Arnold Kling  

Environmental Disasters

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According to Iain Murray's new book, the worst disasters come from environmental policy. It is remarkable the magnitude of the harm caused by government relative to the harm caused by the private sector from which it protects us. My co-blogger cites the number of people murdered by Stalin as an example of government-caused harm that is very difficult for the private sector to top.

Here are some more comparisons to consider:

1. The total death and illness caused by all of the chemical pollution ever created vs. the death and illness caused by the ban on DDT.

2. The GDP lost due to consumption of illegal drugs vs. the GDP lost due to the drug war.

3. The deprivation and suffering caused by predatory lending and other subprime mortgage shenanigans vs. that caused by biofuel mandates.

I think that as the world gets more complex and interdependent, we will see government activism cause ever-greater harm, because the unintended consequences become harder to predict, or even to trace when they do occur.

UPDATE: A commenter points out that the title of Murray's book is confrontational, and this will discourage people from reading it dispassionately. I am very sympathetic with the commenter's point. I like the classic lawyer's saying, "If you have the facts with you, argue the facts. If you have the law with you, argue the law. If you have neither, pound the table."

I think that the facts are on Murray's side, which makes pounding the table seem inappropriate. Of course, I felt the same way about Jonah Goldberg's book, and it became a bestseller. Still, I myself would not want to have a claim to fame as a table-pounder.

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The author at Deltoid in a related article titled Arnold Kling spreads DDT ban myth writes:
    Arnold Kling decides to spread the DDT ban myth: According to Iain Murray's new book, the worst disasters come from environmental policy. It is remarkable the magnitude of the harm caused by government relative to the harm caused by the... [Tracked on May 2, 2008 1:35 AM]
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Snark writes:

There's no end to them. How about red light cameras? In most cases, it seems legislation aimed at improving public safety is more about improving public coffers.

Reilly writes:

If he's looking to alienate anyone who doesn't already agree with him, that's a great title choice.

liberty writes:

I don't understand #3, it doesn't seem like apples-apples. Also, for #2, it may have cost a lot but if deaths were reduced then we might have just purchased the lives of innocent would-be drug victims, and still feel it was worth it.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Regarding the DDT example, yes, there have been lots of deaths due to malaria that probably would not have happened if DDT had not been banned. However, the ban was put in place because of DDT's effect on other species. So, this is a non-comparison, although probably Murray considers the other species to have no value. As I have not read his book, I do not know exactly what his argument is, but it appears here to be a bit off.

BTW, we now have other methods of dealing with malaria that are not environmentally destructive, such as good netting. A lot of effort is going into getting that more available now.

Psychohistorian writes:

The inside cover attacks "liberals" over the environmental effects of contraceptives (which seems odd to attribute to "liberals" - not to mention it does not appear to relate to government policy) and it uses the term "liberal" in a derogatory way four times in three paragraphs. This might sell books, but it tends to kill the credibility of the author.

I'm not saying he's wrong, but when the book's inside cover sounds like political propaganda, it seems fair to give the book a lot less weight.

Ben Kalafut writes:

A "Ban on DDT" in places that actually need it is largely a right-wing myth (that the Randroids like to trot out annually on Rachel Carson's birthday, regardless of what Silent Spring actually had to say about the substance...); the Stockholm Convention contains clear public-health exceptions.

Modern malaria-control programs don't often use it because it's considered ineffective relative to its costs.

Try again.

Then again, this "death and illness" counting is likely to be up there with body counts in support of gun control or Bjorn Lomborg's tawdry, rigged cost-benefit analysis for AGW. What counts as an air pollution death, anyway? I think we can just conclude that Arnold has a heavy bias against anything that could be considered "environmentalist"--first the parroting of tired old AGW denialist lines, now chinese whispers about a supposed DDT "ban". What's next: will he call for the repeal of the Montreal Protocol because, after all, Mt Erebus must be the cause of stratospheric ozone depletion?

