.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Three score and ten or more

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

I seem to remember from my high school physics class a theorem or axiom stating that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I don’t quite know how to transfer this to my gut feeling that this theorem relating to physical forces carries over into almost every thing that people do, and this is most reflected in so many of the unintended and unexpected results of our actions.

I was watching TV the other day and saw a commercial for an organization that asks people to contribute ten dollars so that mosquito nets can be procured for children in Africa that can provide some degree of protection from the mosquitoes that spread malaria, dengue fever and a variety of terrible illnesses throughout the tropics, and particularly throughout Africa. These diseases have had a terrible affect for centuries, and early in the twentieth century a solution was found in the development of an insecticide DDT. Through use of DDT in many countries the scourges of malaria and the other diseases spread by mosquitoes were virtually eliminated. Sometime thereafter, biologists began to notice that the populations of many wild birds began nto shrink, and research proved that the birds preyed upon mosquitoes and were preyed upon by other birds and species. The DDT was causing the shells of bird eggs to crack and decay. A widespread ban on the use of DDT came about, and we now have a restoration of the bird population, and a commensurate, but not unexpected reinsurgence of mosquito born diseases.

I am not about to make the moral choices involved in these occurrences, but they are not unlike many of the choices that we make in politics in biology, in religion, in all sorts of different situations.. We were warned for many years that industry, the spread of nuclear armaments and a variety of other modern actions were bound to lead to global cooling. I still remember a movie shown in one of my high school classes entitled NUCLEAR WINTER. Now, in widely publicized writings we are being warned of global warming caused by many of he same activities that we were told would bring global cooling.

No one really has a clue if human’s activity really affects the globe, or whether global warming will have negative or positive effects if we do. We do know that Britain has multiple sources of both peat and coal, and that the need for warm houses and prosperous factories in England during the last century created what was known as London fog (mostly coal smoke) which had a negative(and unintended, and in fact unrecognized) effect on the health of many Englishmen, but historians will be needed to evaluate how much that London Fog contributed to the spread of the Bristish Empire or what other unintended consequences my have come from that.

As it refers to global warming, I have read a fair amount of material which indicates that the last global warming period (which humans had no recognizable part in) brought about great prosperity in northern Europe where previously unknown or ungrown crops made the area nearly self supporting. At the same time, we are given to believe the deserts of Northern Africa nearly doubled in size causing a total shift of tradition and trade in those areas..

Now we are seemingly trying to have an intentional effect on global climate. If we succeed, will Europe become colder? Will the Sahara become temperate? What effects of natural warming might be reversed. We have already begun to face the economic effects of our efforts to prevent global warming. The emerging, and in come cases burgeoning market for ethanol as fuel has raised the food prices for millions. As grain is fed to automobiles the cost of bread and grains fed to humans has increased as has the cost of beef and milk and butter and cheese and all those products that come from feeding grain to livestock.. Most of us who partake in these changes have been shocked at the number and types of such unforeseen (at least by most of us) consequences.

What do we do, attempt to reverse what has been done? Not likely. Try to foresee the consequences and prepare for them (remember this essay began with UNFORSEEN CONSEQUENCES, and I , for one, do not foresee the foreseeing of consequences as a likely success. I think we need to recognize that whether we attempt to control them or not, phenomena always modify our lives and our world. The world is full of evidence of extinct animals and species. Who knows what our world would be like if they had not become extinct (certainly we wouldn’t be making gasoline out of their remains –oil-). Who knows what affect will be the result of our current passion to prevent the extinction of any species (limiting the extension of power projects and irrigation to protect a miniature suckerfish in the northwest).? It may be the key to extinction for us, who knows?


At 1:32 PM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

Well, I have a relative who's a very famous scientist (you would love him). He tells me that he's seen tons of studies and he's very certain that global warming's real. However, what NO one is certain of is whether or not it's caused by mankind.

And mankind's changes are and will be so miniscule as to not affect the climate enough to matter, IMHO. Of course he might disagree with me, but we'd have to RADICALLY change things that no one is currently willing to change.

Heck, we can't even get the USA to look seriously into drilling in Alaska and off the Florida coast (offshore where it can't be seen). If the government is THIS reluctant, we can surely realize that nothing else of any impact will be decided.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

A more careful parsing of history would note that DDT was not the panacea against malaria some now claim -- mosquitoes had become resistant and immune to it in Africa by the mid-1960s -- and successful campaigns against malaria have ALWAYS included nets.

Some people advocated DDT instead of nets, especially for political gains. Unfortunately, these hard-hearted politicos got a lot of traction from the U.S. government and other groups in the 1990s and later; private efforts to provide free bednets are in response to firm studies that show the nets work even when given out free (the Bush administration argued Africans wouldn't "appreciate" free nets enough to use them, and so insisted the nets be sold at extravagant-though-subsidized costs to malaria victims).

Malaria was never wiped out in Africa. Many nations in Africa didn't have the governmental stability even to spray DDT, and the disease resisted worldwide efforts to wipe it out. The more recent resurgence is based on the malaria parasite's developing resistance to the medications used -- something DDT can't touch -- and climate change, which is extending the range of malaria vectors, the mosquitoes we all love to hate.

There are unintended consequences in the story -- the deaths of the birds, and the deaths of predators of mosquitoes. Recent research confirms fears of human health damage, too.

