DDT is very effective at killing the mosquitoes that carry malaria. Malaria kills 2 to 3 million people a year. These people, the bulk of whom are children and the elderly, live in the global South, the tropics of the developing world.
DDT doesn’t just hurt mosquitoes. The United States and most Northern countries have banned its usage because of its threat to animal and human health. These bans are extended to the foreign assistance that flows North to South.
Is the ban the “best” thing for those facing the imminent threat of malaria in developing countries? Saying a pesticide is too dangerous for the rich folks but okay for the poor is an environmental or health relativism that should make everyone uncomfortable. Ecojustice movements have been built to fight such axioms. International laws like the Basel Convention — negotiated to prevent dumping the North’s toxic waste in the South — are meant to prevent disparate treatment.
But along comes Nick Kristof’s tight argument calling for the North to reintroduce DDT as a weapon in its efforts against malaria. Used in conjunction with treated bed nets and medicines, DDT is saving literally thousands of lives in a host of countries, according to Kristof.
As he points out, when many of us in the North hear DDT, we immediately flash to the threat DDT poses to charismatic species such as the bald eagle. But do we risk reinforcing the existing perception in the global South that we in the North value charming wildlife more than people? Or more likely, are Northerners just so unfamiliar with the daily struggles of life and death commonplace in the global South that they cannot wrap their brains around the notion that people would want to be poisoned today to live to tell about it?
As a result, the North-knows-best attitude costs lives.