The Moment of Truth — September 30, 2006

Astroturf and DDT = Libertarian Lobotomy

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the gabba-gabba-hey in a needlestack.

According to quasi-libertarians, Rachel Carson is worse than Hitler and Stalin put together. She’s responsible for every death from malaria since 1962, what do you think of that? Heinous, ain’t it?

Let’s take to the streets! Pull down her statues! Oh, wait. There aren’t any. Because she wasn’t a dictator. She didn’t force everyone in the world to give up, cold turkey, their magically, universally, uniquely effective DDT. She was a scientist and a citizen who wrote an influential book that has led to a plethora of useful areas of study as well as important environmental policies. Oops! Yeah, I mistake people like that for Stalin all the time.

Of course, if you are psychotically averse to government policies, I suppose you might be deluded into thinking Rachel Carson, a zoologist who wrote a book on the environmental risks of chemical pesticides, was a mass murderer. But you would still be delusional. A sick, delusional person trying to smear, by extension, the entire sphere of activity and study known as “environmentalism.” You are saying, “Thousands and thousands of scientists, activists and policy-makers are all just a bunch of irresponsible mass-murderers!” Now is that something a rational, responsible person would say? Not if it weren’t true. And it isn’t.

It’s just as irresponsible as Intelligent Design advocates lying to the court in the Dover, Pennsylvania evolution case. It’s just that, instead of trying to slip a fanatical Christianity into public education, it’s an attempt to slip fanatical anti-government corporatism into environmental policy.

When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, she was attacked by Monsanto and other chemical companies as “hysterical.” That’s code for “wrong because you’re a woman.” They tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress the book by pressuring her publisher. Their motives were clear: they saw bad press for chemical pesticides as a threat to their profits. And because their motives were clear, they didn’t succeed in persuading anyone.

And so they’ve learned since then to conceal their motives by co-opting the language of public advocacy.

And that’s where you come in, you Astroturf groups, fake grassroots organizations. That’s what you are doing, you who claim the environmental movement has blood on its hands.

You do a disservice even to those who support DDT use to fight malaria, because you manipulate and lie for the sake of corporate carte blanche. You thereby taint the reputations of genuinely good groups and people who associate with you. You are also creating vile rhetorical conflict where there need be none. That jeopardizes the credibility and long-term efficacy, not just of the caring people you smear, but of the caring people you attach yourselves to.

Do you divide in order to conquer? Or have you just been bought off? Or do you just not care?

In any case, I say to the reader of news and listener to talk radio, here’s a tip: the best way to distinguish the good anti-malaria people from the scum is this: the ones who lie are the scum.

Here is the truth about DDT:

DDT was discovered, in 1939, to be great for killing bugs. Yay for DDT!

DDT spraying in New Brunswick, Canada killed hundreds of thousands of fish in the 1950s. DDT has been shown to change the sex of certain fish species and to adversely affect bird reproduction.

DDT has only tenuously, and unconvincingly, been linked to cancer in humans.

DDT spraying in the USA eradicated malaria. DDT has been cheap and effective in fighting mosquito-borne illnesses all over the world.

Rachel Carson wrote in her 1962 book Silent Spring that DDT and other pesticides should be used as little as possible, and that chemical pesticides could be helpful but should be employed responsibly. She urged a ban on agricultural use of DDT. She was right to do so. DDT may have gotten a worse rep than it deserved, but that might have had the effect of prolonging its usefulness. DDT use in agriculture is known to be a leading factor in increasing mosquito resistance. So is any widespread outdoor spraying of the chemical. That’s why, regardless of rhetorical stance, ABSOLUTELY NO ONE ADVOCATES WIDESPREAD OUTDOOR USE OF DDT anymore.

Spraying in rural India led to DDT-resistant mosquitoes and a consequent steady rise in malaria cases beginning in the 1960s. For reference, read this excellent paper on the history of DDT in India (PDF).

There are other good online resources, including this article in the Washington Post: If Malaria’s the Problem, DDT’s Not the Only Answer.

