Cultural Imperialism and the Ban on DDT

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) is embarked on a misguided campaign to ban the pesticide DDT under its Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Framework Convention. Tropical countries that sign this convention will seriously damage the health of their peoples.

DDT is the most cost-effective agent ever produced for the control of diseases spread by flies and mosquitoes. The US National Academy of Sciences estimates that DDT saved 500 million lives from malaria before 1970. In India, effective spraying virtually eliminated the disease by the 1960s. The number of malaria cases fell from 75 million in 1951 to 50,000 in 1961, and the number of malaria deaths from a million in the 1940's to a few thousand in the 1960s. The mosquito nets ubiquitous in my childhood disappeared from urban houses by the time I was at university in the late 1950s.

Then, in the 1970s, largely as a result of an environmental scare promoted by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring , foreign aid agencies and UN organizations stopped promoting DDT, and its usage declined. Mosquitoes soon hit back and endemic malaria returned to India. By 1997 the UNDP estimates that there were 2.6 million malaria cases.

The same story can be told about kala-azar, which is spread by the sand fly. DDT largely rid India of kala-azar in the 1950s and 1960s. With the decline in DDT use it returned. According to the State minister of health in Bihar, kala-azar has since afflicted 12,000 people in 30 districts, killing 408.

Why did DDT fall into disfavor? The DDT scare started with Carson's claim that its use had devastating effects on bird life. It was also blamed for causing hepatitis in humans. But numerous scientific studies showed that these fears were baseless. DDT was shown to cause death in humans only if eaten like pancakes!

Commission after commission, expert after Nobel prize-winning expert, gave DDT a clean bill of health. In 1971, Philip Handler, then the president of the US National Academy of Science, called DDT is "the greatest chemical that has ever been discovered." Yet in 1972, President Nixon's head of the US Environmental Protection Agency banned it. Most developed countries followed America's lead, with developing countries proscribing its use in agriculture, and some for all purposes.

If both science and economics favor DDT, why has the ban spread? The environmental movement's supposedly key concept is "sustainable development." This was endorsed in the report Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development, whose chair, Norway's then Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Bruntland, now heads the World Health Organization (WHO).

The notion of sustainability asserts that natural capital, such as forests, wildlife, and other natural resources cannot be substituted by manmade capital. As pesticides are assumed to have adverse effects on natural capital they are inconsistent with sustainable development. Instead of using them to control bugs, bed nets and drugs to fight the disease should be used.

Advocates of this position go on to deploy the so-called "precautionary principle" to counter the argument that there is no scientific evidence that DDT spraying damages natural capital. The precautionary principle is a variant on Pascal's famous wager on the existence of God. As Paul Ehrlich put it in 1968 in his book The Population Bomb , "If I'm right, we will save the world [by curbing population growth]. If I'm wrong, people will still be better-fed, better-housed, and happier thanks to our efforts. Will anything be lost if it turns out later that we can support a much larger population than seems possible today?"

The late Julian Simon provided a tart response to this bit of weak reasoning. Simon noted that Pascal's wager was very different: "Live as if there is God, because even if there is no God you have lost nothing. Pascal's wager applies entirely to one person. No one else loses if he or she is wrong. But Ehrlich bets what he thinks will be the economic gains that we and our descendants might enjoy against the unborn's very lives. Would he make the same wager if his own life rather than other lives were at stake?" Environmentalists ban DDT because they are willing to sacrifice human lives for those of birds.

This underlying misanthropy is revealed by Ehrlich's statement about India: "I came to understand the population explosion emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi.... The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping, people visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people."

Not surprisingly, many environmentalists argue that, in the words of one: "It may be unkind to keep people dying from malaria so that they could die more slowly of starvation. [Malaria may even be] a blessing in disguise, since a large proportion of the malaria belt is not suited to agriculture, and the disease has helped to keep man from destroying it--and from wasting his substance on it."

The environmental movement is a new secular Christian creed, for which saving Spaceship Earth has replaced saving souls. It must be resisted as fiercely as the Christian crusaders of yore. There is no better place to begin than with countries refusing to join the UNEP Convention or kowtow to its ban on DDT use.