Reilly writes:

Liberty: It's extremely unlikely that deaths are reduced by the drug war. Prohibition might have prevented a few alcohol-related deaths, sure, but think of the crime and violence it created.

Jim writes:

"1. The total death and illness caused by all of the chemical pollution ever created vs. the death and illness caused by the ban on DDT."

There was no ban on DDT use against malaria, and lives have been saved by reducing DDT for agricultural use and hence minimising the growth of resistance. The DDT myth is pushed by various anti-environmentalist groups purely because Rachel Carson makes a handy hate figure and you get to pretend to care about Africans. You should be ashamed of yourself for being duped into peddling such misleading nonsense on such an important topic, but I won't hold my breath for a correction.

liberty writes:

I am not arguing that there necessarily were, but it is worth considering. Perhaps heroin use and overdose would be higher if it were legal. Who knows?


As for DDT, I think consensus has come around to the fact that the prohibitions in place have indeed caused an increase in malaria related deaths.

And mosquito nets alone are not an answer! The battle is ongoing, and environmental groups are still trying to prevent countries from using DDT.
For example:

Patri Friedman writes:

Agreed, which is why working on improving government for example, by building new countries on the ocean, is the best thing we can do to make the world a better place.

Tim Lambert writes:

Arnold Kling, you should be ashamed of yourself.


I checked to see what the peer-reviewed scientific literature. “Agricultural production and malaria resurgence in Central America and India” published in Nature by Chapin and Wasserstrom tells us what really happened. The graph on the left shows that malaria did skyrocket in India in the 70s. But not because they cut back on DDT spraying because of pressure from environmentalists. The graph shows that they didn’t cut back on DDT, but dramatically increased its use. So how come malaria increased? Well, the increase in DDT use was in agriculture. This caused the insects to become resistant, so they had to use more DDT to get the same effect. This caused more resistance, so even more DDT was used and so on. The end result was that in the areas where DDT was used in agriculture, the mosquitoes became completely resistant and DDT no longer stopped them from spreading malaria, with the disastrous results shown in the graph.

Was this catastrophe predictable? Well, yes. In fact, Rachel Carson warned about it in Silent Spring. If India had followed the example of the United States and banned the agricultural use of DDT and reserved it for public health many millions of cases of malaria would have been prevented. However, India probably could not have afforded the more expensive alternative insecticides to DDT, so this may not have been feasible. But there were other alternatives that would have greatly reduced pesticide use and slowed the development of resistance.


So the people with significant responsibility for the resurgence in malaria were the chemical companies that stymied efforts to reduce the agricultural use of pesticides. And it was chemical companies that helped set up the astroturf junkscience site that has attempted to blame Rachel Carson for causing the resurgence. Nice. It’s like a hit-and-run driver who, instead of admitting responsibility for the accident, frames the person who tried to prevent the accident.
flyfisher writes:

How about CAFE standards? Many people will die when the automakers respond to the standards by reducing the weight of their vehicles.

Jim writes:

liberty, insecticide-treated bed-nets are indeed a very important part of the answer - see various articles in the Malaria Journal in the past few years pointing this out. Your link claims they are 'inferior' to DDT, which is not true and in any case makes no sense, since it implies that DDT is better in any situation - what, even when the insects have evolved resistance? Africa Fighting Malaria does not give a remotely accurate picture of the state of research on the subject - hardly surprising, since it was set up for the express purpose of attacking the World Health Organisation's work on environmental health risks such as passive smoking, and received funding from Philip Morris for that work.

I wish people would actually read the research on this rather important topic rather than getting their 'facts' from the likes of Iain Murray and AFM.

Arnold Kling writes:

I have not read everything written on DDT. However, what I am reading on these comments sounds like talking points, not reality.

The term "banned" may not be correct, but countries can be punished in many ways for using DDT--they can lose foreign aid, they can have imports of their crops banned, etc. The restrictions on crop imports apply even when a country uses DDT on homes, not on crops.

Bed nets work fine when people are sleeping in them, but you can't sleep 24 hours a day.