The 1972 EPA ban on DDT in the USA was NOT what led developing countries to curtail using DDT. Nor was it the environmental movement. It was DDT’s flagging effectiveness due to resistant mosquitoes.

Reading the Astroturf literature, one cannot even tell there is such a thing as a DDT resistant mosquito. But to the contrary, not only do insects become resistant to DDT, recent studies show DDT resistance can confer reproductive advantages in insects (beyond merely surviving to reproduce), exponentially increasing the numbers of resistant insects in each generation.

DDT resistant malaria-carrying mosquito populations are found all over the world.

Responsible organizations and individuals who advocate using DDT to control malaria want it used sparingly, indoors, to exploit DDT’s repellent and irritant effects and avoid developing resistant mosquito populations. However, resistance in mosquitoes to even these effects is not uncommon. Still, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation support indoor use of DDT. The World Health Organization does, too. The 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS) bans twelve environmentally hazardous chemicals that persist in the environment and the food chain for years without breaking down completely. DDT is the only one of those twelve with an exemption from the ban for indoor use to fight malaria.

The Stockholm Convention’s and the environmental NGOs’ tolerance for limited use of DDT is, without doubt, thanks to outspoken groups fighting malaria in the developing world. But there are two types of these groups. One type actually fights malaria. The other uses falsehoods about DDT’s history, and (limited) usefulness, as propaganda for smearing environmentalism in general. These propaganda groups, the Astroturf groups, are backed by big corporations, such as Exxon, and quasi-libertarian think tanks including the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who seek to remove all limits on corporate behavior.

[Oh, except those limitations imposed by the free market upon itself. You know, because the government is such a drag, what with limiting insect parts and vermin feces in candy bars. Let us fill candy bars with as many roaches and rat droppings as the market will bear! And, hey, why not some lead? Lead makes nougat even nougatier!]

[I call these think tanks “quasi-libertarian” because a libertarian once told me libertarians are as critical of corporate overlordship as they are of the governmental kind. I have yet to see evidence of this, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. Not in the title of this essay though. My generosity has already gone far beyond what could rationally be expected considering the irrational nature of libertarian arguments and actions, not to mention the facile absurdity of libertarianism’s very premise. I’ll be damned before I overburden the already crowded meter of my title for the likes of libertarianism.]

Here is a short list of organizations the Astroturf groups seek to discredit: The United Nations, the EPA, environmental NGOs, the United States government, citizens concerned about pollution or about anything other than shopping, educational institutions, any media not run by the Moonies or Rupert Murdock, and the European Union. Astroturf has spread lies about all of them, whether about their actions or their opinions.

For example, they’ve accused the EU of boycotting produce from countries that use DDT in any way. You will read this lie soon, no doubt—probably in the comments to this essay. The EU has no such policy. Its import policy is in line with the Stockholm Convention.

Honest investigation and reportage of external reality has historically been threatened by two institutions: politics and religion. They have been overshadowed by a third, even more powerful force: the transnational corporation. Advertising is, of course, institutionalized lying. But that’s not enough lying for the transnational corporation. No. It needs to insinuate its lies into any discussion that might affect profits. Global warming, military policy, tax law, tort law, labor law, education, health policy.

Corporations exist for no other reason than to maximize their profits, that’s a given. That’s why they need the Astroturf groups as fronts for their disinformation. Astroturf helps the corporation disguise its profit motive and make a more persuasive case.

Regular individuals do things for all kinds of reasons that don’t necessarily profit them personally. They act, for example, to protect animals or the environment, or to help people less fortunate than they. They even risk their lives for strangers. It’s a telling feature of libertarian theory that motives other than self-interest are viewed as of secondary social importance.

Those purporting to represent libertarians are trying to discredit those whose mission statements reflect motives other than greed. Corporate interests would love to discredit all motives but the profit motive. They want a monopoly on motive. It would increase the likelihood of the world becoming an all-against-all gang rape of humanity and the Earth.

The transnational corporations would love that, because they would have such a big head start on the rest of us.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!