Wednesday, April 23, 2008

McIlheran loves people, DDT, but misses the point

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.


John Das Binky said...

This touches interestingly on a lot of stuff I've been reading lately.

As I see it, we're in a bit of a catch-22.

The world's population has exploded in the last 150 or so years, corresponding with the Industrial revolution. One of the major outcomes of the industrial revolution and subsequent technology breakthroughs is that we've been able to produce enough food to feed the world cheaply. Some folks attribute the Haber–Bosch process for producing ammonia with allowing roughly 2 out of every 5 people on the planet to survive. Without it, we'd have a Malthusian Catastrope.

This technology that's allowed us to grow is incredibly energy heavy and very environmentally destructive. Current state, there's no way to do it cheaply without environmental devastation, and there's no major investment going towards making it less harmful. If anything, we're just increasing our reliance on monocultural agriculture and fossil fuel.

The flip side of that coin is that to be less environmentally destructive, we need to produce less food and less energy, which will result in a massive die off of the less fortunate around the world. Our large scale food production processes are incredibly resource heavy... organic farms do not have the yields to feed the world. We are long past the point when our population can exist on subsistence farming.

You're right in that there are projects going on around the world to allow us to live cleaner, cheaper. But there isn't enough traction. We're at least a generation from those efforts going mainstream, and by then much of the worst damage may be irreversible.

Bottom line, it's ugly. I'm not personally convinced the world can support its current population and be eco-friendly.

(Note: I'm also in a grim mood today. I'll probably be shiner and happier tomorrow. :)

Emily said...

No, I hear you, I really do. It's a terrible conundrum at the very least, and there are no easy solutions.

capper said...

Interestingly, McIlheran, on his blog, is lamenting the decline in the human population. Of course, he is greatly exagerrating the condition, but all the same.

I think people, as a global society, will instinctively set things to a balance.

illusory tenant said...

McIlheran seems to be making [an] argument ...

A lot of otherwise intelligent people tend to get fooled into believing that as well.

Emily said...

IT - Hah, yeah, I've been getting that impression. The blog post capper pointed out has been tempting me to formulate yet another response, but I feel like giving him so much attention only makes matters worse.

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