Yet more zombies

by John Quiggin on November 7, 2010

After finishing Zombie Economics, and confident that it would soar to the top of the best-seller lists, I had the idea of a franchise-style list of sequels – Vampire Econ (on the financial sector), Cyborg Econ (the market and the mixed economy) and so on. Now, though, I’m thinking I could spend a lifetime on the zombie ideas that dominate the political right.

One of the most tenacious has been the DDT myth, that the writings of Rachel Carson led to a global ban on the use of DDT[1], bringing to an end a program that was on the verge of eradicating malaria[2], and causing the death of millions[3]. I thought that Tim Lambert and I had finally administered the coup de grace with this piece in Prospect a while back, after which some of the leading promoters of the myth (such as Roger Bate and his Africa Fighting Malaria group) appeared to have given up and moved on to other projects.

But zombies are hard to kill, especially for such reliable sources of misinformation as Britain’s Channel Four. C4 has just run a documentary by Stewart Brand, entitled What the Green Movement Got Wrong in which the DDT myth was repeated in its full glory. Amusingly, Brand made the plea ‘I want to see an environment movement that can admit when it’s wrong’. When challenged by George Monbiot on his glaring errors of fact, Brand exhibited the familiar pattern of weasel words and blame-shifting, followed by silence.

Meanwhile, two of the AFM crew, Richard Tren and Donald Roberts have published a pro-DDT book. The Reuters report on the book says that it comes Six years after the insect killer DDT was globally outlawed on grounds of environmental damage. This is confusing to say the least, given that claims about the dire effects of the supposed ban were around long before this and that the same groups were celebrating the supposed reversal of the ban by WHO in 2006. Actually, both the Stockholm Convention which came into effect in 2004 and the “new” WHO position were little more than different spins on the long-standing consensus that DDT should be banned in agricultural use but retained in anti-malarial use until it can be replaced by cost-effective alternatives. The Reuters report notes that “Tren is a “free market lobbyist who has previously criticised tobacco control”.

Update The original version of this post referred to Richard Tren as a “tobacco lobbyist”. This claim was false. I withdraw it and apologise to Mr Tren.

fn1. DDT has never been banned in anti-malarial use
fn2. The attempt to eradicate malaria through DDT failed because of the development of resistance, long before environmentalist concerns about DDT
fn3. The DDT ban myth was largely popularised by the tobacco industry, seeking to pressure WHO out of anti-smoking campaigns in poor countries. Those pushing the myths are the active agents or unwitting dupes of an industry that has indeed killed millions.

{ 54 comments }

1

mcd 11.07.10 at 6:00 am

Is that “poor countries” in next-to-last line (fn 3)?

Tobacco companies get into all sorts of social disputes. Didn’t Roger Scruton get in some embarrassment over being a shill for them?

2

John Quiggin 11.07.10 at 6:36 am

fn3 Fixed thanks

The tobacco industry combines the cash flow that comes from having millions of addicted customers with the unsavory reputation that means they can’t push their interests openly. Hence, they are (or were until the gaff was blown by the tobacco litigation of the 90s) the largest single buyer of shills, both individuals and thinktanks. Scruton, Milloy, Bate, AFM, AdTI, IPA, ESEF … the list is just about endless.

3

Bruce Baugh 11.07.10 at 7:36 am

Hey, I remember when Stewart Brand wasn’t a right-wing shill. What happened?

4

Chris Bertram 11.07.10 at 8:46 am

Stewart Brand has certainly done some interesting and original work in his time, and _How Buildings Learn_ had a major influence on me. So I’m sorry to hear that he’s on the wrong side of this and I hope that he’ll quickly accept that he’s got this one wrong.

5

Roger Albin 11.07.10 at 1:02 pm

For anyone interested in further analysis and additional documentation, there is a good section on this issue in Conway and Oreskes Merchants of Doubt. The attack on Carson is part of the general effort to discredit the environmental movement.

