When Ideals Collide – Environmentalism or Saving Lives – What do the Idealists Choose?

Suppose you are an idealist who wants to help poor people in Africa. You are also an environmentalist. You are working in Africa as part of a NGO (non-Governmental organization – such as The Sierra Club). A conflict arises between your ideal of helping the environment and your ideal of helping African villagers. Which ideal do you choose?

Here are two examples from the book Eco-Imperialism by Paul Driessen. Before I give these rather dramatic examples, I should explain that Europe bans genetically modified food – but America allows it and Americans eat it. Europeans fear unforseen consequences, such as the possibility that genes from genetically modified (GM) crops could escape and alter other plants. Here are Paul Driessen’s examples:

Green activists and European bureaucrats may not be conspiring to starve millions of sub-Saharan Africans, but they may as well be, Andrew Natsios charged in August 2002. The director of the US Agency for International Development accused environmental groups of endangering the lives of 14 million people who face starvation in southern Africa, which is enduring its worst drought in a decade, by encouraging governments to reject genetically modified US food aid.
“They can play these games with Europeans, who have full stomachs, but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake,” he said.’ US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick also excoriated European Union officials, calling them “Luddites” and saying it is “immoral” for them to bully Africa into refusing to accept American food shipments.’
Nearly 2.5 million people were on the verge of starvation in Zambia alone, where President Levy Mwanawasa bowed to NGO pressure and EU import policies, and refused to accept food aid from the United States.
The US had shipped 26,000 tons of corn to Zambia, where many people were down to one small meal per day, only to have the grain sit in storage. Parroting the EU/Greenpeace line, Mwanawasa decreed it was unsafe for consumption, because some of the corn (maize) had been genetically modified, to make it resistant to insect pests, reduce the need for pesticides, and increase crop yields without having to put more land under cultivation.
“We would rather starve than get something toxic,” Mwanawasa cavalierly remarked. Anonymous European Commission officials went so far as to accuse the US of using Africans as guinea pigs, to prove biotech foods are safe to eat. Rumors circulated among the locals that women would become sterile and people would get AIDS, if they ate the corn.

You can’t blame the average poor villager from assuming some nefarious plot by the Americans to do them harm with the aid, if their own president refuses to let them eat it. A good deed by America becomes a reason to blame America. Though I should say that starving Africans repeatedly tried to break into the warehouses that had the corn.
Driessen quotes the Wall Street Journal editorial of 9/17/2002:

The green brigade, which likes to buttress its political opposition to GM foods with junk science, is cheering Zambia’s intransigence. And the willingness of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the like to let Africans starve in the name of someone else’s ideology is remarkable enough…
But the Europeans are also blameworthy. Zambia is just as worried about upsetting trade relations with Europe, its biggest export market. The European Union bans most GM crops — lest they upset Europe’s heavily subsidized farm system — and Mr. Mwanawasa’s concern is that the US corn will cross-pollinate with non-GM varieties and taint future yields [thus triggering EU bans on crops from Zambia and neighboring countries].

In some cases, GM crops actually help the environment, for instance by reducing the use of pesticides.
But environmentalists tend to default to the anti-technology position. In my view, genetic engineering could indeed intentionally be used to cause harm – perhaps a genetically altered bacterium used in war – for instance. And I understand that well-meant technology can back-fire. But at times risks need to be taken.

Patrick Moore (Greenpeace)

Greenpeace co-founder and ecologist Dr. Patrick Moore…an outspoken critic of the group he once led, underscores the “huge and realistically potential benefits” that GM crops could bring “for the environment and human health and nutrition.” He calls the war on biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) “perhaps the most classic case of misguided environmentalism” in memory.
“There are no known serious negative impacts from growing or ingesting the GMOs that have already been developed and distributed,” Moore continues. “Yet every half-baked sensationalism and contrivance from activists with no training in science gets airtime on the evening news. Even the Golden Rice, a GMO that may help prevent blindness in half a million children every year, is rejected out of hand by these anti-humanists, who put unfounded fear-mongering ahead of the world’s poor.”

The second example of conflicting ideals leading to dead people is the banning of DDT.
The WHO, United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), World Bank, Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network, World Wildlife Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups remain adamantly opposed to the use of DDT —and other pesticides.

This stance has been catastrophic.

In 2000, say World Health Organization and other studies, malaria infected over 300 million people. It killed nearly 2,000,00 most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Over half of the victims are children, who die at the rate of two per minute or 3,000 per day — the equivalent of 80 fully loaded school buses plunging over a cliff every day of the year. Since 1972, over 50 million people have died from this dreaded disease. Many are weakened by AIDS or dysentery, but actually die of malaria.

