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Environmental Egocentrism


Perhaps it is just an unhappy irony that one of the most hallowed days on the environmental activists calendar, last months Earth Day, falls so uncomfortably close to the much less covered Malaria Day.

birdenv The same impulse that spawned the former retards efforts to control the latter. That might be too soft a way of putting it: environmentalists' insistence upon taking the pesticide DDT – simply the best anti-malarial weapon available – off the table has resulted in tens of millions of vulnerable people dying in faraway lands; basic application of DDT could have prevented this.

This is a case study par excellence of the need to see our duties towards the environment and the application of technology, as Benedict XVI insists in Caritas in Veritatis, in light of the paramount importance of human life itself. Getting that right is one reason why everyone – even non-Catholics – would profit from Benedict's approach to environmental issues.

DDT was originally quarantined because Rachel Carlson's influential 1962 book Silent Spring alleged that the chemical was harming wildlife, the environment, and human health – unsubstantiated claims whose residual effects linger to this day. The World Health Organization announced last year, after sanctioning a brief and successful return to DDT use, that it is now aiming for "its total phase-out by the early 2020s if not sooner." A "zero DDT world" is WHO's objective – as if DDT did harm, and as if there were other equally effective means of fighting malaria. Meanwhile, malaria still kills almost one million people a year.

DDT has met with spectacular success everywhere it has been tried; abandoning DDT has meant the resurgence of malaria. Sri Lanka's 2.8 million cases of malaria in 1946 dropped astoundingly to 110 cases by 1961. India saw similarly spectacular results; South Africa stopped using DDT in 1996 and a mere four years later had twelve times as many malaria cases and eight times as many fatalities. They went back to DDT in 2000 and cut mortality by 80 percent.

These examples attest to the fact DDT is a potent technical solution to one of the world's deadliest diseases. Technical fixes are normally celebrated, and constantly being sought (even for the common cold). Spraying DDT indoors intelligently makes no demands on behavior and does not damage human or natural ecology, so why on earth shun our best tool for controlling malaria – and other mosquito-borne diseases such as typhus, dengue, yellow fever, and encephalitis?

Environmentalism as pseudo-religion may be part of the explanation; fighting the green fight can give people something akin to a religious sense of identity and purpose. Furthermore, manufacturers of second-rate insecticides and bed nets have a financial stake in the keeping DDT on the sidelines. But there are much more unsavory elements at play here as well. As Roger Bate, co-author of The Excellent Powder: DDT's Political and Scientific History writes, some people were concerned about overpopulation and therefore "actively opposed DDT use because of its life-saving capability."

That might sound almost too shocking to credit. Sure, some people are still genuinely concerned about population explosion – as retrograde as that seems today – and sharply disagree with natural law ethics that proscribe artificial contraception. But most people would probably consider it disturbing, even malicious to reject knowingly a harmless and effective means of sparing living, breathing human beings from capriciously lethal mosquito bites.

Many of those who are convinced that the world is overpopulated nonetheless seem feverishly intent on finding means to extend their own lives, indefinitely if possible, explicitly through embryonic stem-cell research. At the same time, they are sympathetic to dispatching – via "Physician Assisted Suicide" or forms of healthcare rationing – those they deem no longer valuable members of society.

Such ruthless egocentrism – any means necessary to prolong my life but not even a simple pesticide to preserve yours – is not a charming feature of any worldview.

The reason we are fighting malaria with one hand tied behind our backs is not technical but philosophical and anthropological in nature. The next generation of public health leaders will need a higher view of man.

The egocentrism of those who shudder at the thought of utilizing "chemicals" such as DDT for philanthropic purposes of vector control comes into sharper relief when they express no concern about the environmental impact of artificial contraception. The pill – ingested by millions of women on a daily basis – harms the environment. DDT in the quantity necessary for malaria control does not. The pill causes cancer; DDT does not.

True environmentalists, it seems, would devote themselves to targeting chemical compounds that actually harm the environment (and delicate human ecology); true philanthropists would resolutely place human health and well being at the center of their assessment of the promise and the perils of these chemicals. To condemn DDT but condone the pill is to at least verge on countenancing misanthropy and environmental indifferentism.

Love of self – not the environment – is what, deep down, allows for such contradictions. If this Sierra Club brand of environmentalism is a pseudo-religion, as some have suggested, it is a polytheistic one in which the highest deity is not Mother Earth but the self.

The reason we are fighting malaria with one hand tied behind our backs is not technical but philosophical and anthropological in nature. The next generation of public health leaders will need a higher view of man. Technical expertise alone will not suffice when what we need most of all are sturdier ideas.



Matthew Hanley. "Environmental Egocentrism." The Catholic Thing (May 13, 2010).

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

The Author

hanley Matthew Hanley, along with Jokin D.  Irala, M.D., is the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.  He is also a regular contributor to The Catholic Thing

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