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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Gene Autry and DDT

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gene Autry and DDT

I watched another Gene Autry movie with good economics underlying the plot.  In Riders of the Whistling Pines, produced in 1949 and written by jack Townly, 60,000 acres of forest is infested with moth larva that will destroy the timber.  The forest land is a common resource sheltering land, timber, water and wildlife that is shared by all in the community.

The forest is patrolled by the forest rangers, and under contract, a logging company has an exclusive permit to harvest flagged timber, but the company would be more efficient if it could harvest more timber.  The infestation provides a profit enhancing scenario.  All dead timber is flagged for harvest.  The logging company and the forest rangers simultaneously discover the infestation.  A logger first attempts to suppress knowledge of the infestation by shooting the ranger, but fail as Gene Autry, a second forest ranger, discovers the infestation.

At Autry’s suggestion, his superiors decide that a DDT solution mixed in a proper proportion will save the timber and not harm wildlife or domesticated livestock.  This was certainly the best “scientific” response to the problem at the time, a response that Department of Agriculture would have approved.  Continued study of DDT demonstrated that it produces a negative externality.  It does affect more than just the moth larva, but how great is the negative externality?

The writer notes the controversy the use of DDT divides the community.  One group supports the forest rangers.  Another group fears that DDT would affect all local wildlife including livestock; the loggers attempt to incite this group to violent action.  A final group is composed of environmentalists concerned with the impact of DDT on both livestock and wildlife.  A conversation at 22:30 into the movie illustrates the divisions.

Logger: I hate to think what will happen when they lose it [DDT] from those airplanes.

Rancher 1: They claim it won’t do any harm.

Logger: If it kills the bugs in the trees, it will kill everything else won’t it?

Rancher 1: They say not.

Rancher 2: I heard of a fella that sprayed DDT on his dog to kill fleas.  It killed the fleas alright, but it killed the dog too. 

Loie:  What is going to happen to the fish in the streams?

Rancher 3: Oh, you talk foolish Loie, besides the timber is more important than the fish.

Loie:  Not to the fish it ain’t.
One may laugh at the naive scientific view that spraying DDT would not harm the ecosystem but it may be no more naive than the view that followed.  In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book noting that DDT did not biodegrade quickly and that it harmed all creatures, including people.  The book caused led to a worldwide ban on the use of DDT, but the ban had a negative externality of its own.  DDT was used to kill malaria carrying mosquitoes in Africa and it has no close substitutes.  Millions of Africans died from malaria that might have been controlled by spraying DDT.  In 2006 a better balance was reached; the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended the use of DDT to control malaria and governments around the world including the Bush administration.  Some environmental groups including Sierra Club and Environmental Defense support a limited use of DDT to control for malaria (“WHO Backs Use of DDT Against Malaria”). 


  1. Forest destruction is going on n each and every part of the world and thats one of the main reason for global warming. Proper law should be implemented to take proper care of the consequences.

  2. Morgan Heeke7/7/11 1:02 AM

    This is another tricky post. I myself do not know very much about the effects of DDT on humans or much about them in general. If they cause death to fellow humans, then it should obviously be not used. However, malaria is a serious struggle with our planet and kills millions of people a year. We have tried to use controlled amounts of DDT and have failed at minimizing the negative results. Until we find a more stable substitute for DDT, I say we don't use it. We are working towards making malaria vaccinations more affordable for third world countries and I feel like we are closer to succeeding with that then contolling DDT.

  3. This is an all too common story. Knee jerk policies and laws before anyone actually studies the affect it may have! This is my fear with the continued nonsense that vaccinations cause Autism. I'm afraid someone with what seems to be powerful statistical data (turns out to be misinterpreted or hyped) gets a group of lawmakers ears and more vaccinations. Then just like the Africans, it will take children dying for them to realize their mistake.

    I do have to point out a funny sentence in your blog. It reads:

    "the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended the use of DDT to control malaria and governments around the world including the Bush administration. "

    The way I read that, WHO recommended DDT to control the Governments around the world, including the Bush Admin!

    Gave me a chuckle!