6

Uncle Kvetch 11.07.10 at 2:04 pm

The DDT zombie is getting a whole new lease on (un-)life here in NYC, where the bedbug epidemic has given Glenn Reynolds yet another opportunity to expose his ignorance. Extra points for “this must Obama’s fault somehow.”

7

P O'Neill 11.07.10 at 2:57 pm

Extra points for “this must Obama’s fault somehow.”

I want those points and more for it’s the fault of Obama and Al Gore.

8

JanieM 11.07.10 at 3:03 pm

I was a longtime fan of the Whole Earths, CoEvolution Quarterly, and the Whole Earth Review in my long-ago youth. There came a time when I felt that Stewart Brand had started believing in his own myth and was issuing oracular pronouncements for the sake of it, with little or no careful thought behind them. Kevin Kelly was even worse, right from the (his) beginning with Whole Earth.

Or maybe by that time I had just grown up enough to see behind the curtain.

Either way, I suspect that if you stake your reputation and construct your self-image around bravely and creatively challenging received wisdom, at some point you’ll challenge the wrong thing.

9

Ed Darrell 11.07.10 at 3:48 pm

We need some wit to coin a saying updating the old saw about a lie getting around the world twice before truth gets its boots on — something about how a lie matures faster, and lives longer, than the truth.

Lancet had a special on fighting malaria a couple of weeks ago — no call for more DDT. While Stewart Brand swallows the DDT cocktail, kids keep dying in Africa and Asia. Better he should just listen to the malaria fighters and donate some bednets.

10

Bill Gardner 11.07.10 at 4:00 pm

“Right wing shill” suggests that Brand is taking corporate money. Is there evidence of this?

11

snuh 11.07.10 at 4:48 pm

bill, could not “right wing shill” also mean that he is an (unpaid) useful idiot?

12

sbh 11.07.10 at 5:10 pm

Merriam-Webster defines shill as follows: “to act as a spokesperson or promoter”. No mention of pay. Likewise American Heritage: “One who poses as a satisfied customer or an enthusiastic gambler to dupe bystanders into participating in a swindle.” Wiktionary includes pay: “A person paid to endorse a product favourably, while pretending to be impartial.” It doesn’t look like pay is an essential part of the definition, however.

13

R.Mutt 11.07.10 at 5:18 pm

(such as [[Roger Bate]] and his [[Africa Fighting Malaria]] group)

Still a wikipedian?

14

Zamfir 11.07.10 at 5:52 pm

Snuh, no. A shill is by definition someone who is paid to pretend to a be enthusiast third party, not a genuinely enthusiast third party.

I think the word originally referred to people who played rigged games of chance and won a lot, to convince others in the public that winning was likely.

15

roger 11.07.10 at 5:52 pm

I imagine that among the group that believes in Rachel Carson as a Hitler or Stalin figure, killing all those malaria victims, there are probably quite a few who reject Darwin – which would, of course, explain why they don’t understand how mosquitos can develop resistance to DDT. After all, the intelligent designer made the mosquito once and for all, and that is that.
Interestingly, the book about the malaria eradication campaign that explains what happens is rarely referenced: Michael D’antonio’s Mosquito the story of man’s deadliest foe. From which Malcolm Gladwell derived a good essay.
Interestingly, the libertarians love to exploit the Carson=Hitler trope, although the malaria eradication campaign was a great example of massive state intervention into the economy. In fact Carson was first attracted to the issue because government sponsored pesticide spraying planes were affecting private property and private bird refuges. Of course, libertarians contradicting themselves is not a new or edifying spectacle. It is what they do.

16

Salient 11.07.10 at 5:54 pm

Apropos of nothing [a bit of a threadjack], a conjecture: John Quiggin could write the definitive book on the tobacco industry’s pernicious influence on the global economy & its constituent parts.

Fact: That book would be an incredible social good to bring into being.

…of course, maybe such a book already exists, in which case nevermind. But if there’s ever an industry that deserves to become intimately associated with the darkest sides of zombie mythos, it’s the tobacco industry

17

Bill Gardner 11.07.10 at 6:26 pm

18

DCA 11.07.10 at 6:34 pm

For the ties between tobacco lobbying, global warming denialism, and DDT mythmaking, see Oreskes and Conway,
Merchants of Doubt: the same people, institutions, and tactics all show up repeatedly.

