I’ve been hearing for some years now about unreasonable environmental activists fighting against resurrecting the use of DDT in Africa to control the malaria scourge, and meaning to check out the story. Michael Crichton, for example, charged that the ban on DDT has killed more people than Hitler. Hard to ignore.
My interest was further piqued when I met malaria sufferers on my trip to Africa, and again when I donated money to a campaign to buy pesticide-treated mosquito netting for African children. Something like 1 million people die annually from malaria — most of them African children under age 5.
So, what’s the real deal? Are the greens so caught up in their rhetoric they would allow kids to die? I’m afraid getting to the bottom of that question slipped pretty far down my priority list.
Fortunately for me and the rest of the world, Simon Fraser University media prof Donald Gutstein did a pretty thorough job poking into the controversy. His conclusion, presented recently in The Tyee, is that there really shouldn’t be any controversy — because environmental groups haven’t opposed use of DDT to fight malaria.
But in Canada, at least — and this matches with my general impression I’ve heard on this side of the border — that is what one would conclude from reading the news media.
Gutstein relates that the enviros-with-blood-on-their-hands story was one that proved too good for the news media to check out:
The problem with the coverage of the DDT issue and with the eco-imperialism charge is that they are based on falsehoods that the media did not investigate. Former CBC-TV National News anchor Knowlton Nash once said that “…our job in the media… is to… provide a searchlight probing for truth through the confusing, complicated, cascading avalanche of fact and fiction.” In this case, the media let their audiences down; fiction prevailed over fact.
If you’re still having doubts, check out the United Nations press release outlining the outcome of the latest round of negotiations on persistent organic pollutants. (Search the PDF for “malaria.”) Bear in mind also that long before DDT use was banned across most of the world, the poison had started to lose its effectiveness on mosquitoes as resistance built up.
Gutstein’s Tyee piece (haven’t heard of The Tyee? You’ve gotta check ’em out!) is a chapter from his book “Not A Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy.” In it, Gutstein outlines how one of the main groups complaining about greens’ insensitivity to pitiful African children is Africa Fighting Malaria. Which, it turns out, mostly is not from Africa:
Africa Fighting Malaria was formed during the negotiations that led to the Stockholm Convention. The name is misleading. The organization is based in Washington, D.C., not Africa. And the board of directors comprises not Africans, but Americans. Its staff and directors have links, not to African health and social movement organizations, but to Western libertarian and neoconservative think-tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the Institute for Economic Analysis, Tech Central Station, the Liberty Institute and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.
So who’s going to tell Americans about this? When I went looking on this side of the border, I found this question had been asked and answered even before Gutstein’s piece. That happened in a provocative post last year in which my friend Bill Kovarik held forth on how the fake DDT-malaria story is part of a larger unwillingness by some true alternatives to environmentally harmful practices. Says Kovarik:
In each of these cases, alternatives have existed for decades and are well known to experts. Mineral wool works just as well as asbestos. Venezuela has bigger oil fields than all of the Middle East. DDT is not the last word in malaria control. Renewable energy is more affordable than nuclear power. SUVs, for all their bulk, are not as safe as other cars because they roll over.
— Robert McClure