When the reports of bedbug infestation first came along, it was all rather shocking. Bedbugs had been eradicated, so far as anyone knew, sometime after World War II, in both the United States and Europe. It was a major advance for civilization, a bedbug-free life.
Generations knew nothing of these ghastly creatures that come out at night, inject numbing poison so that you don’t feel them, feast on your blood as you sleep, and then sneak away again in the morning gorged and bloated at your expense.
The reason for the eradication? DDT, the lifesaving insecticide discovered by Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller, who received the Nobel Prize in 1948 for having saved millions from malaria. DDT was the miracle drug that gave mankind a fighting chance against its great enemies in the insect world.
Recall that it was insects that carried the diseases that several times wiped out major swaths of the world’s population in the Middle Ages. Gradually over the centuries, as sanitation improved, prosperity arose, the swamps were drained, and medical science discovered the cause of the yellow fever, the plagues diminished and were finally controlled. DDT delivered that final glorious blow, to the wild cheers of a world in love with progress and confident in humanity’s capacity to control its future.
Then sometime in the 1960s, all that began to change. There was a dramatic shift in the philosophy of government and in popular culture. The landmark book that appeared 50 years ago this week was Silent Spring by popular writer Rachel Carson. The purpose of the book was to ban DDT. But there was more going on: the advance of a philosophy that turned everything on its head.Banning DDT has caused millions of malaria deaths and the return of bedbugs.