Lethal Environmental Ethics

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It may be based on a noble quest to safeguard our Earth’s future. But the “good science” of ecology leaves many urgent questions unanswered.

Why do developed countries impose their environmental ethics on poor countries that are simply trying to pass through a stage they themselves went through? After taking numerous risks to reach their current economic and technological status, why do they tell poor countries to use no energy, agricultural or pest control technologies that might pose some conceivable risk of environmental harm? Why do they tell poor countries to follow sustainable development doctrines that really mean little or no energy or economic development?


In the 1940s, malaria afflicted 300 million people worldwide, and killed 3 million, every year. With the help of DDT, developed nations eradicated this killer disease. Poor countries in Asia and Africa reduced malaria death rates by 70 percent in the early 1950s.

But then pressure from developed countries drastically restricted the use of DDT, on the basis of environmental concerns. Last year, malaria again infected over 300 million people and killed over 2 million — most of them in Africa, and half of them children. Those who don’t die are often unable to work for weeks or months on end, sapping economies and health-care resources.

Biotechnology restrictions imposed by developed countries result in millions facing malnutrition and starvation, eating anything that flies or crawls, and plowing under vast areas of wildlife habitat, in hope of surviving another day. Bans on fossil fuel and hydroelectric power plants mean people chop down forests or risk disease from burning dung.

If only people in developed countries could see them, too. These people are “passionate about environmental causes,” but they ignore the millions who are poverty stricken, sick, starving and even dying because of misguided environmental policies. They send us aid, but it would be far better if they let us trade with them, develop our resources, set our own policies and determine our own destinies.

People in developed countries can afford to worry about climate change, endangered bugs and a few hundred more dying of cancer before they are 70. We have to worry about millions of people dying of malaria, typhoid, dysentery and starvation. Millions of parents in sub-Saharan Africa must worry about where they will get their next meal, whether the water they drink will kill them and whether their babies will live beyond age five. As if that is not enough, they worry that HIV/AIDS will kill many who somehow survive these other diseases.

In the name of “corporate social responsibility,” some companies have been forced by lobbyists to engage in activities that make the predicament of people in poor countries even worse. BP (British Petroleum) and Royal Dutch Shell support organizations and governments that oppose energy and economic development, international trade and the use of DDT. These groups say Africa and India should rely on expensive make-believe energy options, like wind and solar, that further delays our economic, health and environmental progress.

Meanwhile, in 2001 alone, BP spent $8.5 billion on oil and gas operations, $100 million on its “Beyond Petroleum” advertising campaign, and a mere $33 million on renewable energy.

To think long term does not give rich countries a license to restrict poor nations from making use of their resources. People need access to health care, they need to trade and they cannot do this when science is turned into a political tool to harass the poor.

African countries face other tough battles, too. Europe in particular has confined their exports largely to primary products and imposed high tariffs on processed commodities. Many agricultural products from poor countries face quarantine rules that act as trade barriers, if Africans do not follow strict environmental standards.

Even if they use DDT to stop terrible malaria epidemics or plant genetically modified bananas or sweet potatoes to prevent famines, these standards block our produce out of the richer markets. Along with price-distorting domestic subsidies, these policies have severely impacted economic growth in poor countries.

A recent Kenya government report concludes that small farmers face such great difficulty in meeting stringent EU market requirements that their exports and revenues have been negatively affected. In 2001, Kenya’s farmers earned only Ksh 20,221 million ($259 million) from the export of flowers, fruits and vegetables. In previous years, Kenya and other East African countries were hard hit by a ban on fish exports.

Corporate social responsibility ought not be used to impose policies that kill people. It should not be used to render poor populations sick, unproductive and perpetually destitute.

For rich countries to tell poor nations to invest only in alternative energy and ban chemicals that help control disease-carrying insects – and then claim to be responsible, humanitarian and compassionate – is to engage in hypocrisy of the most lethal kind.

”’James Shikwati is director the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN), in Nairobi, Kenya.”’