Enjoy the money but beware the dark

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

IN THE first half of the 20th Century, malaria wreaked havoc through much of the new world. Some 21 000 people were hospitalised with malaria during the construction of the Panama Canal from 1905 through 1910. The United States plan to build a hydro-electric dam across the Tennessee River in the southern part of that country in 1933 was hampered by the fact that 3 out of 10 people in that area were infected.

And many of the US soldiers being trained for World War 2 in southern military bases from 1942 through 1945 succumbed to the disease.

Today malaria is non-existent in the United States. What made it possible was the fact that in 1939, Paul Müller in Switzerland discovered that Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) was effective in eradicating the mosquitos that spread malaria.

The US turned its Malaria Control in the War Areas programme (MCWA) into a permanent body named the Communicable Disease Center. The CDC launched the National Malaria Eradication Program which saw more than 5 million American homes being sprayed with DDT. By 1951, malaria was eradicated.

DDT proved highly effective in curbing malaria around the world except for here in sub-Saharan Africa where there was never a sustained campaign because of the usual reasons – lack of infrastructure, lack of funds… By the 1960s, DDT started to be used in this part of the world with great success in bringing down malaria levels.

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But in 1962, author Rachel Carson published a book called Silent Spring. The book argued (correctly) that pesticides, among them DDT, were poisoning wildlife and the environment, and were also endangering human health.

Today, DDT is banned in most of the world. And malaria is the number one cause of death among children in sub-Saharan Africa.

In many ways, the issues being discussed at COP17 in Durban over the next fortnight are not dissimilar to the lessons to be learned from DDT and malaria.

Climate change devotees believe that we as human beings are destroying the world because of our insistence on industrialisation. This, they say leads to increases in the quantities of greenhouse gases in the environment, which in turn leads to global warming, which in turn might lead to potentially catastrophic consequences.

Their proposed solution is that we shut down our industrial processes which produce greenhouse gases – such as coal-fired power stations and motor vehicles, and replace them with processes which do not – such as solar energy, wind turbines, and bicycles.

The Precautionary Principle says that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. Naturally, climate change devotees love the Precautionary Principle.

But the problem with the Precautionary Principle is that it fails to take into account what happens if an action is not taken. We have already seen that not using DDT to eradicate malaria on the African continent has caused untold misery in death and illness – particularly among children. The environmental cost of not using DDT has been paid for in human lives.

And the same holds true for those evil coal-fired power stations.

The single biggest transformative step on the road away from poverty is electricity. Across this continent, people die from smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, shack fires – all as a result of not having electricity.

Electricity allows people to have light to study at night. It allows for refrigeration of food and medical supplies. It allows for industries to flourish.

The developed world has had the benefits of electricity for a century. Now, when Africa is poised to do the same, they ask us to turn our back on those life-changing benefits? There is no solar or wind turbine technology that can power a rail network or run an iron smelter when the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing.

That’s why the World Bank, correctly, approved the funding of the Medupi Power Station which will pump greenhouse gases into the environment for the next 40 years at least.

So let us be hospitable to our visitors to Durban for COP17. Enjoy their injection of money into our economy. But don’t listen to them. Or your children will read this by candlelight.