I am especially surprised to hear of Brand hawking this, since as a Californian he very likely knows about what DDT did (for a while) to the fish and seabirds in southern California–though that was the effect of dumping, not use.

19

grog 11.07.10 at 8:01 pm

Brand is a weird one. The earlier mention of Kevin Kelly is instructive. Another comparison I’d make is David Freidman. I think the phenomenon is one of a smart person spending far too much time with a word processor and a belief in the value of contrarianism.

Friedman can’t let go of his alternate history of Iceland, and apparently Brand is just as wed to his imaginary global regulations.

20

Anderson 11.07.10 at 8:19 pm

Merriam-Webster defines shill as follows: “to act as a spokesperson or promoter”. No mention of pay.

Sbh, if that were all it meant, it wouldn’t have any m0re of a negative connotation than those words. I wouldn’t mind being called a spokesperson, or even a promoter, but I wouldn’t call myself a shill. Indeed, the essence of shilling is that one never does call oneself a shill.

That said, “paid shill” is a common term; some shills may reap other rewards.

21

Bill Gardner 11.07.10 at 9:38 pm

BTW, John discusses Zombie Economics here.

22

Hidari 11.07.10 at 9:54 pm

‘For the ties between tobacco lobbying, global warming denialism, and DDT mythmaking, see Oreskes and Conway,
Merchants of Doubt: the same people, institutions, and tactics all show up repeatedly.’

Is it not also the case that Intelligent Design proponents are also members (sic) of this propaganda circle jerk?

23

novakant 11.07.10 at 10:27 pm

This just in: The Most Dangerous Drugs? Alcohol, Heroin and Crack — in That Order.

I am aware of the dangers of tobacco consumption and no friend of the industry producing it, but it is rather sad that, while vast amounts of time and money are spent on pointing out the dangers of this one drug, nobody gives a toss about the far greater societal harm caused by alcohol, probably because most of us happily consume it on a regular basis.

24

SamChevre 11.07.10 at 11:54 pm

Well–one important difference between alcohol and tobacco is while the average drink is more harmful than the average cigarette, the average drinker is unharmed by drinking while the average smoker is harmed by smoking. (Alcohol use is much more concentrated, and the harms much more dose-dependent.)

25

jre 11.08.10 at 1:08 am

Roger @ 15: Thanks for the D’Antonio cite!
For my money, the best general treatment of the topic is Gordon Harrison’s Mosquitoes, Malaria & Man: A History of the Hostilities Since 1880.

A couple of years ago, I became curious enough about DDT’s history to look up the opinion and source material related to the EPA’s decision to ban agricultural use of the pesticide. In his opinion, William Ruckelshaus goes to a lot of trouble to say that DDT will not be banned for public health uses, and that international trade will not be affected:

It should be emphasized that these hearings have never involved the use of DDT by other nations in their health control programs. As we said in our DDT Statement of March, 1971, “this Agency will not presume to regulate the felt necessities of other countries.”

That statement alone ought to be enough to settle the issue of whether a DDT ban caused a resurgence of malaria. Yet the Carson-Hitler zombie shambles on, eating those brains it can. Stewart Brand’s are only the most recent.

Ruckelshaus’ 1972 opinion, along with a wealth of material related to DDT, is posted at EPA’s website.

26

Omega Centauri 11.08.10 at 1:32 am

“That statement alone ought to be enough to settle the issue”
It is both theoretically, and observationally true that a good propagandist never lets the truth get in the way of a good talking point. The Carson-Hiltler story is extremely effective at generating anti-environmental hatred among those who are naive to the facts (which covers most who are exposed to it).

27

sg 11.08.10 at 1:59 am

novakant, it’s a threadjack but that report is ridiculous. The only reason that heroin is less dangerous than aclohol or tobacco is that it is prohibited and most people don’t use it. Were it available under the same regulatory framework as alcohol or tobacco, we’d all be fucked.