In addition to these needless deaths, malaria keeps millions home from work and school every day. Chronic anemia can sap people’s strength for years and leave victims with severe liver and kidney damage, while cerebral malaria can cause lifelong learning and memory problems, followed by early death.

If anyone inflicted these deaths on purpose they would be considered mass murderers.

Rachel Carson

And yet these deaths are being inflicted. There is a near-global restriction on the production, export and use of DDT – currently the best way of combating the mosquitos who carry malaria. Originally imposed in the United States by EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus in 1972, the DDT prohibitions have been expanded and enforced by NGO pressure, coercive treaties, and threats of economic sanctions by foundations, nations and international aid agencies.

Where DDT is used, malaria deaths plummet. Where it is not used, they skyrocket.

During World War II, DDT was actually classified as a secret weapon, because of its unparalleled ability to prevent malaria and typhus among Allied troops.

The chemical is no longer used in agriculture (which accounted for 99 percent of its use at the time Rachel Carson wrote the book Silent Spring, which among other things attacked DDT). So that makes it safer for wildlife which was one of the problems Rachel cited.

“In the 60 years since DDT was first introduced,” notes South African Richard Tren, president of Africa Fighting Malaria, “not a single scientific paper has been able to replicate even one case of actual human harm from its use.”

Nevertheless, the WHO, United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), World Bank, Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network, World Wildlife Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups remain adamantly opposed to the use of DDT —and other pesticides. Their stance angers many who must live with malaria’s consequences every day. However, these organizations ignore the victims’ growing anger and the rising body count. Instead, they continue to advocate steps that, while helpful, simply cannot be the sole solution to this widespread and complex disease.

“My friend’s four-year-old child hasn’t been able to walk for months, because of malaria,” Fifi Kobusingye says softly, her voice breaking. “She crawls around on the floor. Her eyes bulge out like a chameleon, her hair is dried up, and her stomach is all swollen because the parasites have taken over her liver. Her family doesn’t have the money to help her, and neither does the Ugandan government. All they can do is take care of her the best they can, and wait for her to die.”

Activists like actor Ed Begley, Jr. and the Pesticide Action Network like to say there is no global ban on DDT. But they are playing semantic games. Increasing restrictions on the production, storage, transportation and use of DDT and other pesticides, lengthy delays in getting approvals to use them, mounds of costly red tape, and the refusal of donor agencies and foundations to fund indoor residual spraying programs all add up to one thing: sickness and death for millions of Africans every year.

As author, film producer and PhD molecular biologist
Michael Crichton put it: “Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the twentieth century history of America. We knew better, and we did it anyway, and we let people around the world die, and we didn’t give a damn.”

Suppose we step into the mind of European environmentalists in Africa. We like greenery, animals, sustainable communities, and we have strong reservations about technology. We see nuclear reactors in Japan having a meltdown and shooting radioactivity into the atmosphere. We worry that man-made global warming will flood our cities and destroy eco-systems. We see suburbs and exurbs encroach upon the countryside. We see coal mines polluting the air and causing “black lung” among some miners. We see the unintentional effects of well-meant medicines, such as thalidomide. We don’t want the same to happen to Africa. Surely there are alternatives to DDT? Surely there are alternatives to genetically modified foods? And if there are no alternatives, or they are nowhere near as good, that’s when we start evading reality. And people die.

Eco-Imperialism by Paul Driessen (published 2003, so some of this material may be out-of-date)
Ecological Sanity by George Claus and Karen Bolander

As an additional irony, it turns out that the decision to ban DDT was a political decision, not one based on scientific evidence. The Environmental Protection Agency appointed a hearing examiner who listened to the evidence for and against DDT from 125 witnesses over 81 days of hearings. He concluded:
“DDT as offered under the registrations involved herein is not mis-branded. DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man. The uses of DDT under the registrations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on fresh-water fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife .. . in my opinion, the evidence in this proceeding supports the conclusion that there is a present need for the essential uses of DDT…” But although the EPA was supposed to decide whether to ban DDT on the basis of the hearing examiner’s recommendations, less than two months later William Ruckelshaus, then administrator of the EPA, banned DDT for all practical purposes for use in the U.S. Ruckelshaus had never attended any part of the hearings and later admitted he had not even read the transcript of them.


5 thoughts on “When Ideals Collide – Environmentalism or Saving Lives – What do the Idealists Choose?

