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Environmentalists cause malaria! (And other myths of the "Wise Use" movement).

Toward the end of her life, the late Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, former governor of the state of Washington, and professor emeritus of marine biology, became a spokesperson for the various anti-environmentalist groups that comprise the "Wise Use" movement. Her arguments are echoed so widely by other "Wise Use" celebrities that a critique of those arguments constitutes a critique in miniature of the entire movement.

Remarkably, I found in her attack on environmentalism many of the tactics used by creationists against evolution. These include statements taken out of context, slanted documentation, reliance upon "experts" with suspect credentials to create a mask of scientific competence, accusing environmentalists of practicing a religion rather than a science, and not a little outright dishonesty. As an example of this last tactic, consider the following claim about the endangered species list made by Ray in 1993 on KKLA, a southern California religious radio station:

Among the things that are on that list is a cockroach. How many housewives do you think would really approve of spending $2.6 million to protect a cockroach? And there's the American dung beetle. Its name is exactly what is implied.... And about 700 out of a total of about 1,200 "critters" and plants on the endangered-species list are, in fact, snails and worms and bugs.

Since I did not expect someone who had held high government office and who was, in addition, trained as a zoologist to either blatantly lie about, or be ignorant enough to pass on someone else's lie about, endangered species, I assumed that the cockroach in question was some exotic form from the rainforests of Sumatra or some such thing. In fact, on page 89 of her second book, Environmental Overkill, Ray identified it as the Puerto Rican cave cockroach, hardly something most housewives would have to deal with. However, when I actually got a copy of the endangered species list, I found that the above statements by Ray were grossly false in every particular. There is no cockroach on the endangered-species list, nor does the list contain an American dung beetle. In fact, there are very few insects on the list--28, to be exact. Of these, the majority (19, or about 68 percent) are butterflies, moths, and skippers. Seven are beetles, and one is a naucorid, a kind of waterbug.

Nor are the majority of the animals on the endangered species list "snails and worms and bugs," as Ray characterized them. The majority of animals on the list are mammals and birds--such creatures as clouded leopards, white rhinos, indigo macaws, and brown pelicans, to name a very few. Of those animals which would fit Ray's category of "snails and worms and bugs" (that is, invertebrates), there are only 121 on the endangered list out of a total of 911 animal species. This is a little over 12 percent. The largest category among these contains clams and mussels (57 species or 47 percent of the invertebrates on the list), indicating environmental damage to fresh water and coastal marine habitats. In fact, 57 percent of the invertebrates on the list are aquatic or marine. There are no worms on the list.

The KKLA broadcast was not the only time Ray made an erroneous claim about the numbers or varieties of animals on the list. At one point in Environmental Overkill, she referred to the list as containing "740 snails, rodents, and bugs." Along with the 121 invertebrates, the list includes about 40 rodents. Not only does this add up to 161 rather than 740, the fact that Ray at one point referred to the list as containing about 700 snails, worms, and bugs and at another time as containing 740 rodents, snails, and bugs gives a clear indication of her cavalier attitude toward not only endangered species but the truth. I, a mere layperson, managed to obtain a copy of the endangered species list free of charge after one phone call to the southern California office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. How was it that Dr. Ray, for all her vaunted credentials, managed to miss that simple step?

Probably the greatest single cause of species extinction is habitat destruction. Thus, protected lands are intimately bound up with protected species, and setting aside such lands is essential to saving endangered species. The spotted owl is a case in point. In fact, the anti-environmental movement's attack on the endangered species list is essentially motivated by conflicts involving land use and, though its proponents characterize their opposition to endangered species legislation in terms of insects, fish, rodents, or small birds, their aim is to do away with the list altogether. Ray has bemoaned the amount of money required to preserve the habitats of endangered species, including such magnificent animals as the grizzly bear. While Ray was merely callous with regard to old-growth forests--taking her data on the relative worth of new and old forests from an article in the lumber-industry trade journal Weyerhauser World, hardly an objective source--she showed an intense antipathy toward the very concept of protected wetlands.

Her assessment of their true significance, once again from the KKLA broadcast, was as follows:

One of the things that people don't pay attention to ... is that where you have a true wetland--that is, a swamp or a marsh--what you're really protecting are mosquitoes. And we're now beginning to experience real epidemics of mosquito population growth, because there's no longer any way we can control that. We can't drain the swamps, we can't use oil. We can't use pesticides, and so on. The result is in the last decade we've had a 10 percent increase in the number of cases of malaria and we've had an enormous increase in insect-borne diseases like encephalitis. And the central valleys of California are areas of endemic malaria. There used to be epidemics of it. Those are probably going to return unless we do something about it.