28

Neil 11.08.10 at 2:18 am

Actually, sg, that is at very least contestable. Heroin is a very clean drug; so long as the quality is assured the health effects are quite minimal.

29

Red 11.08.10 at 2:35 am

Neil@26: zombie medicine, anyone?

30

Neil 11.08.10 at 4:38 am

I can’t tell if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me, Red.

31

sg 11.08.10 at 5:19 am

Neil, in Australia hepatitis C has replaced alcohol as the main cause of liver transplant. Despite 20 years of needle/syringe programs and some of the most novel harm reduction programs in the world, prevalence of HCV remains above 60% in most surveys. In 1999 there were 1000 deaths due to heroin overdose, and the death rate dropped by 60% after a successful program of prohibition finally started working.

Heroin kills people, and less heroin kills less people. If heroin were available like alcohol, the consequences would be staggering.

32

John Quiggin 11.08.10 at 6:36 am

sg, an interesting article on this here

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1524737/

As regards legalisation, it seems that it should be much more effective than harm reduction + prohibition in reducing needle-sharing, and therefore HIV/HCV. On the other hand, overdoses seem likely to increase.

33

sg 11.08.10 at 6:55 am

I’m one of the authors on that article Professor Q, and I don’t think it agrees with your position on legalisation. The heroin shortage was not evidence in favour of legalisation…

34

Neil 11.08.10 at 8:27 am

Sg, hepatitis C is not caused by heroin, it is caused by needle sharing which in turn is caused by the illegality of heroin.

35

sg 11.08.10 at 8:41 am

Neil, why do you think people will not share needles if heroin is legal? they have access to clean needles now, and after 20 years of NSP hep C remains an environmental hazard of drug use. HIV hasn’t increased in 20 years, but HCV was endemic before the heroin epidemic, and as a consequence it hasn’t gone away, even with the low rates of sharing in Australia. It’s an environmental hazard.

36

John Quiggin 11.08.10 at 8:44 am

Wow, Marshall McLuhan moment! I didn’t impute any particular position to the article, just said it was interesting – as one of the authors, I assume you’d agree.

On the substantive point, do you disagree that legalisation would reduce needle-sharing? I can see that other harms would increase, and I’m ambivalent about the balance, but I would have thought this was a clear-cut benefit of legalisation.

37

John Quiggin 11.08.10 at 8:53 am

Some general thoughts on drug policy here

http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2003/07/10/drugs-and-prohibition/

and

http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2002/09/30/hypocrisy-and-drugs/

The link to my 2001 Fin article looks to be broken, I’ll try to fix this

38

novakant 11.08.10 at 9:32 am

that report is ridiculous. The only reason that heroin is less dangerous than aclohol or tobacco is that it is prohibited and most people don’t use it.

No, it’s not, since it’s assessing the status quo and in doing that it is correct. Heroin will never be legalized anyway, so it’s a waste of time talking about its potential harm and we should instead focus on the real harm inflicted on society by alcohol today, which is currently belittled and ignored, especially when compared to the energy and resources devoted to pointing out the harm of tobacco consumption.

39

sg 11.08.10 at 10:13 am

Professor Q,
I’m not Marshall Mcluhan! Though he did ghost-write the article.

I don’t think legalization would reduce needle sharing – there aren’t a great many reasons for IDUs to share needles now, and in fact rates of sharing are (quite) low (by international standards) in Australia. There might be some small effects on those few people who inject publicly in a rush, but the general outline of an IDU’s life would remain the same – purchasing drugs and injecting them using free needles obtained from an NSP. In fact legalization would be a disaster if it were seen as a panacaea and NSP withdrawn.

The reality of needle-sharing in Australia and the UK is that it doesn’t happen because the drug is illegal, any more than unsafe sex happens because sex is illegal (it isn’t, and unsafe sex still does).

