Heeding Voltaire

By Brian Lee Crowley

ASIA’S devastating tsunamis are only the latest vast natural disasters that humble humanity’s beliefs in its own power and in the benevolence of Nature. Even as we mourn the dead and struggle to help the living, it is not too soon to spend a moment thinking about how to deal with the emotions of fear, anxiety and confusion that these events give rise to. And for this, there is no better guide than Voltaire.

Voltaire’s name has already been mentioned by many people in the days following the world’s recent catastrophe, but often for reasons that rather missed his point. One of the greatest thinkers of the 18th century, Voltaire was profoundly troubled by his century’s great natural disaster, the Lisbon earthquake.

According to historian Robert Zaretsky, for nearly 10 minutes in November 1755, Lisbon was convulsed. The earth opened, buildings crumbled. Great fires followed. Thousands of residents sought refuge near the harbour, but were swept away in the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. Ninety thousand people died in Lisbon, another 10,000 in Spain and Morocco.

The reason that Voltaire’s name is now inextricably linked with the Lisbon earthquake is that he used it as a powerful moral lesson, a call for human beings to re-examine their assumptions about how to live and why. In the face of Lisbon (or Aceh), Voltaire mocks the view that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. He even writes the fable of Candide, a witless optimist whose world is repeatedly upended by evil men and a heartless Nature. “If this is the best of possible worlds,” Voltaire wrote, “what then are the others?”

But Voltaire’s is not a philosophy of despair and nihilism; in the face of great evil and catastrophe, he does not preach that nothing matters and we can do as we please. We cannot know or control our destiny, but we can “cultivate our garden.” In other words, we can take responsibility for those things where we can make a difference, having a just estimation of our own limited power as human beings.

What does that mean in concrete terms? Besides the obvious, such as speedy and generous aid for the victims of the Asian tsunamis, and working with all countries to devise practical ways of giving early and effective warning in the face of future such disasters, we need to look further.

Here is my suggestion for a concrete response to this recent disaster, one that allows us to cultivate our own garden, take responsibility for our own actions, and yet make a difference for the better for the world’s poorest.

Through our own actions in the rich industrialized world, we cause a Third World disaster that kills far more people every year, year in and year out, than the Asian tsunamis. And we do so not to achieve some grand good purpose, but through inertia and an unwillingness to admit our own mistakes.

The disaster, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote the other day, is that mosquitoes kill 20 times more people each year than the tsunamis did, disable many more, and undermine local economies in the process. In the long war between humans and mosquitoes, it looks as if mosquitoes are winning, largely because the U.S. and other rich countries are siding with the mosquitoes against the world’s poor, by opposing the use of DDT.

DDT became infamous after Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, argued that it was wreaking havoc on the environment. The science behind this claim was wrong, but the political pressure to ban DDT was huge. In 1972, Washington caved in against the advice of its own scientists, banning DDT, and the West has consistently tried to prevent Third World countries from using the pesticide ever since.

Yet the peerless effectiveness of DDT in the battle against mosquitoes and the malaria they carry is indisputable. South Africa, which allowed Western pressure to dissuade it from using the chemical in favour of far less-effective substitutes, saw a huge increase in malarial infection immediately. When they finally decided that they could not afford the luxury of Western environmental ideology, and brought back DDT, infection rates fell by 80 per cent in 18 months. This requires no indiscriminate spraying – an annual application to the walls and eaves of homes is all that is needed.

At a time when the New York Times, many other newspapers, Third World advocates, public health authorities and even Ralph Nader agree that DDT can save millions of lives annually at negligible environmental and other costs, only bureaucratic inertia and political timidity stand in the way of our doing something that would rescue millions of the world’s poorest from death and misery every year. Let’s heed Voltaire’s call to better cultivate this corner of our garden.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca), a public policy think tank in Halifax.