The reality is that malaria is a major cause of sickness and death, and it doesn't have to be.

Jim writes:
countries can be punished in many ways for using DDT--they can lose foreign aid, they can have imports of their crops banned, etc

Sure, all of those things CAN happen! But they didn't, not when DDT use was in line with the Stockholm Convention, ie indoor spraying for anti-malaria purposes.

The restrictions on crop imports apply even when a country uses DDT on homes, not on crops

No, that's not true. You may have been misled by a story that did the rounds of anti-environmentalist groups (and the Wall Street Journal) a couple of years ago claiming that the EU had threatened to ban imports from Uganda if they used DDT indoors. There was no such ban.

Bed nets work fine when people are sleeping in them, but you can't sleep 24 hours a day.

Er, the anopheles mosquito is mostly crepuscular (active at dusk or dawn) or nocturnal (active at night). A rather important point, that.

As for evidence on the effectiveness of bednets, research published a few months ago by the World Health Organisation found that

The widespread distribution of insecticide-treated nets and increased access to artemisinin-based combination therapies have significantly reduced malaria cases and deaths in several countries in Africa [e.g. by >60% in Rwanda in a few years]... Indoor insecticide spraying with the pesticide DDT and other chemicals was used at different times during the course of the study in Rwanda and Ethiopia, but the spraying did not appear to play a significant role in the "steep, sudden declines"

That quote is from a description of the report here, the report itself is here. Nobody expects you to read "everything written on DDT", but I would have thought you can read that.

I wouldn't expect Africa Fighting Malaria to welcome these findings, since they run directly contrary to their line that DDT is a much better solution than ITNs. But that line is motivated by ideology and their interest in talking down environmental regulation, not by the facts. Incidentally, the findings also contradict William Easterly's line that ITNs should be sold rather than given away free - it turns out that a mix of sales and mass free distribution is best.

"The reality is that malaria is a major cause of sickness and death, and it doesn't have to be."

I agree completely. The scale and speed of the impacts identified by the WHO suggest that very large reductions in sickness and death caused by malaria are possible given sufficient funding and infrastructure for ITN and artemesinin distribution. For that to happen, we need to stop listening to ideologues like Iain Murray and start listening to people who are doing honest research and honest work on the subject.

Lastly, I'm trying to engage you in a serious discussion here, so it would be nice to see a serious response rather than another glib dismissal.

Arnold Kling writes:

I didn't see the WSJ story to which you referred. I met a student from Ghana who said that they could not spray their houses with DDT without having their crops declared "not organic" by the EU, making them effectively unexportable. Obviously, one anecdote is not an outstanding data source, but that's part of information set.

I don't claim that everything ever written by the proponents of DDT is right, or that everything ever written by liberals about how to fight malaria is wrong. Everyone, including you or me, can be wrong now and then. But I am not impressed by ad hominem attacks on Iain Murray. He is every bit as decent and caring and sincere as you are.

Jim writes:

Seeing as you've just approvingly cited a book-length ad hominem attack on environmentalists by Iain Murray, I'll take that with a pinch of salt. Your lack of interest in evidence of what actually works to combat malaria is saddening.

Jim writes:

This book is pretty much an anti-liberal screed. After all it blames liberals right on the cover.

A little more detail on two of the issues.

1. The DDT remark is related to Malaria in Africa.

Agricultural use (broad spraying of cropland) of DDT has been banned but not use for vector control.

Just like mosquito control here in Minnesota other methods have been adopted to keep the breeding down and block them in your household. In Africa DDT can still be used for this purpose.

2. A history of ethanol.
Ethanol got into gasoline for a variety of reasons.

Early reasons included reduction of air pollution in cities. Then it was discovered that the fuel additive MTBE could health problems. Ethanol was a good alternative for the function of MBTE (anti-knocking compound).

But the truly massive use of ethanol as a replacement for crude oil (particularly imported crude oil) has been done by George W. Bush in concert with congress and farmers.

