The Anti-Rachel Carson crowd is a surprising vituperative bunch. If you take an unpleasant stroll around the net, you can find plenty of apoplectic pesticide-ophiles, telling you things like “…today malaria infects between 300 million and 500 million people annually, killing as many 2.7 million of them.” (which I got from Reason’s screed against Silent Spring). Seeing that number is like smelling the trace of the exterminator. Obviously, that many new cases would mean that soon, everybody would be infected with malaria. Actually, that figure talks about something different. As Reed Karaim explained in this summer’s American Scholar:
“But what about the 300 to 500 million people who "get" malaria annually? When most people hear that, I believe they think "new cases." (After all, you can't get it if you got it, right?) If that were true, then we would be in the middle of terrifying global epidemic. There are only 6.4 billion people on the planet, so we're all going to be sick within the next 13 years or so.
But that's not what the number means at all. Eline Korenromp, the World Health Organization analyst in Geneva behind the study cited when the figure is used, told me that the statistic is an estimate of "incidence of clinical disease episodes" of malaria in a year. In other words, it's the number of times people exhibited symptoms of malaria--not new cases, or even existing cases. The malaria parasite can be eliminated from the body with the fight treatment, but in certain parts of the world it persists in many people for years, and they face recurring symptoms. Others have the disease but show no symptoms. The World Health Organization, Korenromp says, has no estimate of how many new people catch malaria each year.”
This isn’t to say that DDT was not, once, a lifesaver, or that its use in small spraying – inside huts, or on mosquito netting – should be totally discontinued. Nobody, actually, says that. Carson was as sophisticated as any pesticide man about the reasons for using DDT, and the successes and failures of that use. Granted, she was not fair to the mosquito men in her work. There is a wonderful article by Malcolm Gladwell about the great anti-malaria campaign of the late fifties, here. He makes the point that it may have been the best funded anti-disease campaign the U.S. ever sponsored, at least outside of the U.S. He makes the further point that it was a great success:
“Beginning in the late fifties, DDT was shipped out by the ton. Training institutes were opened. In India alone, a hundred and fifty thousand people were hired. By 1960, sixty-six nations had signed up. "What we all had was a handheld pressure sprayer of three-gallon capacity," Jesse Hobbs, who helped run the eradication effort in Jamaica in the early sixties, recalls. "Generally, we used a formulation that was water wettable, meaning you had powder you mixed with water. Then you pressurized the tank. The squad chief would usually have notified the household some days before. The instructions were to take the pictures off the wall, pull everything away from the wall. Take the food and eating utensils out of the house. The spray man would spray with an up-and-down movement--at a certain speed, according to a pattern. You started at a certain point and sprayed the walls and ceiling, then went outside to spray the eaves of the roof. A spray man could cover ten to twelve houses a day. You were using about two hundred milligrams per square foot of DDT, which isn't very much, and it was formulated in a way that you could see where you sprayed. When it dried, it left a deposit, like chalk. It had a bit of a chlorine smell. It's not perfume. It's kind of like swimming-pool water. People were told to wait half an hour for the spray to dry, then they could go back." The results were dramatic. In Taiwan, much of the Caribbean, the Balkans, parts of northern Africa, the northern region of Australia, and a large swath of the South Pacific, malaria was eliminated. Sri Lanka saw its cases drop to about a dozen every year. In India, where malaria infected an estimated seventy-five million and killed eight hundred thousand every year, fatalities had dropped to zero by the early sixties. Between 1945 and 1965, DDT saved millions--even tens of millions--of lives around the world, perhaps more than any other man-made drug or chemical before or since.”
What it was not, of course, was a sustainable success. As Carson pointed out, patiently, DDT resistant mosquitoes will emerge and begin to dominate, by way of natural selection, given mass spraying. Which is of course what happened. The funding eventually ran out, the mass spraying itself ran into problems with the animals it was killing, and DDT resistant mosquitoes emerged. On the right, there is a sort of synergy between anti-darwinism and anti-Carsonism – the idea being that natural selection doesn’t exist. It does. So does extinction. It’s a jungle out there.
Gladwell is eminently fair to Carson:
“It was in this same period that Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring," taking aim at the environmental consequences of DDT. "The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection," she wrote, alluding to the efforts of men like Soper, "but it has heard little of the other side of the story--the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts." There had already been "warnings," she wrote, of the problems created by pesticides:
On Nissan Island in the South Pacific, for example, spraying had been carried on intensively during the Second World War, but was stopped when hostilities came to an end. Soon swarms of a malaria-carrying mosquito reinvaded the island. All of its predators had been killed off and there had not been time for new populations to become established. The way was therefore clear for a tremendous population explosion. Marshall Laird, who had described this incident, compares chemical control to a treadmill; once we have set foot on it we are unable to stop for fear of the consequences.”
It is for spotting that treadmill that Carson will be forever relevant, and forever of interest to any political intellectual. Which is why other intellectuals can be grudgingly praised by the owners, pervayers, and maintainers of the treadmill – but Carson will always drive them nuts.
One more post about Rachel is welling up in me. And then I’ll turn to the New Yorker’s new environmental reporter, Elizabeth Kolbert.
“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads