The new CBS show “Supergirl” features a young superheroine determined to save the world, just like Superman, her biological cousin from Krypton. With ISIS on the rise and the horrifying recent terrorist attacks, the concept of a superhero coming to our rescue is rather appealing.
Obviously, “Supergirl” is entirely fictional, but the show’s producers might at least try to conjure up some credible villains. As a start, they might ground those villains in scientific reality.
Instead, the second episode of “Supergirl” features an insect-like alien that rampages about killing people. So far, so good. We soon learn, however, that this creature from outer space is not a carbon-based life form, but chlorine-based and to survive has been devouring stockpiles of the insecticide DDT from government warehouses. Trust Hollywood to take an insecticide that, thanks to mass media, already strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of all right-thinking people, and make it even scarier.
Remember All the Charity Spots About Clean Water
One can only guess how the show’s screenwriters came up with the idea of an evil chlorine-based life form, but one can be fairly sure the idea would only come up in an advanced, industrialized country, like the United States.
No writer hammering away at his or her typewriter 100 years ago would have treated chlorine this way. Our hypothetical writer would have realized that it is only thanks to chlorine that water was becoming safe to drink. Chlorine means that over 99 percent of Americans don’t have to worry about diseases, such as typhoid and dysentery, that were common about a century ago.
Contaminated water still spreads disease in many poor countries. According to the World Health Organization, more than 760 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. While far too many people lack safe water, globally almost 90 percent do have it. That’s an astonishing achievement, and one reason that global life expectancy for both men and women has risen steadily to just over 70 years.
Chlorine has not only stopped the spread of water-borne diseases. Organochlorine insecticides, such as DDT, stopped the spread of insect-borne diseases. When DDT was sprayed in tiny quantities on the inside walls of houses to protect sleeping residents, it protected around 2 billion people from the threat of malaria in the 1950s and ’60s, according to the WHO. People still use this insecticide to save countless thousands of lives from malaria and leishmaniosis in India and Southern Africa.
Before DDT’s malaria-controlling properties were fully recognized, it was used to halt lice-spread typhus epidemics in World War II-ravaged Europe. A survivor of the Belsen concentration camp, who benefited from dousing in the insecticide, wrote “O Great, Powerful Benefactor, Inventor of the White Powder,” such was his relief at being freed from tormenting, disease-spreading lice. Having survived Hitler’s SS, he must have known something about torment.
How Chlorine Helped Reduce World Hunger
In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, of course, farmers used DDT to protect crops from pests and thereby raise yields, ensuring more people had access to cheap and plentiful food. Agricultural pesticides have improved greatly, so that now, with the latest generation of neonicotinoid insecticides, we can coat a plant seed in the chemical, avoiding any need of widespread spraying, which can harm beneficial insects.
Thanks first to the use of DDT and then subsequent, more modern, insecticides, along with other technologies, food production has steadily increased and fewer and fewer people go hungry. Data from Humanprogress.org, a website that documents improvements in human well-being, provides solid evidence that we are now living longer, safer, healthier lives than ever before.
Picking on chlorine and DDT as bogeymen is perhaps understandable if you follow that doyenne of the environmental movement Rachel Carson, Al Gore, and countless other environmental crusaders. However, “Supergirl’s” screenwriters could have come up with a far better bad guy than a chlorine-based, DDT-eating alien.
Far Better Villains Exist for ‘Supergirl’
Take Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, for instance. This environmentalist and crusader against population growth actively campaigned against using DDT in disease control—not because he was worried about its potential effects on wildlife or human health, but because it was saving too many lives.
People, as he sees it, are the problem. Ehrlich and his colleagues think it would be far better to let children in poor countries die from preventable diseases than allow the world’s population to rise. He’s still at it, a real, live supervillain: going after fossil fuels at Stanford (no affordable energy for you!) and mining in Australia (jobs, anyone?).
Of course, Ehrlich and the entire population control movement were wrong. As we see now, population growth is slowing. When more children survive and can lead healthy, productive lives, parents have fewer of them. Chlorine, DDT, and other modern chemicals have played a major role in improving all of our lives.
We don’t think anyone could come up with more ghoulish villains for “Supergirl” than these self-proclaimed activists who fight the use of DDT and demand more death and suffering for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.