I read with some interest and confusion Patrick McIlheran's recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial, "Consider the humans on Earth, too" - his reaction to the Earth Day holiday. In it, he says that "Greens have long argued that energy is too cheap..." and that environmentalism has blinded some people in malaria-struck regions enough to refuse the use of DDT in fighting the disease. Among other things.
McIlheran seems to be making the argument that preserving the environment is incongruous with producing cheap energy and making sure people, especially those in developing countries, have enough to eat.
He's right to call out those people who claim to be environmentalists and make demands without consideration for how they will immediately effect communities around the world. We need to be careful about the measures taken to protect our world--there is a balance to be struck between being green and being affordable. This is a balance that is emminently doable, too, but where McIlheran goes wrong is in his assertion that "activists" think we need to cut back to "Haitian levels" of energy consumption, and that "Environmental policy is, instead, a set of trade-offs, and what is traded for cleanliness is someone's portion of economic prosperity."
I disagree, and strongly.
We all want cheap, abundant energy. It should not come at the cost of the health of our people and our planet, though. Poorly planned and executed environmental policy may indeed limit someone's portion of economic prosperity, but it needn't be that way. There are projects currently underway in all corners of the globe that aim to (and often succeed at) helping the poorest of the poor to get things like clean water, electricity, education, and agriculture, all with a greener, more sustainable bent. If done right, being more environmentally sound can lead to greater economic sustainability, too. If the source of your livelihood--the land--isn't degraded, you can live off of it indefinitely.
As for DDT, McIlheran is wrong when he claims that the pesticide is both safe and banned. While DDT has long been banned outright in most developed countries (with good reason), its use for "vector control" is still approved in many areas afflicted by malaria. When used carefully and in smaller amounts, it can be just as effective, but without the many environmental and health problems that result from widespread usage.
I'm also uncomfortable with his implication that "activists whose main concern is the environment have appropriated the moral high ground once used by those demanding racial equality." If someone were to actually do this, I'd be inclined to give 'em a good smack, but I've yet to meet someone dedicated to a greener way of life who also thought that one was more important than the other.
One should not overshadow the other. They're both extremely important, and frankly, I think they're also somewhat tied together. If we're talking about the rights of working class and poor communities, then the discussion must include the effects of pollution on their lives. Pollution often caused by large, poorly regulated corporations that feel they can get away with dumping on less wealthy, less empowered people. We can combat these situations with better regulation of industry, greener business practices, and by empowering these communities with ways to help themselves through sustainable means.
So yes, we need to care for our fellow human beings. But a major part of that is wrapped up in how we treat our environment. We should be thoughtful and careful about how we do this, but you cannot separate the two. After all, we can't survive without the Earth, but the Earth can survive without us. I'd rather it not come to that.