At this point it would be fairer to call ethanol a bipartisan mess.

aaron writes:

Ad hominem attacks are usually ad hominem attacks.

People suggest an argument is invalid because they lump the arguer in with "those who argue only by ad homenim". However, what is claimed to be ad homenim isn't usually ad homenim. It's usually just insulting. Showing that enviromentalists usually cause more harm than good isn't the same thing as saying everything liberals say is wrong because they're environmentalist.

Also, ad hominem arguments are usually irrelevant to a discussion, but that doesn't automatically make them wrong. Arguing that DDT must be very effective because people like Tim Lambert say it's not is similar to ad homenim. That doesn't mean it's wrong.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I do not know about some of these groups, nor do I know much about Murray, and I also dislike ad hominen attacks. I would note that the DDT-malaria issue is quite complicated.

I can see at least two or three issues here that are causing some confusion in the discussion. One has to do with current policies versus past ones. Another has to do with the details of DDT usage.

So, today the evidence is strong that insecticide-coated netting is very effective, if not necessarily perfect. I would note that the hard-nosed Bjorn Lomborg and his Copenhagen crew, often taken to task by many environmentalists (although Tom Schelling is a very hard person to argue with; he just knows more than almost anybody in any room he is in) has put the anti-malaria netting program right at the top of their cost-effective programs.

However, in the past this was not as well known. So, in the past careful DDT usage that may have not happened otherwise may well have saved human lives that were lost.

OTOH, Jim and Tim Lambert are right about the resistance argument. DDT usage in agriculture was a total disaster, India being the prime example.

So, much of this depends on what Murray specifically says and the degree to which he acknowledges the complexities of this matter, or how many dead he claims for the ban. As it is, I see little reason for much use of DDT now, certainly not some major loosening of restrictions, although careful and limited indoor usage may continue to be justified.

Ed Darrell writes:

It's not that the title is confrontational so much as that the title tells almost everything the author knows.

Anyone who has followed the story on biofuels, for example, knows that it is corporate interests that push for the legislation that make it happen. Charles Grassley is not an environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination. However, he is among the chief advocates of biofuels. That he is also a long-serving, and hence, powerful senator from Iowa, probably doesn't get a mention in Murray's book (unless Murray falsely labels Grassley an environmentalist).

Consider this: There is not a single peer-reviewed study in science that calls into question anything Rachel Carson wrote. With more than 1,000 studies confirming the damage DDT did to predator birds, scientists and Americans can be sure that the ban on DDT helped save the bald eagle. (The count was done by Discover magazine -- see their November 2007 issue.)

That's not the story Murray tells. If his story is not based in history, not based in science, what is it based on?

Arnold Kling writes:

When someone says that there has never been a peer-reviewed study that calls into question anything Rachel Carson wrote, then apparently the National Academy of Sciences is not good enough for you.


cited in

aaron writes:

I think Barkley is mostly right, "Jim and Tim Lambert are right about the resistance argument. DDT usage in agriculture was a total disaster, India being the prime example."

The relevant question though is to what degree. That over spaying for agriculture leads to resisitance is important, but it's certainly doesn't lead to the conclusion suggested, but not explicitly stated, by Lambert. Uncontrolled use can be bad, but that doesn't mean the effective ban on DDT is good. Epecially with the Indian example well known, it's probably better for countries to determine their own policy.

Tim Lambert writes:

I realize that Kling will likely believe what some random student told him over an actual statement from the EU, but for the rest of you here's the EU's actual position:

The European Union has no objection to the safe spraying of houses with DDT for malaria control, but it does have concerns about illegal agricultural uses. The E.U., like the United States and 149 other countries that signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001, believes that the use of DDT in agriculture should be phased out. Nations have the right to use DDT for public health protection, and the convention includes an exemption to allow such uses. It even sets out conditions for the safe use of DDT in malaria control -- a use unlikely to leave residues in crops.