This prophecy of impending malaria epidemics caused by the policies of environmentalists echoes Ray's first book, Trashing the Planet:

Much of the southern United States is favorable to the malarial mosquito. Malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases for which mosquitoes are the vector, used to be endemic in the South; mosquitoes have recently undergone an explosive population growth since their breeding grounds are now "protected" under federal law.

Let's examine Ray's doom-saying about impending malaria epidemics from mosquitoes harbored by protected wetlands. First of all, have there really been any explosive increases in the numbers of malarial mosquitoes in the United States in recent years? The only report of a measurable upswing that I have been able to find was a brief item in the August 4, 1990, issue of Science News, which reported how aircraft and satellites had spotted an influx of Anopheles mosquitoes into California rice paddies. While the Anopheles mosquito is the vector for the malaria parasite, these particular mosquitoes weren't infected. It is interesting to note that what provided the mosquitoes with a habitat were not protected wetlands but, rather, the extensive rice paddies along the Sacramento River. These cannot be drained or coated with oil, since either of these actions would kill the rice. Nor would it be a good idea to saturate them with potent insecticides, since this would not only contaminate foodstuffs but would probably result in fish kills downstream. In all but name then, California's rice paddies are as "protected" a mosquito breeding ground as are protected wetlands.

So why aren't we in the throes of a malaria epidemic? To find out if protected wetlands really are seething with mosquitoes, I called the Los Angeles County Department of Health's Mosquito Abatement Office and asked its officials if they were allowed to kill mosquitoes on federally designated protected wetlands. Their response was that they were in fact required to deal with mosquitoes in protected wetlands within the county. What they use in such areas is Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (B.t.i for short). B.t.i is a variety of bacterium that infects and kills the larvae of certain insects. Each variety of Bacillus thuringiensis infects only a narrow spectrum of insect species. B.t.i. specializes in killing mosquitoes and black flies. It has been used in the tropics to control river blindness, a disease carried by black flies. B.t.i. isn't effective in all situations; however, other materials, such as methoprene, are also used in environmentally sensitive areas. Next I inquired about mosquito population explosions; the Mosquito Abatement Office's response was only that mosquito populations fluctuate seasonally and from year to year. In response to my written query concerning mosquito population growth nationally, Dr. Chester G. Moore of the Centers for Disease Control, Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, said:

While it is true that wetlands, which are protected by federal law, also are the larval habitats of mosquitoes, including those that transmit malaria, it does not necessarily follow that there has been "explosive population growth" of mosquitoes. I am not aware of any studies that have shown a correlation between protection of wetlands and an increase of mosquitoes.

In her book, Ray's attack on protected wetlands is subsidiary to an attack on the environmental movement in general and Rachel Carson in particular for the banning of DDT in 1972. One of the tactics of the anti-environmental movement is to accuse environmentalists of favoring trees or animals over human beings. Usually this is done by raising the specter of unemployment ("You want to save the forest? Think of the loggers you'll throw out of work!"). In Environmental Overkill, Ray took this tactic to a new low by blaming environmentalists for the resurgence of malaria worldwide:

DDT, the most effective insecticide ever produced, could have saved millions of lives from malaria and other insect-borne diseases had not political pressure brought by environmentalists like Rachel Carson banned its use in the U.S. and reduced its use worldwide.

Ray and other DDT enthusiasts are particularly fond of trying to blame the 1968 malaria epidemic in Sri Lanka on the environmental movement. As Ray writes in Trashing the Planet:

Public health statistics from Sri Lanka testify to the effectiveness of the spraying program. In 1948, before the use of DDT, there were 2.8 million cases of malaria. By 1963, there were only 17. Low levels of infection continued until the late 1960s, when the attacks on DDT in the U.S. convinced officials to suspend spraying. In 1968, there were one million cases of malaria. In 1969, the number reached 2.5 million, back to the pre-DDT levels.

