.

  • Johnathan

    So what does cause malaria, then, beyond the obvious link to mosquitoes? Perhaps you should tell a drug firm asap and make yerself zillions!!


  • Johnathan, malaria is caused by a parasite, not a virus. The CDC has a nice diagram showing its life cycle.

  • Euan Gray

    ISTR that in the colonial days major progress was made against malaria by means of land improvement. Basically, swamp drainage and the large-scale eradication of pools of stagnant standing water eliminates many of the the mosquito breeding grounds (they need still-ish water). It seems this was done by coincidence, since it was initially thought that the foul air produced by such water collections caused the malaria (hence its name) & it was not until some time later it was realised the fetid water was a key part of the mosquito breeding cycle.

    Naturally, this doesn’t happen any more since much of Africa has reverted to pre-colonial standards, as one might expect.


  • Verity

    Euan Gray – In colonial days, major progress was made against malaria by drinking sundowners at sunset when the mosquitoes came out. The quinine in the tonic kept them off.

  • Euan Gray

    The quinine in the tonic kept them off

    Indeed, but (a) you’re thinking more of the Indian Army than African backwaters, and (b) the quinine doesn’t keep the mosquito off but kills the malaria parasite.

    It is certainly the case than in Africa drainage was an effective weapon against malaria and other diseases, and one that isn’t used any more. If instead of waiting for western handouts the Africans could do something for themselves and clean up their own mess a considerable number of lives would be saved and/or lengthened. Then again, this is the culture that happily leaves dead bodies at the side of the road for a week, so I’m not holding my breath (although you need to do this going through many villages).


  • dmick

    j’s argument for sacrificing unnamed humans for example to save tigers is reframing the old undergraduate economics question of the marginal cost of a life. how much would you spend to to improve safetly that saved x lives a year etc. In this case it’s framed in actions not money.

  • Johnathan

    Tim, thanks. I guess some of my original rage about the ban on DDT may have been misplaced but — and it is a very big but — I would bet that other countermeasures, such as draining wetlands, would also incur the wrath of the Greens.

    My dad is a farmer and we have used a few chemicals in our time to control pests of one kind or another, so I do have some understanding of these issues.

  • Jon

    There was a small piece on the news sometime last week about the rise in cases of TB amongst Britain’s cattle herds. They interviewed a farmer and a country vet who both avocated the controlled culling of badgers, widely believed to be the cause of the disease spreading. They then cut to the director of a local badger sanctuary who effectively said that despite the explosion in the number of cases, the danger of TB to cattle, and the ramifications on the lives and businesses of farmers, that there could be no justification ever for killing these disease-ridden creatures.

    Just another example, if one were really needed, of the blinkered short-sightedness of the Greens and Left.