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Did Environmentalists Kill 50 Million People?

When the SARS epidemic broke out, I was in medical school and taking microbiology. I was, as it happens, studying plasmodium falciparum. P. falciparum is the single-celled parasite that causes malaria, and kills upwards of one million people every year, … Read More

By / September 20, 2006

When the SARS epidemic broke out, I was in medical school and taking microbiology. I was, as it happens, studying plasmodium falciparum. P. falciparum is the single-celled parasite that causes malaria, and kills upwards of one million people every year, mostly small children. Fill up the Los Angeles Coliseum with little kids, then drown them in the Santa Monica bay. Repeat ten times. In some years, malaria does worse than that.

Malaria doesn't get a lot of news coverage, but SARS sure did. When it caused its first handful of deaths in Western cities, a nation-wide hysteria broke out, with an advisory against travelling to Toronto, “breaking news” updates on the networks, extensive coverage in the papers, the whole deal. It had the stink of Armageddon about it. My then ninety year-old grandmother, panicked by the news and the images of people wearing HEPA masks in the street, called my mother and reported she was dying of SARS.

SARS ended up killing 813 people in 2003 and 2004, before being eradicated in 2005. That's eight-hours work for malaria.

Of course, it's no mystery why we were so interested in SARS, and so uninterested in malaria. Malaria is generally not a threat to us in the West, and as Darfur demonstrates, the agonizing death of countless children does not necessarily bother us, provided that they're far away, and that they're not being killed by someone we especially dislike. We can live with those deaths. Very comfortably. Malaria once was a threat to us in the West, however. We overcame that threat by utilizing all the technological tools at our disposal to virtually wipe out P. falciparum anywhere near us. And one of the most important of those tools was dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT. Alas, DDT, when sprayed excessively, allegedly thinned the egg shells of certain species of birds. In the sixties the growing environmental movement made a rallying point of it, and before long DDT was banned by the U.S. and others.

By then it didn't really matter, of course. Our children were no longer dying of malaria. It was just other people's kids who were still dying. And for the past four decades they've continued to do just that.

But over the past few years there's been a serious ratcheting up of the rhetoric in favor of bringing back DDT—as well as some pretty bitter attacks on the environmental movement for fighting against its use in the first place.

In his book State of Fear, Michael Crichton argued that banning DDT caused “…50 million needless deaths. Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler". And in a 2003 speech Crichton added that these 50 million deaths “are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about a pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the third world. 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 didn't give a damn.”

Crichton's a mere sci-fi author, but he's hardly alone in feeling this way. A May article at The First Post describes Rachel Carson–the author of Silent Spring, one of the foundational texts of the environmental movement—as “deadlier than Stalin” for her attacks on DDT. That same month, the US government announced it was reversing its policy on DDT as part of President Bush's historic five-year, $1.2 billion plan to fight malaria. And last week, the World Health Organization, after receiving intense criticism from the British medical journal The Lancet for its lackadaisical approach to malaria, finally changed its policy on DDT. It is now encouraging malaria-riddled African nations to use it.

The banning of DDT may very well be, as Crichton says, “one of the most disgraceful episodes of the twentieth century.” It may also be the purest example of how the trendy political causes of the developed world can become weapons of mass destruction when imposed on developing countries.

And it may not yet be over. Though some environmental groups have supported the WHO's change of policy, others are still fighting. Let's hope they lose.

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