Since malaria is a disease of which most Americans have little knowledge or experience, Ray could make wild, sweeping claims about it with little fear that anyone would know right off that her statements were erroneous. In fact, she grossly overstated the efficacy of malaria-eradication programs dependent on DDT and is absolutely wrong about why DDT spraying was suspended in 1963 (not in the late 1960s, as she claimed).

After World War II, the World Health Organization saw in DDT the possibility of eradicating the Anopheles mosquito and, with it, malaria. The initial success of eradication programs in Greece and Italy led WHO to launch a worldwide program in 1995. Early on, however, there were problems. In 1951, a strain of Anopheles sacharovi resistant to DDT was found in a village in the Peloponnese. Another resistant strain of the same species turned up in Lebanon in 1953 and later in Iran. Then resistant forms of Anopheles stephansi appeared in Saudi Arabia, and resistant strains of Anopheles sandiacus in Indonesia. In some cases where DDT-resistant forms appeared, dieldrin and chlordane were used. However, in 1956 mosquitoes resistant to these insecticides were found in Greece and Nigeria. Even the larvae of the Greek strain were resistant.

Another problem that was cropping up was the cost of spraying. When the Grek government decided to stop spraying to cut costs, something wonderful seemed to happen. Malaria rates stayed low. The long-term toxicity of DDT sprayed on the interior walls of buildings seemed to give them an efficacy in killing mosquitoes that lasted for about five years. Surveillance coupled with spraying seemed to be the best solution. The five-year off-periods were not only easier on Third World economies but seemed to ensure that constant spraying wouldn't generate new resistant forms of Anopheles.

The cessation of spraying in Sri Lanka in 1963 had nothing to do with attacks on DDT in the United States. In point of fact, in spite of its being banned in the United States, DDT is still widely used in many parts of the world. The real reason why DDT spraying ceased in 1963 was that authorities in Ceylon thought that they had eradicated malaria after a five-year campaign and were then in the surveillance phase. What actually triggered the 1968 malaria epidemic was a gem strike that lured hordes of prospectors to the island. In their effort to find gems, these prospectors dug pits up to 30 feet deep which were left unfilled after the prospectors left. Tropical rains then turned these pits into mosquito breeding ponds.

Another factor in the mosquito population explosion was the clearing of jungles for cultivation. This has a number of effects impinging on malaria. The cleared land has higher temperatures than the forest; irrigation ditches and rice paddies provide mosquitoes with ideal breeding grounds (stagnant, sunlit water); and there is an influx of people into the cleared lands who are less resistant to malaria than the native population.

By 1972, Sri Lanka had reduced the number of malaria cases to 150,000. At that point, the eradication program stalled because, in spite of the cessation of the house-spraying program in 1963, DDT had been used in Sri Lanka in the interim for crop protection, with the result that Anopheles culicifacies, susceptible to DDT in 1963, was now resistant. In 1975, there were over 100,000 cases of malaria in Sri Lanka despite continued spraying.

Resistant forms of Anopheles mosquitoes continue to appear, including another strain of Anopheles culicifacies in Burma in 1979. In his book Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Man, Gordon Harrison mentioned an ominous situation in Central America:

Worst is the situation in El Salvador and Guatemala, where cotton farmers have been drenching their fields with every known insecticide twenty or more times a season and have produced a malaria mosquito resistant to them all.

Anopheles mosquitoes have also become "resistant" to DDT due to changes in the mosquitoes' behavior. Formerly, the mosquitoes would rest on interior walls between meals and tended to attack their victims as they slept. Initially, therefore, spraying interior walls with DDT proved effective. However, the mosquitoes began to become irritated by the insecticide, stopped resting on walls, and began to bite outdoors. At the present time, before initiating a house-spraying program, health officials have to determine whether or not the mosquitoes in the area are resistant to DDT and whether they bite indoors or outdoors.

In some cases, the mosquito's rate of reproduction effectively frustrates DDT control efforts. In his book The Malaria Capers, Dr. Robert S. Desowitz states that computer analysis of epidemiological data from Africa showed that, to prevent transmission of malaria by Anopheles gambiae, 50 percent of that mosquito's population would have to be killed off every day for five years. Clearly, no amount of DDT could accomplish this.