It is up to Uganda how to fight malaria, and DDT is one tool in that fight. The European Union continues to assist Uganda and other affected countries in efforts to combat malaria and contributes almost $100 million to this cause annually.

Health protection should not, however, provide an alibi for illegal use in agriculture. The European Union has granted $30 million to developing countries to strengthen infrastructures and encourage the sharing of best practices -- a program singled out for praise by the World Bank.



E.U. Commission Delegation

Do you think Murray tells you about this in his book?

aaron writes:

Don't know why he should.

That's great for people post 2001. It's good to see we're coming around, but it doesn't erase the past.

And how prominent is the position? This strikes me as likely analogous to the Bush Administration in addressing HIV in Africa. The official policy doesn't discrimate for abstinance only programs, but the popular belief, contibuted to by stress on abstinance only by the president's speech, suggests that we do and institutions act accordingly.

Ed Darrell writes:

Is it too much to ask you to read the NAS book you cite? It agrees with Carson.

The National Academy of Sciences called for an end to the use of DDT in 1970, while noting it had provided some value. Of course, you won't find that reading a site like the misnomered Reason -- maybe Rant would be a better title. (Did that article really say the NAS disagreed with Carson? Do you think they didn't bother to read the NAS book, either?)

Nor, in fact, does that study say that DDT is safe. The study repeats what Carson suggested might be the case (the NAS book confirms Carson, in other words):

A characteristic of synthetic chemicals often deemed desirable for commercial purposes is chemical stability. This is often achieved by halogenation, particularly chlorination, although other techniques are also available, such as the replacement of ester bonds by ether linkages. Chemical stability usually gives rise to persistence in the environment, to bioaccumulation, and to recalcitrance to metabolism. For example, highly chlorinated chemicals such as PCBs, PBBs, and the pesticides DDT and mirex have been shown to be persistent and hazardous. In addition, TCDD, a byproduct of combustion and other processes, is a stable, environmentally persistent chemical that bioaccumulates and causes severe acute and chronic effects in animals.
(page 128;

Here's a lengthier explanation of the NAS study calling for an end to the use of DDT:

Or, alternatively, you could read the NAS book you cite, and discover that what I said before was precisely accurate, even according to the NAS study -- no scientific study has ever been done which refutes any finding cited by Carson in 1962.

Let's stick to the facts.

Arnold Kling writes:

I suggest that readers may wish to go to

J F Beck writes:

Arnold Kling gives a reasonable comparison to consider:

The total death and illness caused by all of the chemical pollution ever created vs. the death and illness caused by the ban on DDT.

Tim Lambert responds by linking to one of his discredited DDT posts. The cited Wasserstrom and Chapin article claims 30 million malaria cases in India in 1977 when malaria cases actually peaked at under 7 million in 1976.

Lambert promises (comment 19) to clear up the discrepancy:

I think the 6.47 million cases are just those confirmed by a blood test, but I’ll check with WHO statistics in the library tomorrow.

Well, Lambert was still commenting in the thread a week later but never did resolve the massive discrepancy. Any guesses why?

Regardless, if this Pesticide Action Network summary is to be believed, it's overly simplistic to attribute the dramatic rise in India's malaria rate to the agricultural use of DDT:

Malaria fell sharply in India during the malaria eradiation campaign of the 1960s due to DDT spraying, the success of which overshadowed the small successes of other methods. However, malaria resurged following the close out of the eradication program, peaking in 1976. A new government control campaign initiated in 1977 brought the numbers back down, but there has been a plateau since the early 1980s.

Here's what the WHO had to say about India's malaria resurgence:

The strategy of malaria eradication was highly successful and the cases were reduced to about 100,000 and deaths due to malaria were eliminated by 1965-66. Subsequently the programme faced various technical obstacles and financial and administrative constraints, which led to countrywide increase in the number of cases. 6.47 million malaria cases were reported in 1976, the highest since resurgence.

Lambert gets very little right on DDT and is best ignored by all but his true believers – the post at his blog is an attempt to shift the discussion to a warm and friendly environment where he and his lock-steppers can control the discussion.

