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For the New Environmentalist
Jonathan Berry • Being green isn't cheap.
Commencement 2004

In her recent magazine article, “What the World Needs Now is DDT,” Tina Rosenberg calls for a re-examination of the fears so commonly cited against the powerful insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a one-time Nobel-Prize-winning chemical compound that is now banned throughout the First World. That DDT might be a great help in the fight against tropical disease and poverty is hardly news to readers of National Review or The American Spectator, but Rosenberg is a writer for The New York Times, hardly a typical sounding board for critics of environmentalism. Just as it took Nixon to open China, so it may take change within liberalism to effect change within the priorities of the environmental movement.

In her wildly popular 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, Rachel Carson vividly detailed the impact of years of DDT spraying in the United States, describing how birds (especially bald eagles), salmon, crabs and countless other sorts of wildlife were decimated by the accumulation of DDT in the natural environment. What Carson did not discuss was the tens – if not hundreds – of millions of lives that DDT saved from horrible death by emaciation, brought on by malaria, typhus or yellow fever. True, DDT used as an agricultural pesticide probably did lead to a fair amount of environmental damage, but the comparatively tiny amounts used in both residential and military settings as mosquito repellent have done an enormous amount of good, one that Carson completely disregarded. The benefits of DDT also went unheeded by the EPA when it banned DDT in 1972, despite a judge’s finding that DDT was not harmful to human life and could be used in ways that would minimize harm to wildlife. This ban has since spread to most of the world and has driven up the cost of what DDT is left to buy, since no First World factories can produce it any longer. Besides, it’s not as if they would if they could; DDT is no longer patented, and American chemical companies would rather manufacture more expensive, less effective insecticides.

In her wildly popular 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, Rachel Carson vividly detailed the impact of years of DDT spraying in the United States, describing how birds (especially bald eagles), salmon, crabs and countless other sorts of wildlife were decimated by the accumulation of DDT in the natural environment. What Carson did not discuss was the tens – if not hundreds – of millions of lives that DDT saved from horrible death by emaciation, brought on by malaria, typhus or yellow fever. True, DDT used as an agricultural pesticide probably did lead to a fair amount of environmental damage, but the comparatively tiny amounts used in both residential and military settings as mosquito repellent have done an enormous amount of good, one that Carson completely disregarded. The benefits of DDT also went unheeded by the EPA when it banned DDT in 1972, despite a judge’s finding that DDT was not harmful to human life and could be used in ways that would minimize harm to wildlife. This ban has since spread to most of the world and has driven up the cost of what DDT is left to buy, since no First World factories can produce it any longer. Besides, it’s not as if they would if they could; DDT is no longer patented, and American chemical companies would rather manufacture more expensive, less effective insecticides.

Malaria is hardly a disease unique to the tropics. On this continent, it used to range as far north as Montreal. The usurper Oliver Cromwell died of malaria, and as late as the 1950’s it was still a serious health concern in the United States. The only reason that we no longer need DDT in this country is that it has already been used to virtually eradicate malaria and other diseases here. Given what we now know about how to use DDT in a relatively environmentally-friendly way, poor nations need to be encouraged to use the insecticide to fight malaria, not dissuaded from doing so. South Africa and Sri Lanka, among others, have broken ranks and started using DDT again, with remarkable results.

We must recognize that environmentalism is a luxury, even if environmentalists themselves would not characterize their advocacy of such policies this way That the world’s poor suffer most from the ban on DDT is no coincidence. It is only because nations like the U.S., Germany, France and Japan are so economically developed that they can afford to spend time, money and effort cleaning up the environment and protecting all that fauna and flora. The tragic mistake of so many in the environmentalist movement is the belief that the rest of the world can afford to hold itself to our expensive green standards.

For example, take the issue of genetically modified foods. Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the European Union all stand in virulent opposition to sending genetically modified food to Africa, even though that continent suffers from more starvation than the entire cast of “The O.C.” Zambia, for one, recently turned down a shipment of 18,000 tons of grain from the United States, earmarked for hunger relief, since some of the grain had been “genetically altered.” As writer Radley Balko observed, “Some reports even suggest that European Union officials ‘leaned on’ the Zambian government to turn down the aid, and let its people starve.”

Genetically modified food is typically healthier, hardier and cheaper, three things that poor Africans certainly need their food to be. And yet, well-fed Eurocrat regulators who can easily afford higher prices insist that Africa be held to the same standard. In a bizarre, wholly uncharacteristic display of traditionalism, critics of genetically modified foods claim that “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” and wait until these foods have some history behind them before unleashing them on unsuspecting Africans. (No word yet on whether the same approach should be taken with their utopian socialist proposals.) But if the current state of Africa is “safe,” heaven knows what “sorry” looks like!

The question of power generation in poor countries presents another opportunity for environmentalists to disorder their priorities gravely. For those of us in the West, a steady supply of electricity to power our homes, businesses and hospitals is never a question, and generally we can afford power generated by sources which are relatively friendly to the environment. Africa is not as lucky, nor is much of India or China. What they can afford are dams and natural gas or coal power plants. Meanwhile, environmentalists clamor for photovoltaic solar cells and wind turbines – sources of power that are extremely expensive and unreliable. Reason science writer Ron Bailey notes that a single coal or gas power plant can provide more power than all of California’s 13,000 wind turbines – and occupying a mere 10 acres, such a gas or coal power plant is far less of an eyesore and takes up a fraction of the space.

Stable, inexpensive sources of electricity are essential for better health. Electric light and heat replace carcinogenic, hazardous indoor cooking fires that kill 4 million people a year, and electricity makes it possible to have drinkable tap water that doesn’t have to be carried from bacteria-choked rivers and lakes. In fact, it is vital for economic growth that we accord places of business a steady stream of affordable power. The sad irony is that poverty, which could be ameliorated through strategies like cheap electricity and genetically modified food, itself contributes a great deal to the destruction of the environment! Subsistence farmers in Brazil are by and large the ones cutting down the Amazon rainforest, trying to eke out a living from soil that is remarkably inhospitable to agriculture. A great deal of China’s air pollution comes from fires used for lighting, heating and cooking.

Economic progress would obviate the need for such destitute practices. It is the environmentalist agenda – antitechnology, anti-growth – that encourages poverty, and in so doing it defeats itself. For those environmentalists who genuinely care about the welfare of mankind and of the earth, it is time for a new perspective. Concern for the environment is a luxury. Let’s help the world afford it.

Jonathan Berry is a rising senior in Ezra Stiles College.


 
 

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