Part of Bookshelf: Boomerang by Michael Lewis

DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World

When it was first used on a wide scale, in the 1940s, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was known as “the miracle pesticide.” It was cheap, easy to apply, persistent, lethal to insects, and apparently harmless to humans. It played an important role in modernizing Mexican agriculture and in the World Health Organization’s campaign against malaria in Asia and Latin America in the 1950s. But in the early 1960s, the biologist Rachel Carson and others revealed that DDT accumulated harmfully in birds and fish and could in fact pose risks to human health. The United States banned the domestic use of DDT in 1972, but it is still used in a number of poor countries. Kinkela emphasizes DDT’s part in the larger Cold War project of using American technology to improve the lives of poor people around the world, including the role of fertilizers and pesticides in making possible the “green revolution.” He presents DDT as a useful product with undesirable long-term ecological effects, requiring careful judgment about when to use it. The U.S. chemical industry, in contrast, comes off badly, as it attempted to deny and dismiss DDT’s negative effects and to discredit anyone who pointed them out.

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