Another cause of the worldwide resurgence of malaria is the increased resistance of the malaria parasite Plasmodium flacoparum to chloroquine. Overreliance on DDT and chloroquine led to the relaxation of more traditional means of controlling malaria, such as filling in or draining stagnant ponds and using mosquito netting to protect sleepers. However, with the failure of eradication programs, WHO aimed at control rather than eradication. Simplistic solutions, such as wiping out mosquitoes with DDT, have been abandoned as unworkable. Writing in the 1991 issue of World Health, Dr. Awash Tekiehaimanot and Dr. Pushpa R. J. Herath of the WHO Malaria Control Unit stated:

The use of insecticide spraying on a large scale or for long periods is not sustainable because of the high costs, problems with spraying, and mosquito resistance to insecticides. Part of the high cost of spraying resulted from the increase in oil prices, since DDT and many other insecticides are made from petroleum products. In 1975, the cost of DDT soared, with the result that the Indian government had to suspend spraying in spite of a worsening malaria epidemic.

Another problem that disrupted and continues to disrupt malaria control programs is political and economic instability. It's well-nigh impossible to maintain a coordinated malaria control program in the midst of war. Hence, it's not surprising that such programs failed in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between 1960 and 1975 as a result of the Vietnam War, and from 1975 to 1980 because of the depredations of the Khmer Rouge and the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam. Refugees fleeing these wars carried malaria with them into Thailand. Migrant workers--refugees from poverty--also carry malaria, and their use of temporary shelters effectively frustrates any house-spraying program. For example, migrant farm workers in the Philippines often sleep in structures that only consist of a roof supported by four poles. It is notable that Singapore, a small, wealthy city-state bypassed by the wars and upheavals of the rest of Southeast Asia and able to control its small land border, has been free of malaria since World War II.

The anti-environmentalists often deride the environmental movement as being anti-technology and anti-civilization. Blaming malaria epidemics on environmentalism is part and parcel of this tactic. If only those awful environmentalists would get out of the way of progress and stop protecting tropical forests that are nothing more than repositories of malaria, Third World nations could free themselves from this plague. Of course, "progress" is invariably seen as cutting down rainforests and replacing them with farms, mines, and cities. However, with respect to malaria, such activities are anything but progress. The following statements are from "Development and Vector-Borne Diseases," an article by Hans Verhoef and Robert Bos in the November-December 1992 issue of World Health, the magazine of the World Health Organization:

Throughout the tropics, the mosquito and snail breeding sites that are created by environmental changes associated with development, together with the spread of diseases resulting from human migration, form a dangerous blend in which malaria, schistosomiasis, and other vector-borne diseases may thrive....

Malaria cases in Brazil, for example, now account for more than half the total number in the Americas, largely as a result of the opening up, deforestation, and mining in the Amazon region....

In the Indian subcontinent, where one of the local vectors prefers to breed in roof tanks for drinking water, urban malaria has increased in thoe cities where building standards are not enforced.

These statements were made by officials of the World Health Organization, not by anti-rational neo-pagans with an anti-American attitude and a socialist agenda--the "Wise Use" stereotype of an environmentalist. Of course, once the "Wise Users" have accused environmentalists of causing malaria epidemics, it's only a slight stretch to accuse them of intending to destroy America. In Toxic Terror, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan characterizes environmentalists as "bitterly antagonistic toward American industry." She also quotes and agrees with Ron Arnold, author of At the Eye of the Storm: James Watt and the Environmentalists, who accuses environmentalists of wanting to dismantle industrial civilization and impose "a fundamentally coercive form of government on America."

(Arnold deserves his own chapter in the history of the "Wise Use" movement. In fact, it was Arnold, along with Alan Gottlieb, who virtually founded the movement. Arnold is also the director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Major funding for the CDFE comes from the Coors Foundation, Exxon, and DuPont, among others; listed among the CDFE's advisers are Jesse Helms and the Heritage Foundation, itself a creation of Joseph Coors.)

Once the "Wise Users" have accused the environmental movement of being anti-American and anti-technology, the next natural step is to accuse the movement of being part of a nefarious conspiracy. Speaking of the Earth Summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Ray said of the participants:

They are the people who are employed by the United Nations, particularly in the division of environmental programs, together with the heads of various environmental organizations, members of our State Department, and all the people in the national leadership who believe in what's called the New World Order. The New World Order means there aren't going to be any nations anymore.

This statement, made on fundamentalist radio station KKLA, targeted an audience primed to see things in terms of satanic conspiracies leading to the "end-times." Since, in their various millennial scenarios, fundamentalists see the end precipitated by a world empire ruled by the antichrist, any mention of the "New World Order" is likely to push their paranoia buttons. The "New World Order" also figures widely in secular right-wing doomsday scenarios, making it a most useful catch-phrase.

