Saturday, September 22, 2007

Peregrines, pesticide and plasmodium

What is it about modern man, that human deaths overseas are less important than Nature at home?

We're talking the use of DDT to kill malaria-carrying mosquitos here. You may think DDT is not used any more- I did. Like most people, you may have believed that the 1972 US ban was a worldwide prohibition, whereas
DDT has not been banned for public health use in most areas of the world where malaria is endemic.
the fact that DDT is not formally banned in developing nations does not necessarily mean that those nations have the option to use it. Developing nations are typically heavily dependent on aid from agencies that made the aid contingent upon non-usage of DDT. The British Medical Journal of March 11, 2000, reports that the use of DDT in Mozambique "was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country's health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT." Many African nations have been dissuaded from to using DDT in part because the European Union has said that their agricultural exports may not be accepted if spraying was "widespread."
`What has this to do with me or you?', you cry.

Well, not very much, if I'm being honest, but a little. I shall explain.

I have a young colleague, let us call him Tom. He has a very interesting career trajectory. He trained as a vet-qualified even. Then he became interested in statistics , so did a Master's degree and then a PhD in stats. We were talking the other day, initially about the latest Foot and Mouth outbreak, but somehow the topic turned to malaria and DDT. I had recently read that
Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said in 2007 that "The ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children."
and was expressing my shock and dismay at this figure when he said, rather sharply, `they'll spray it everywhere and kill the peregrines again!" When I taxed him as to what he meant, he expressed very strongly the opinion that peregrine numbers had boomed since DDT was banned
and he did not wish to see its return. Taking a deep breath, I asked him whether the peregrines were more important than 20 million children and he hedged a little, weakly implying that I wasn't describing the choice that actually confronted us. Another colleague bitingly suggested that perhaps peregrines offered more tourist appeal than children so this was obviously the right choice for developing countries and still Tom did not relent. For him, peregrines at home were more important than dead children overseas.

It's hard to know where to begin in analysing this story. One could pick on the willful ignorance:
this species can be found everywhere on Earth, making it one of the world's most common falcons
yet DDT would only be used in South America and Africa and is now used only inside houses to
prevent malaria so is unlikely to poison peregrines (or any other bird) significantly; one could pick on the choice of peregrines over people; or one could pick on the subtext: that there are enough people anyway or perhaps, too many.

For me, it seems to be an example of the unspoken and unspeakable position of a significant proportion of the new left-wing intelligentsia: whatever we say, people `over there' are not important - unless they're `trophy classes' like the Palestinians - whereas animal rights and the environment matter deeply. There are too many people in the world. I want me and mine to live so why don't all but a few of the people a long way away just conveniently fail to survive.

You'll probably think I'm being much to harsh, but have you been listening recently? Underneath the surface (and particularly amongst a proportion of the under thirties), this is the message: dolphins and peregrines have a right to live but children do not.

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