By Tobias Leering
The United States in 1945 was an exciting time. World War II had just concluded allowing soldiers to return home to the excitement of all, but farmers had another reason to be excited. In the midst of WWII’s conclusion, a miracle insecticide had been introduced to the American market by the name of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known to the public as DDT. Its reputation came from areas of Italy around 1944 that were experiencing an increasingly problematic lice-borne typhus outbreak. Ally troops and refugees occupied this area and thus were exposed, that is until DDT was mixed with a powder and applied to over 1 million people. The effectiveness was unheard of, especially in the wintertime, and within 3 weeks the disease had been eradicated. Once word got to America its sales exploded across the country with equally miraculous results before being regulated in the 1950’s, and ultimately banned with the exception of public health uses in 1972. This paper will discuss DDT’s journey through public opinion, how it is illustrative of the eventual downfall of revolutionary resources through overuse and will highlight humankind’s inability to account for long-term environmental impact over short-term economic success.
In the early years of its use, DDT was everything it had been hyped up to be. It killed a wide variety of pests, was insoluble (did not wash off in water), did not have to be reapplied as often as other insecticides, and was relatively cheap and easy to use. Farmers began to see positive results they couldn’t ignore. 400,000 lbs. of weight gain in dairy herds and 15% improved milk flow caused DDT sales to skyrocket from $10 million in 1944 to $110 million in 1953. More and more uses popped up that in retrospect seem dangerous including DDT-infused white paint for barns, which could very well have been used in residential homes. A 1940’s Nebraskan farming magazine even shows housewives painting and even spraying inside the house to exterminate unwanted bugs. These are just some of the many ways that people got caught up in the success of DDT.
Throughout human existence, one of our most detrimental features is the inability to create sustainable futures for new successes. Looking back to each breakthrough reveals a deep-seated history of confirmation bias in which the immediate success of a new product or resource impairs the vision to see negative long-term effects. In this case, the positive effects were undeniable. The Allies were able to bring the Typhus epidemic under control within three weeks by dusting civilians and soldiers with DDT infused powder, farmers were seeing unprecedented crop and resource yields, and the products containing DDT had stimulated economic growth through rapid consumption. During such prosperous times it is infinitely more difficult to objectively view the future and in all the economic success, evidence that investigated DDT’s negative effects were, for the most part, ignored. That is, until 1962 with Rachel Carson’s release of her book Silent Spring.
Carson was one of the few people who knew the truth regarding DDT. She was able to look past DDT’s agricultural and economic pros to see that its cons were the same as any other pesticide. Before writing her book, she believed that the chemical industry was releasing biased results and that government officials were accepting these claims without properly evaluating them. Carson cited concerns over the common pesticide problem of bioaccumulation, which occurs when an environment is sprayed too often for the ecosystem to properly excrete of the previous dose. In addition, bioaccumulation does not account for pesticide drift caused by soil run off or spray contamination. Spraying chemicals at such high rates coupled with its popularity across the country increased the amount of chemicals that end up in unintended areas including air, soil or water. Above all, she looked to the future to see the impending consequences of the continued use of DDT.
Nevertheless, Carson maintained objectivity and came to the conclusion that DDT was just like any other pesticide, meaning overuse will inevitably result in bugs becoming immune to its chemicals. Her book effectively educated Americans on the idea that minimal usage equates to maximum overall effectiveness and was the most highly publicized source of information on DDT that included its negative effects. The publication received a lot of expected criticism, especially from those in the pesticide industry. As previously stated, DDT as a product created jobs, increased market activity and benefited every person involved. The loser of the deal was, unsurprisingly, the environment. The turning point came in a CBS Reports television special featuring Rachel Carson and a panel of other experts/critics in which Carson was able to educate people on a widespread scale. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and popular opinion began to change across the country leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and a partial ban on DDT.
Present day America holds much tighter government regulation in environmental areas such as pesticide use. Still, conservative groups continue to lobby for less regulation by promoting DDT’s effectiveness in combating malaria. They use the same tactics that were used 50 years ago in order to downplay the environmental impact. Regardless, the EPA continues to do research on DDT’s effects on humans, animals and the environment as a whole. They recognize its adverse consequences to ecosystems and claim that while its levels in nature have decreased, its resistant qualities have caused residues to remain from uses over almost half a century ago. Sources outside the EPA provide more in depth analysis on the effects DDT is still causing such as the USDA or CDC. Their statistics show that 99% of people tested had traces of DDT in their bodies and that over 42% of products such as heavy creams or kale tested positive for traces of DDT. These numbers show that DDT is undoubtedly still in circulation in ecosystems across the country.
Luckily for the planet DDT was only heavily used for about 30 years, a miniscule amount of time relative to geologic eras. Because of this, it is easy to say that hindsight is 20/20, but this is the main problem for humans in regards to the Anthropocene. Rachel Carson was not the only person to recognize the negative effects of DDT. Her critiques could be, and had been, applied to other pesticides, as they were critiques of the fundamental aspects of evolution. As overuse continues, bacteria with immunity begin to overtake a rapidly declining population that can only be repopulated with DDT-resistant bacteria. Natural selection dictates that only immune bacteria can survive long enough to reproduce resulting in an increasingly immune total population. In fact, Carson’s book never even explicitly states that she wanted DDT banned; she simply called for the most minimal use to maximize the effectiveness when needed. The fact of the matter is that economic viability remained a more desirable option for most people than long-term sustainability. Capitalism rewards this choice as seen through the $100 million increase in sales from 1944 to 1953.
It is also easy to point out the context of the world during this time. The Cold War affected almost every decision the government made and forced the United States to create the façade of success in every way they could. Economics are a big part of this, if a country is doing well economically, then its citizens must be paid well enough to have disposable income and, therefore, a happy life. DDT was selling off the shelves, made food more affordable and made life easier for farmers. As a result, the United States either valued the economic advantages of DDT overuse over that of the environmental safety or it just didn’t accurately assess DDT’s effects. Both options paint a nasty picture of humankind’s decision making and shows economic growth’s dominance over sustainability in the Anthropocene.
DDT eventually received a ban, but favorability toward economic growth remains the most significant reason for delaying sustainable practices. The United States continues to dive deeper into the fossil fuel industry instead of prioritizing a switch to renewable energy in the name of economic growth. As long as this line of thinking persists, the more we will continue to see the evolution of new, “miracle” products like DDT. First, the resource is discovered and its benefits publicized, those in possession of the resources then make enormous profits and disregard the finite availability of their resource as well as the effects on the environment. In order to change this process, society must begin to value and reward sustainable practices above all else. Capitalism, right now, not only allows this process, but incentivizes it. Ultimately, until this mindset is changed humankind’s footprint on the Anthropocene will continue to revolve through a cycle of success and depletion in the name of profits and quarterly growth. We prioritize capital over our planet, and the effects are beginning to show.