Novakant, I agree with you that more effort should be put into dealing with the harm of alcohol consumption, but I don’t like the propaganda value of that report – it’s already being used as an argument for legalization of heroin, not for criminalization of alcohol (which would be a disaster).

ANyway, this is a thread-jack. John Q, thanks for the links, I might put up a post on this at my own blog if I have time tonight, thus sparing this thread from the health zombie hijack.

40

Neil 11.08.10 at 10:23 am

Addicts do not have reliable access to clean needles at the moment of consumption. They could if we so desired. Heroin could be supplied with needles. More generally, the assumption that legalization would lead to an increase in consumption is contestable. It would probably lead to an increase in the number of people trying heroin, but since the factors which lead to addiction are complex, that fact does not entail that the number of doses would rise. Heroin usage competes with other activities (much more so than is true for tobacco), and illegality makes access to competing goods harder for the user.

41

David 11.08.10 at 11:11 am

Brand is no-one’s shill; if anything, he’s high on the heady heroin of contrarianism. But he does also love Cool Big Science. I interviewed him around the publication of WED, and he genuinely couldn’t understand why Europeans are so suspicious of Monsanto. I’m hoping that he lives up to his motto of Strong Opinions Loosely Held, and lets go his grip on this one.

42

Phil 11.08.10 at 12:17 pm

we should instead focus on the real harm inflicted on society by alcohol today

Only if that’s what we’re setting out to do, and if so we should be honest about it. Nutt’s writing advocacy in the guise of science.

The point about the relative prevalence of alcohol use vs. that of the substances it’s compared with is a perfect example. When you’re discussing statistical evidence on drug harm, there are two routine moves which (to my mind) have to be made if you’re to be taken seriously. One is to acknowledge that some harms are associated with attempts to control drugs as well as – or rather than – the drug itself; the other is to acknowledge the huge variation in prevalence and control for it. Otherwise you could end up with a drug that reliably kills 50% of all users, but is only taken by a handful of terminally jaded ultra-Goths, being rated less harmful than chocolate.

Nutt quite openly states that he’s not controlling for prevalence, which makes any judgment about the drugs alcohol is supposedly less dangerous *than* moot (or, at best, makes them extremely historically local). He also fails to acknowledge that tighter controls on alcohol might have adverse effects, making alcohol more harmful. And, as far as I can tell, there’s no acknowledgment that economic harms need to be weighed against economic benefits and health harms against health benefits (male abstainers have worse health outcomes than moderate drinkers).

In short, he focuses on the real harm inflicted on society by alcohol today to the exclusion of all the factors which might qualify his denunciation. It’s a very disappointing piece – advocacy, not science.

when compared to the energy and resources devoted to pointing out the harm of tobacco consumption

I strongly suspect – and Nutt’s own writings support me in this – that a lot of the energy and resources, not to mention some of the specific tactics, currently being deployed against tobacco will be turned against alcohol before too long.

43

Zamfir 11.08.10 at 12:22 pm

Otherwise you could end up with a drug that reliably kills 50% of all users, but is only taken by a handful of terminally jaded ultra-Goths, being rated less harmful than chocolate.

Which seems fair, right? Shops are full of legal stuff that would kill 50% of the people ingesting it.

44

Phil 11.08.10 at 12:40 pm

“Alcohol ‘More Harmful Than Domestos'” – Professor’s Shock Claim

Something wrong there, I think.

45

sg 11.08.10 at 12:48 pm

There you go John Q et al, I’ve put my opinion of the legalization/prohibition argument up at my own blog (linked above, for now). It elaborates on the things I said here (at great length, unfortunately), so we can avoid too much threadjackery.

46

Bruce Baugh 11.08.10 at 1:49 pm

David@39: I admit that I’ve gotten a lot harsher about a lot of contrarianism in the past decade. Skepticism is necessary. Starting off with a stance that a bunch of meanies are harshing poor corporations’ mellow – or harshing the mellow of others who are being accused of systematically doing bad things – and must be called out isn’t. I think that people have a certain responsibility not to repeat such readily disprovable crap in public, not when they have a research budget and time to do homework and all like that, even though the claim will get a rise out of people they want to get a rise out of.