Ed Darrell, a Lambert protege, puts up some interesting historical posts but his DDT writings are rubbish. In one he supports Rachel Carson's absurd contention that a DDT user developed and died of cancer within months of using DDT three times. In another post Darrell claims water is carcinogenic. Like Lambert he is best ignored.

Boris writes:
The cited Wasserstrom and Chapin article claims 30 million malaria cases in India in 1977 when malaria cases actually peaked at under 7 million in 1976.

Um, the W&C paper appears to list 30 million cases over the period 1969-1977. When misreading a graph is your best evidence that someone is wrong, it's probably time to give up.

Crust writes:

1. The total death and illness caused by all of the chemical pollution ever created vs. the death and illness caused by the ban on DDT.

As I understand it, the latter number may well be negative. Bans on the agricultural use of DDT -- while still allowing spraying in homes -- slow the spread of resistance and thereby save lives.

J F Beck writes:


If you click on Lambert's first link and read through the comments you'll note that I noted at the time that I might be misinterpreting the graph – a misinterpretation apparently shared by Lambert as he did not point out my "error". Nonetheless, the sources I cite indicate that India's anti-malaria effort had significant problems beyond DDT reistance, which isn't even mentioned.

J F Beck writes:

Rather than go off on tangents let's stick to Kling's original comparison:

IThe total death and illness caused by all of the chemical pollution ever created vs. the death and illness caused by the ban on DDT.
The following is an excerpt from a 2006 Nature Medicine article (subscription required) by Apoorva Mandavilli (at the time Nature Medicine's senior news editor):

"In theory, any country is free to use DDT. The Stockholm Convention of 2001 sought a global ban on DDT, but many countries and scientists argued against the ban, citing its value in malaria control. The final treaty made an exemption for DDT’s use in public health, but called for countries to gradually phase out the pesticide. Still, in places where malaria was still endemic, the treaty spelled disaster. Most African nations are heavily dependent on foreign aid and can ill afford to cross a line drawn by donor agencies. USAID never banned DDT outright, for instance, but nor did it fund DDT’s purchase— which amounts to the same thing. For that reason, the May announcement is widely seen as a change in policy even though the agency doesn’t position it as such. The World Bank went one step further, making the ban of DDT a condition for loans. The WHO supported the use of bednets dipped in insecticide over indoor spraying, even though malaria rates continued to increase. DDT was “further ignored and intentionally or unintentionally suppressed,” by these agencies, says Kochi. “People are very emotional about DDT, even within the WHO,” Kochi says, adding that much of the reaction to DDT was a response to political pressure."

The DDT was not imaginary.

J F Beck writes:

The above should read "The DDT ban was not imaginary." Duh.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I would note again, as someone who has not read Murray's book, that his second and third claims as reported by Arnold, are likely to be true, more or less, although one can certainly argue about numbers, just as has been the case for the more questionable issue of DDT, where it is not clear the numbers support his claims in the end.

I would reiterate at this point something I noted in my first comment on the DDT matter, that the major argument for banning it was not related to human health, but for species preservation, species other than humans.


Do you question that the restrictions in place on DDT have helped in the revival of the bald eagle and other species of interest to humans? In all the arguments about how many humans died when and how, I have not seen anybody refuting that point.

J F Beck writes:

Barkley Rosser,

I'm a hobby blogger with most of my DDT posts responding to what I see as serial misrepresentation from unreliable sources like Tim Lambert and Ed Darrell. I claim no DDT authority.

The US general-use DDT ban probably played some part in the growth of raptor numbers but I'm far from certain that the ban was a major factor, much less the critical factor. I won't take the time to look it up right now but there is an interesting large raptor study in Alaska which admits that declining DDT content has unaccountable failed to result in eggshells thickening as much as expected. In short, there seem to be other unknown factors causing raptor eggshells to remain relatively thin. If you want the source I'll find it and get back to you.

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