  1. The problem here is the knee-jerk reflex which causes people, and especially legislators, to over-react to evidence and introduce laws which in the long run may do as much damage as they seek to prevent. Maybe because legislators are politicians who by their nature are the kinds of people who do their thinking by reference to belief systems and inflexible rules and ideas, rather than accepting that circumstances do alter cases, as in these instances they clearly do.

  2. The problem is that anti-greens — “brownies?” — will believe any fool thing that they think makes scientists and environmentalists look foolish, no matter how outlandish it is.

    The truth is that deaths from malaria have been falling constantly since peak DDT use in 1959 and 1960. In that time of peak DDT use about 4 million people died from malaria each year. This past year malaria deaths were fewer than 800,000, a reduction of more than 75%. Deaths from malaria have fallen almost in direct proportion to the reduction in use of DDT, though no environmentalist would be so rash as to conclude that we should eliminate DDT entirely in order to cure DDT — even if that’s what the numbers suggest.

    Malaria infections fell, also, from about 500 million annually in 1960, to fewer than 250 million today, while total population doubled.

    Clearly, WHO is doing something right in its campaign against malaria, even without massive amounts of DDT.

    We should note that WHO has never stopped using DDT. In 1965 WHO had to abandon its ambitious campaign to eradicate malaria because DDT overuse in agriculture has bred mosquitoes in Africa and elsewhere that are resistant and even wholly immune to DDT. There was a slowdown in the drop in malaria deaths and infections in the 1980s, when the malaria parasite itself became resistant to the drug then preferred to treat it, but new drugs and new protocols have overcome that problem, too.

    Ironically, India has an increasing malaria problem. Ironic because India is today the world’s greatest manufacturer and user of DDT. India uses more DDT than all the rest of the world combined, but to no avail.

    Rachel Carson’s book was checked for accuracy by a special panel of John Kennedy’s President’s Science Advisory Council. In 1963 that group, including many of the nation’s best scientists and a few Nobel winners, reported that Carson got the story right, with the exception that she understated the urgency of eliminating DDT use. Anyone who claims Carson was wrong is pulling your leg, and slandering a great scientist.

    What sort of evil is it that invents false tales about dead women, and uses them to slander scientists, medical care workers, science and medicine? I would not trust such a person any further.

  3. Ed – The best test of DDT is to say – what happens when you stop spraying. In South Africa, spraying kept malaria below 10,000 cases annually. In 1996, the spraying stopped, and in 2000 there were 62,000 cases. Thats an increase of over a factor of 6. South Africa decided to start using DDT again, and in one year malaria cases plummeted 80%.
    DDT helped eradicate malaria from vast areas of South America, though not in Cental America. The spraying stopped, and the number of malaria cases spiraled upward.
    You say there were almost 250 million cases of malaria world wide. Thats a lot of cases. Treatment is expensive, and many of the victims are poor.
    To be fair to your argument, you say the following:
    1. Malaria deaths have decreased dramatically thoughout the world since peak DDT use
    2. Malaria infections have decreased from about 500 million to less than 250 million since 1960
    3. India has an increasing malaria problem despite using DDT
    4. In some areas Mosquitos have become immune to DDT
    5. Rachel Carson’s book (which attacked DDT) was checked for accuracy by JFK’s Science Advisory Council

    To be fair to Paul, I should say that Paul Driessen, who wrote the book that was the source of my post, does say that DDT is not a panacea. And when he talks about Rachel Carson, he does not say she was a liar – what he does say is that “DDT’s alleged toxicity to wildlife may have been due to faulty lab studies, its being mixed with dangerous petroleum distillates, or rampant discharges of other chemicals into waterways.” So he is saying that the science is flawed. Claus and Bolander, in their book “Ecological Sanity” talk about how The Environmental Protection Agency appointed a hearing examiner who listened to the evidence for and against DDT from 125 witnesses over 81 days of hearings. He concluded that DDT was safe. Is he a liar? Ed – you don’t like my attacking a dead woman (Rachel Carson). Well are you attacking the aged EPA hearing examiner?

    But lets get to one of your points. And that is India. I got the following information from: India Malaria Site.. It does confirm your point about increasing resistance to DDT, but it also says that malaria was a truly huge problem before DDT.

    Long before the British colonised India, malaria was a serious problem for the country, imposing enormous economic costs and a great deal of human misery…
    In the early 1920s, Bengal suffered a severe malaria epidemic which resulted in over 730 000 deaths in 1921 alone. Thereafter, the number of deaths from malaria slowly decreased to within 300 to 400 000 per annum. During the Second World War however malaria deaths rose again, particularly in 1943, when Bengal recorded over 680 000 deaths and in 1944 when there were an appalling 763,220 deaths from the disease.

