DDT is an acronym with a bleak history. But this was not always so. Prior to Rachel Carson’s apocryphal book Silent spring, DDT was hailed as a wonder insecticide and used throughout the 1940s and 1950s to bring real improvement to communities struggling to control typhus and malaria. It was later used, much more widely, as an agricultural insecticide. The Swiss chemist Paul Müller, discoverer of its effectiveness as an insect poison, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948. With such high level endorsement coupled with its properties, it is not surprising that DDT was used with few concerns.
In fact, DDT was considered so safe you could, literally, eat it and breathe it. The next two activities will bring this perspective on DDT and environmental management into rather alarming focus.
Activity 5 DDT
View the following video clip on DDT. It is a clip from a 1940s campaign to control malaria in the Kipsigis tribal area of north-west Kenya. Public health officials are trying to persuade villagers to use the DDT spray on their huts to kill mosquitos.
You can access this video here: DDT so safe you can eat it 1947 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]
What do you make of this film? What does it reveal about different views of what is good environmental management?
Viewing this film from our current perspective, with the fuller history of DDT known, it is certainly an astonishing film to modern eyes. Even if the person eating the DDT does not seem too concerned about its safety, it is abundantly clear the villagers are very sceptical. Both sides have a clear difference of views – and perspectives and beliefs – and both believe they are right. While they may not use the term specifically, both groups have very different views of what constitutes ‘good’ environmental management and how it could be implemented.
You might consider the act of eating DDT to prove a particular viewpoint about environmental management and safety is shocking. But it has been used more recently, albeit with different ingredients. During the 1989–90 beef crisis, when British beef was banned across the EU because of concerns about links to the neural disease variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, the then UK Minister for Agriculture John Gummer and his daughter ate British beef burgers in public to prove beef was safe. The horse meat scandal in processed food in Europe in early 2013 has yet to prompt a politician to continue this public practice.
Post-1945, use of DDT increased exponentially as a general insecticide. It was still considered so safe it could be breathed as well as eaten – only this time by the wider public as part of public health.
Activity 6 Silent spring
View the following video clip showing historic footage of the use of DDT in San Antonio, Texas, as part of a public health programme in the USA to protect against polio. At the time, polio was thought to be transmitted via mosquitoes and other flying insects. The video includes retrospective analysis from various interviewees.
You can access this video here: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring
What do you make of the historic footage in the video? What key points are raised by the first interviewee that you think have implications for environmental management?
As with the earlier video, today it is quite shocking to see the indiscriminate use of DDT in various settings – particularly sprayed onto children and directly in peoples’ faces and food. But it is a very stark reminder that the spraying programme was considered good environmental management to protect the public against polio – a much feared but poorly understood disease at the time.
The first interviewee raises the point that the spraying was seen by people ‘as a good thing because they got action in solving a problem as they conceived it’. This suggests that the way the problem was understood shaped the responses, management strategy and actions. Simply put, spraying was thought to be effective and was a very visible sign something was being done. The same interviewee also emphasises the combination of government and industry in supporting and driving the wider use of DDT. This was clearly a powerful combination at the time, which Rachel Carson would struggle to change.
The reference to the collaboration of government and industry in furthering DDT use brings to the fore the difficulties of who or what determines ‘good’ environmental management from ‘poor’, and on what basis. The story of Silent spring encompasses the deep opposition to Carson’s critique of DDT from some industry scientists and politicians and, by contrast, strong support from other scientists. At the heart of the DDT issue was the initial failure to understand, or refusal to recognise, the links between chemical use and the wider health of other species, which were being adversely affected by increasing concentrations of DDT in the natural environment and food chain.
The history of DDT is a sobering reminder of what is understood as – and done in the name of – environmental management. It shows that what is considered ‘good’ environmental management is very dependent on the knowledge and values of the day and the perspective of those advocating particular actions. This will vary according to context and issue.
While Silent spring and all that followed is rightly seen as a major milestone in the emergence of contemporary approaches to environmental management, the DDT videos serve to underline that environmental management is not a new invention of recent environmental concerns or something unchanging that can be used in any context. What is considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ environmental management is often very debatable and context-specific.
The history of DDT also serves to highlight the consequences of not understanding, ignoring or not fully engaging with the complexity of the situation – in this case the links between the chemical, the pathways into the food chain and the natural environment, and the biological effects on other species. In other words, DDT can be regarded as a failure to develop a more holistic or systemic way of thinking and acting in environmental management.