While they are busy accusing environmentalists of conspiring to end Western civilization, the "Wise Users" are themselves part of a network that itself borders on conspiracy. For example, Ray says at the beginning of Trashing the Planet: "Now my disclaimer: I am not in the pay of nor am I employed by any industry...." In fact, however, she was an officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), the same folks who gave us James Watt, Reagan's awful choice for Secretary of the Interior, and Ann Gorsuch, Watt's awful choice for head of the EPA. Watt was the first president of the MSLF; the first and most important financial backer was Joseph Coors, and the Coors Foundation--along with Exxon, Texaco, Chevron, Amoco, Phillips Petroleum, and Ford, to name a few--remains one of the MSLF's largest sources of funding to this day. The MSLF has earned the reputation in the New Right of being "anticonsumer, anti-feminist, antigovernment, anti-black, and above all anti-environmentalist" (according to a 1981 Rocky Mountain News report). Though a nonprofit organization, it has colluded with its corporate contributors to develop legal strategies for fighting federal restrictions that would hamper their ability to mine, drill, or in any other way develop and profit from resources on public lands. Technically, Ray's involvement with the MSLF didn't put her in the pay of any industry. However, her so-called disclaimer implied a position of disinterested objectivity, when in fact she was an officer in an organization that Ron Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise has hailed as "the litigating arm of the Wise Use movement."

In Trashing the Planet, Ray said of environmentalists: "Remember, the alarmists depend on continued crises, even if they are contrived, to keep themselves in business. Insist on the facts."

I submit that the facts of the complicated war on malaria prove Ray's alarmist claim that environmentalists are responsible for malaria epidemics is both contrived and grotesquely dishonest. It is also remarkably irresponsible, considering the complexity and depth of the issue, that Ray did not "insist on the facts" but, rather, chose to ignore them for purposes of vilification. Ray also decried the oversimplification of scientific data in the media and the fact that, when scientific inaccuracies are published, the "burden falls on the supporter of science to prove that the charge is groundless." Yet she was guilty of the very behavior she claimed to abhor. Consider that, despite having no scientific credentials, I have easily demonstrated the utter falsehood of her statements concerning endangered species, protected wetlands, and the blame she laid on the environmental movement for the worldwide resurgence of malaria. Consider also that a great deal more time has to be spent in explaining the truth than in stating a falsehood.

Dr. Ray managed to do a great deal of damage with a few blatantly false statements. Her knowledge of what a burden it is for scientists to debunk groundless accusations is a gauge by which we can judge the depth of her own dishonesty--and indeed, the dishonesty of the entire "Wise Use" movement.


While evolutionists are accused of practicing the "religion" of secular humanism, environmentalists are often accused of deriving their views from neo-paganism, the New Age movement, and eastern religion. This started with critics sarcastically referring to conservationists as druids (that is, sacrificing people to trees) or nature worshippers. In her book Trashing the Planet, Dr. Dixy Lee Ray states: "Some environmentalists appear to be in favor of taking mankind back to pantheism and animism." Religious conservatives seized on these labels as a way to demonize environmentalists, claiming the latter worship the creation instead of the creator.

While fundamentalists pay some lip-service to the idea of being "good stewards" of God's creation, they derive their own ideas on the environment from a literal interpretation of Genesis 1:28, where God tells humankind to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. They call this the "dominion mandate," and what it amounts to is a claim that God sanctions whatever destruction they wish to wreak on the environment.

Among those claiming that the environmental movement has been coopted by neopagans, pantheistic eastern religions, and New Agers is fundamentalist author Berit Kjos. She begins her book Under the Spell of Mother Earth with a parable in which Satan sets up twentieth-century nature worship as a way to overthrow God's rule on earth. While Kjos claims to be an environmentalist, the "environmental" organization she supports--the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (C-FACT)--favors increased use of herbicides and pesticides, relaxing federal air and water quality standards, and repeal of the Endangered Species Act. C-FACT is funded by the nuclear industry and the conservative Carthage Foundation.
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Title Annotation:includes related information
Author:Callahan, Tim
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Previous Article:The myth of a liberal media.
Next Article:Public policy and the 'wicked stepmother': the ideological war against institutional child care.

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