In praise of Rachel Carson – Bate responds
Roger Bate of Africa Fighting Malaria has responded to my article with Tim Lambert defending Rachel Carson against the claim that she promoted a ban on DDT that has killed millions of people. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t like the article, and says we’ve overstated the extent of his work for the tobacco industry, though he doesn’t deny working for them. Since we’ve already debated that point with a commenter in the previous thread (the evidence is here with more detail here), I won’t go over it again, except to agree that we could have said more about the extent to which Bate has moved away from his initial position and his links with the tobacco lobby.
Instead I want to start with a focus on the areas of agreement which turn out to be surprisingly large. Most notably, Bate states
there are many ill-informed arguments for the use of DDT to be found, especially online. I may not have done enough in the early years of this decade to respond to those excesses, and may even occasionally indulged in them myself, but for many years I have tried to be logical.
Bate also endorses Carson’s warnings on the dangers of overuse of agrochemicals, of which DDT was a major component, and the ban on agricultural use of DDT. He doesn’t challenge any of the points made in the article about the failure of the attempt to eradicate malaria using DDT, or about the role of resistance.
In fact, the only factual error he claims (leaving aside disputes about AFM and its funding) actually supports our case. The article stated that the public health exemption from the US ban on DDT had apparently never been used, and the word “apparently” was dropped in editing. Bate points out that DDT has been used in the US on a number of occasions, so that even the fallback claim of a “de facto” ban, pushed by many blogospheric promoters of the DDT ban story, is not true.
Finally, Bate’s article largely confirms our point that the origins of stories about the mythical DDT ban lie in the leadup to the Stockholm convention, during which, as we noted, some environmental groups pushed for the setting of a target date for DDT to be phased out, but ultimately agreed to preserve the DDT exemption. The link so commonly drawn to the US ban in 1972 is entirely spurious.
While doing some checking I found this AEI piece written by Bate in 2007, which makes a couple of points of interest. First, he discusses the abandonment of DDT spraying by South Africa in 1996 and its reinstatement in 2000 – this is a major talking point for those pushing the DDT ban myth, who normally present this as a de facto ban imposed by environmentalists.. Regarding the causes he says “DDT leaves stains on mud walls, which was the primary reason South Africa’s malaria control program replaced the use of DDT in 1996 with another chemical class–synthetic pyrethroids–although pressure from environmentalists certainly contributed.” (emphasis added).
Second, the article is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of a big expansion in DDT use, despite the fact that most environmental groups now accept it, and the WHO has explicitly endorsed its use in appropriate circumstances. Bate casts the net of blame pretty widely here, including chemical companies like Bayer with alternative products to push, supporters of alternative interventions like bednets, academic critics of DDT, and of course, environmentalists.
The only explanation he doesn’t consider is the one proposed in our article. While DDT has a place in the fight against malaria, the majority of experts in the field don’t agree with Bate that “DDT is usually the most cost-effective anti-malaria treatment”. Here’s a good starting point. Such disagreements are common in all fields. Aggressive attempts to mandate particular technologies, such as the Kill Malarial Mosquitoes Now campaign which would have required two-thirds of all funds to be spent on DDT, are not likely to help matters.
Update: Tim Lambert points out in email that Bate’s description of the petition is incorrect. In fact, it required that 2/3 be spent on indoor residual spraying and drugs, opposing the dominant emphasis on bednets, but not specifically requiring DDT. I’ve added some more links as well.