Is Stewart Brand the New Ian Plimer?

Despite challenging the environmental movement to admit when it gets things wrong, he seems unable to do so himself.

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 5th November 2010

Last night’s film on Channel 4 – What the Green Movement Got Wrong – was loosely based on Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline. In the film, Stewart issued the following challenge:

“I would like to see an environmental movement that’s comfortable noticing when it’s wrong and announcing when it’s wrong.”

I agree with that. But unfortunately, as far as Stewart is concerned, it appears to apply only to OTHER environmentalists.

The producers of the film had to change the script just a couple of hours before it was broadcast, as a result of the false and actionable accusations it made concerning the pesticide DDT. Up till that point the film made the following claims:

1. That Greenpeace campaigned for a worldwide ban on DDT.

2. That this ban was achieved.

3. That, as a result, millions of people died of malaria. These deaths were attributed by the programme to green campaigners.

Just before the programme aired, some of this was stripped out, but it still creates the impression that there was a global ban on DDT for all purposes.

It’s simply not true. DDT for disease control has never been banned worldwide. Instead, the 2001 Stockholm Convention regulates its use, prevents it from being used in agriculture (which accelerates the development of resistance by malarial mosquitoes) and encourages the development of alternatives. It expresses the hope that its use might become unnecessary so that it can eventually be eliminated, but nowhere in the convention is there any mention of a ban.

Nor has Greenpeace demanded that the use of DDT for disease control should be banned.

So where did the film get this story from? Stewart Brand. His book contains the following passage:

“Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not). … In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said, “The ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children.”

Brand, in turn, appears to have fallen for a myth generated by corporate-funded lobby groups, as John Quiggin and Tim Lambert document in Prospect magazine.

On Wednesday, I sent Stewart Brand the following challenge by email:

“In the programme you say ‘I want to see an environment movement that can admit when it’s wrong.’ On this we are agreed. So will you admit that you were wrong to claim, in both the programme and your book, that there was a worldwide ban on DDT? … There was in fact no such ban for disease-control uses, as you can see from the text of the 2001 Stockholm Convention (see Annex B).

I’m inviting you, between now and 1pm UK time tomorrow, to demonstrate that you too can admit you are wrong, by sending me an email repudiating your claim that DDT for disease control was banned.”

I received no reply.

Last night during the television debate that followed the film, I repeated my challenge to Stewart:

“Will you do what you’re telling us to do, and admit that you’ve got it wrong?”

Brand replied:

“We should probably compare sources which will be hard live on television, but yeah, let’s do that.”

This morning he wrote the following to me (I’ve placed our full correspondence on my website):

“Most of the sources for my book are online at (Haven’t finished all the chapters yet, including p 219, where my one paragraph on DDT is.) … Your argument may be with Gwadz rather than me. Your Stockholm Convention link seems to make my point rather than yours. It is dated 2001. Carson’s book came out in 1962.”

Here is the full list of sources given on his website for the relevant chapter:

“The annotated version of this chapter will be completed in the coming weeks.”

Given that Whole Earth Discipline was first published in 2009, that’s weak to say the least.

So I replied to Stewart this morning, as follows:

“Are you proposing that there was some international instrument other than the 2001 Stockholm Convention under which “DDT was banned worldwide”? If so, I would be fascinated to hear about it. You must surely know which instrument you had in mind when you wrote that sentence.

Your website carries no footnotes at all for the chapter you quote from, as I’m sure you are aware. You told me last night that we should “compare sources”. I have given you mine. Where are yours?

The test I have given you is to see whether you are able – as you demand environmentalists must be – to admit it when you get something wrong. So far you are failing that test.”

In other words, we appear to have an Ian Plimer situation developing here. I’ll keep you posted as it progresses.