Tuesday, November 08, 2005


In today's editorial, "DDT Saves Lives," the Journal takes up a right-wing hobbyhorse that reveals more than intended about its promoters. The Journal's story is fast becoming a familiar one: influenced by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, environmentalists set out to stop the use of DDT, resulting in a surge of preventable malaria deaths. Now, Senator Sam Brownback has stepped forward to require US AID to allocate more of its budget to spraying life-saving DDT and the Journal celebrates that an irresponsible bureaucracy with blood on its hands is finally being subjected to what it calls "adult supervision" from pro-DDT congressmen.

The true story of DDT is a bit more complicated. It has been used to combat malarial mosquitos and the disease outbreaks they caused, but also for agricultural purposes as a pesticide. Rachel Carson warned about the dangers of employing DDT in agriculture, both because of the environmental damage it caused and because it ran the serious risk that natural selection would produce mosquitos resistant to the pesticide. And in fact this is exactly what has happened, with many malarial mosquitos now immune to DDT. In order to avoid contributing to the problem further, and because of the broader environmental risks, DDT is now rarely used in agriculture and is being phased out entirely.

When it comes to anti-malarial uses (pdf), of course no one advocated, as the Journal hyperbolically suggests, "allowing women and children to suffer and die rather than employ[ing] methods that work." The evolved resistance of the mosquitos has, however, limited the usefulness of DDT in anti-malaria campaigns, and the treated mosquito nets that the editorial scoffs at are often a more effective option.

All of this is a fairly dry and technical matter which might under ordinary circumstances be left to experts who are better placed to know the likely effectiveness of DDT at a particular place and time than are either Senator Brownback or Paul Gigot's merry band at the Journal. There is little profit to be made from the production and sale of this commodity chemical, the details of bednets and pesticide resistance are certainly not riveting, and it needs hardly be said that the ins and outs of disease control and economic development in the Third World rank well down the list of normal preoccupations on the Journal editorial page. Yet the issue lives on, and the Journal now lends its voice to the pro-DDT rallying cries. Why is this?

The reason comes down to the simple fact that, way back when, Rachel Carson called for banning DDT in agriculture. Carson's book was published almost a half-century ago, and she herself has been dead for nearly as long. But she still symbolizes for the editorialists at the Journal the liberalism of the 1960s, and they just can't stop themselves from leaping on any pretext to recycle the same conservative complaints about tie-dyed hippies, pointy-headed bureacrats, limousine liberals, and all of the other right-wing hate figures of the era. Even forty-plus years on, the conservatism of the Journal is still founded in this never-ending parade of ressentiment. Indeed, on days like today, it can seem to amount to little else. Nonetheless, it is hard not to be a bit shocked that, faced with the authentic human tragedy of disease, poverty and death in the Third World, the Journal has nothing to offer but a self-righteous, and factually-challenged, sneer at its own domestic enemies. "Adult supervision," indeed.


Blogger Betsy True said...

Another insightful column. Isn't it curious how the conservatives always raise up a spectre (Bill Clinton, environmentalists & feminists, oh my!) and attach it to an issue in order to get their base against it? I suspect most of the Republican base has accepted that the use of DDT is a bad thing. Now, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their ilk have their talking points, courtesy of the WST, and can go about their job of brainwashing the base on this issue. Thanks for providing the links to your supporting documents.

5:31 AM  

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