47

ajay 11.08.10 at 2:00 pm

Shops are full of legal stuff that would kill 50% of the people ingesting it.

At least 50%. An ordinary lawnmower, for example, would kill 100% of the people ingesting it.

48

Natilo Paennim 11.08.10 at 2:35 pm

It’s awfully interesting that the people who wring their hands over the perfidy of environmentalists with regard to malaria eradication have so little concern for the tens of millions of people in poor countries who die each year from unsafe drinking water, malnutrition, war and non-mosquito borne tropical diseases. I guess if there’s no market-based solution, the problem must be intractable.

49

Zamfir 11.08.10 at 3:48 pm

An ordinary lawnmower, for example, would kill 100% of the people ingesting it.

There was a German study about the significant number of men who stick their penis in Kobold vaccum cleaners, who have the air pump rotor directly after the cleaning head.

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penisverletzungen_bei_Masturbation_mit_Staubsaugern

50

Zamfir 11.08.10 at 3:51 pm

If you click through to the dissertation, you will find medical pictures of the damage.

51

geo 11.08.10 at 6:04 pm

There was a German study about the significant number of men who stick their penis in Kobold vaccum cleaners, who have the air pump rotor directly after the cleaning head

Zamfir, old fellow, watch your pronouns. The second “who” in the above sentence ought to be “which.” “Who” refers exclusively to persons. A grammatically well-programmed robot would read that sentence as equivalent to: “There was a German study about the significant number of men who stick their penis in Kobold vaccum cleaners; such men have their air pump rotor directly after their cleaning head.”

52

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 11.08.10 at 9:50 pm

“Stewart Brand has certainly done some interesting and original work in his time, and How Buildings Learn had a major influence on me.”

Brand’s Long Now Foundation has hosted many great lectures and great thinking.

I’m sorry to hear that he repeated anti-environmentalist BS about Carson. Now I’m going to have to turn a more jaded ear to his ideas.

“There was a German study about the significant number of men who stick their penis in Kobold vaccum cleaners”

1d4 hit points damage, I suspect.

53

soru 11.09.10 at 4:28 pm

we should instead focus on the real harm inflicted on society by alcohol today, which is currently belittled and ignored, especially when compared to the energy and resources devoted to pointing out the harm of tobacco consumption.

Yes, that’s the obvious conclusion to be drawn by anyone reading that study.

An interesting question, given that this is a thread about misinformation and para-scientific propaganda produced by the tobacco lobby, is whether that is perhaps precisely the intended reading…

54

piglet 11.10.10 at 7:01 pm

Monbiot in his very relevant article here http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/11/10/a-charming-falsehood/ has something to say pertaining to the question of shill or not shill:

Like Patrick Moore, you trade on your credentials as a founder of the early environment movement. Like Patrick Moore, you now work as a corporate consultant. By the way, who does your company now represent? The list of corporations Sourcewatch gives as its clients – including ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Cargill, Dow Chemical, Shell and BP – makes my hair stand on end. But is it correct? And why have you ceased to carry this list on your website? Like Patrick Moore, you attack the environment movement in ways that suit corporate interests: calling us, in effect, to drop our campaigns for regulation and democratic control in favour of technofixes. ….

As I read more, I began to wonder if you are not, as you claim, pioneering a new form of environmentalism, but a new form of corporate consultancy. You seem to be seeking to shape the environmental debate to suit the businesses you work for. Our correspondence does nothing to dispel this impression. Can you disabuse me of my suspicions?

You are more dangerous than the other corporate-sponsored adversaries of the green movement. You don’t deny that climate change is happening. You don’t get abusive, you remain polite and charming, you sound reasonable at all times. You are, as a result, a more effective operator than them: you have persuaded a lot of influential people that you are working for the good of the planet. I fear that the campaign you are running is the most insidious and subtle exercise in corporate propaganda I have yet encountered. As a result, no one, until now, has called you out on it. With this response, that changes.

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