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

Saur, my point exactly is that unforeseen is unforseen. Stuff happpens, and we do our honest best (for the most part)to take care of what happens. Most of the scientists I know do agree that some degree of global warming is happening (though not all agree). I have yet to see anything truly scientific that clearly pins the blame on us, or that any steps taken to deal with the "carbon footprint" have had any success in limiting it. The fact is that there are possible negative side effects in the steps we take to ameliorate "global warming". Some of the things done to protect some environments have been successful, but there is nothing sillier than giving someone permission to violate or destroy a natural wetland if he/she will agree to create a new one somewhere else. Just in my limited experience I have seen some real catastrophess in that program.

Ed, my use of the DDT-net example may not have been the best example of unforeseen consequences. As I read my own writing I note that I come close to making firm broad generalizations to which significant exeptions can be found.
I find significant differences of opinion in my reading, and I suspect that the political thrust to DDT may also have been accentuated by companies that were in it to make a buck. (Just as some alternative energy programs seem to be pushing in that direction)

Thanks for your contribution. It is always nice to find someone new who not only glances at my blog, but thinks about it.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

An interesting post as always, Richard.

I realize that your post isn't only about DDT, but here's an article I thought you might find interesting:

I believe DDT would be a lot more helpful in stopping malaria than mosquito netting. It does affect the bird population by thinning the eggshells of birds, but what would we rather have... less birds or healthy people? *sigh*

You make a really good point here. We keep fooling around trying to fix things when they aren't broken, and even if they are broken, who knows whether we're fixing them the right way or just making things worse? We always have to wait to find out and sometimes by then it's too late. The best we can do is do our best and hope it's the best thing to do.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Alas, belief only counts in imaginary horseshoes.

DDT alone can't do it. Nets alone provide about a 50% drop in malaria with about a 50% penetration of the population.

Nets with integrated pest management (the safe way to use DDT, which is to say, almost not at all, or not at all if you can help it), can provide up to 80% reductions in controlled tests, with less than 100% coverage with nets.

If we can significantly increase net coverage, we can probably eliminate DDT and provide maximum protection against malaria. DDT alone simply cannot do that.

Why not work to reduce the disease as much as possible, rather than work to spray poison as much as possible? The entire answer is in how you ask the question. Do we want to eliminate malaria, or do we want to spray poison?

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

By the way, in Uganda, the government announced another delay in implementing DDT spraying.

Nets that people can use work even when the government is incompetent to do anything else. DDT especially doesn't work when the government can't get its act together to do anything.

Uganda is rather the poster child for DDT ineffectiveness. The government there couldn't get an anti-malaria program going in the 1960s. Idi Amin didn't care to. Agricultural interests pirated DDT for crops, and bred DDT-resistant mosquitoes.

Now, the best government the nation has had in a few decades still struggles to get anti-malaria programs into action.

DDT is nothing but poison in such a case. It's not an effective tool against malaria.

Stossel doesn't care, I don't think.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Norma said...

No birds died. Millions of children have, regardless of what Ed wants to believe. I'm sure they'll find in a few years that sleeping in pesticide soaked bed nets causes some sort of genetic damage--maybe global warming. WHO keeps flip floping on their studies, depending on which political trend they run with.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Norma,there are tens of thousands of dead birds still in freezers, killed by DDT. You will not find a single study done by any scientist published anywhere to support a claim that no birds died.

In fact, the recovery of three species is attributed to the cessation of broadcast spraying of DDT: the brown pelican, the bald eagle, and the American ospry. The recovery of those species correlates exactly with the reduction of DDT and DDT breakdown products in the tissues of the affected birds.

WHO's position on DDT technically has not changed in more than 30 years. What changed was that WHO now will pay for DDT to be used, but only in indoor residual spraying (IRS), in an integrated pest management scheme. This is what Rachel Carson advocated in 1962. You can get a copy of Carson's book and read the stuff for yourself. It's out in a 40th anniversary copy. It's great literature, and it's loaded with valuable, accurate information.

As Discover Magazine noted last November, more than 1,000 studies have been done since Carson published, all documenting that DDT harms birds. My challenge, Norma, would be for you to find one study, done by real scientists, published with proper controls for accuracy, which claims that no harm was done to birds by DDT. I have not found one.

You're right that sleeping under a "pesticide soake" net might cause damage in the next generation -- especially if DDT were used for the soaking. A recent study suggests that the latent and second-generation cancers from DDT, were DDT sprayed more than it is now, would kill more kids than malaria.

The trick is to reduce the amount of DDT when used, use other pesticides whenever possible, and use untreated nets where possible.

DDT is no panacea. DDT kills the predators of mosquitoes more than the mosquitoes themselves. DDT is a suspected human carcinogen, and a known animal carcinogen.

Nets alone can almost eliminate malaria. DDT alone can give momentary relief. An integrated pest management system, coupled with improved health care, can work miracles. Choose the miracles.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

I believe that DDT is/was harmful to birds, particularly in the way it was distributed. I have spent some time this week trying to trace down those freezers full of birds and haven't been able to. The discussion will be cleared if we all eliminate hyperbole from it. By the way I found Stossel's article quite persuasive in spite of the ad-personum attack. Many attack Stossel on many grounds, but not caring is certainly not a valid one.
Sorry to be so late in replying. I have been on the road trying to mount a new hard drive in my ancient laptop, so have only been at the net sporadically.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

I believe that DDT is/was harmful to birds, particularly in the way it was distributed. I have spent some time this week trying to trace down those freezers full of birds and haven't been able to. The discussion will be cleared if we all eliminate hyperbole from it. By the way I found Stossel's article quite persuasive in spite of the ad-personum attack. Many attack Stossel on many grounds, but not caring is certainly not a valid one.
Sorry to be so late in replying. I have been on the road trying to mount a new hard drive in my ancient laptop, so have only been at the net sporadically.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home