    And thats just in Bengal.

    In 1945, DDT was made available for civilian use in Bombay to control malaria and produced some remarkable results within a very short period. On 1st July 1945, the first civilian home was sprayed in India with a 5% solution of DDT mixed in kerosene. In 1946, pilot schemes using DDT were set up in several areas, including Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Assam. Between 1948 and 1952 the WHO set up DDT demonstration teams in Uttar Pradesh, Rayagada, Wynad and Malnad. Use of DDT not only helped in the control of mosquitoes and malaria, but also improved the life expectancy. After the spraying in the Kanara district, the population began to grow because of a decrease in the death rate. Prior to DDT being used, the district reported an average of 50,000 malaria cases every year, which was reduced by around 97% to only 1,500 cases after DDT was introduced. The project was also blessed by Mahatma Gandhi.

    During 1949, it is estimated that over 6 million people in Bombay were protected from malaria through the use of DDT and that at least half a million cases of malaria were prevented. In the early 1950s India’s population was estimated to be around 360 million and every year around 75 million people suffered from malaria and approximately 800,000 died from the disease.

    Usefulness of DDT prompted the launch of the National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP) in 1953. The control programme first set out to control the disease in the endemic and hyperendemic areas with 125 control units. Each of these control units consisted of between 130 and 275 men and was to protect approximately 1 million people each. By 1958, the malaria control programme had been increased to protect at least 165 million people from the disease with 160 control units. The programme saw tremendous impact and the annual number of cases came down to 49151 by 1961. With this success, the programme was renamed as National Malaria Eradication Program (NMEP) in 1958 with a belief that malaria could be eradicated in seven to nine years. On the contrary, malaria began to re-emerge in 1965 to reach well over 1 million in 1971. One of the major problems with the eradication programme was that the supervisors could not manage to inspect all of the buildings that had been sprayed. There was a decline in the morale of the spray men and inspectors. With the declining number of cases, complacency set in among spray workers as well as the general population, as people turned the sprayers away. With the incomplete spraying operations, by 1959, resistance to DDT began to develop in certain areas and added to the problem. Furthermore, malaria cases were not treated properly.

    You are also correct that malaria started rising again in India:

    The number of malaria cases rose gradually and consistently with a peak of 6.47 million cases in 1976. With this, the focus was again shifted to control of malaria and in 1977 the Modified Plan of Operation (MPO) was launched which also comprised the P. falciparum Containment Programme (PfPC). The objectives of the MPO were

    Effective Control of Malaria to reduce Malaria Morbidity
    Prevent deaths due to Malaria
    Retention of the achievements gained.
    Fever Treatment Deport and Drug Distribution Centers were established for distribution of chloroquine. Residual insecticide Spray was limited to areas with an API (Annual Parasite Index) above two. By 1985, the incidence rate stabilized at 2 million cases. However, many focal outbreaks, particularly of P. falciparum malaria and deaths from malaria have occurred throughout India since the 1990’s and large scale epidemics have been reported from eastern India and Western Rajasthan since 1994. Many of these are related to irrigation projects aided by global funding agencies.

    There are alternatives to DDT, but according to Eco-Imperialism (published in 2003) – DDT is both long acting and cheap, while the alternatives are not. “No other chemical comes close to DDT as an affordable effective way to repel mosquitos from homes, exterminate any that land on walls, and disorient any that are not killed or repelled., largely eliminating their urge to bite in homes that are treated once or twice a year with tiny amounts of this miracle insecticide.”

    Frankly Ed, if I were living in a malarial area of the world, with mosquitos buzzing around me, and a very low income, I would spray the tiny amounts twice a year. I bet you would too.

  4. Frankly Ed, if I were living in a malarial area of the world, with mosquitos buzzing around me, and a very low income, I would spray the tiny amounts twice a year. I bet you would too.

    That spraying is being done. Dreissen is calling for MORE DDT than anyone can use. Why?

    What is Driessen saying? Is he claiming DDT is illegal to use? That’s false. It’s being used wherever it’s effective. Is he saying we need more? No malaria-fighting organization on the ground, who actually treat malaria cases, wants more DDT.

    Is Driessen just slamming environmentalists? That appears so. He’s dithering while kids are dying, he’s assaulting the malaria fighters while they are doing much better than he claims.

    Longer response later.

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