Do you ever wonder if it might be easier to generate the sort of massive changes we need to make to our lifestyles if we were engaged in some kind of war or a pitched battle?
The problem is that when it comes to environmental issues there really is no enemy. We can direct our aggression to a few amorphous corporate entities, and maybe people who drive massive 4x4 SUV’s if you're so inclined. But really, the actual enemy is ourselves.
This poses a dilemma because we’re really not good at coping with the ‘enemy within’. The enemy which is us.
Improving our sustainability is more like going on a diet than it is like going to war, and we all know how successful the average diet is.
We’re simply better at initiating changes to our attitudes and lifestyles when we’re at war – which is probably why we try to cast problems into that mould even when it’s completely counter productive to do so, perhaps we create the war against drugs, or attack Iran and Afghanistan as part of a war against ‘terrorism’ because that's the only way we know how to respond.
So anyway. Good news. I think I found someone who can be our scapegoat...our environmental bogey-man.
I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” – fascinating and entertaining in equal measures – and he recounts the story of an engineer come chemist called Thomas Midgley Jr.
Thomas Midgley Jr. is the devil. Except he's not really. He's just a scientist with few scruples who was well respected by many in his day, and that is what makes this sorry tale so scary.
If you ever get a chance to borrow a time-machine to travel backwards in history in order to ensure someone is never born, consider visiting Mr and Mrs Thomas Midgley Sr.
Thomas Midgley Sr. was an inventor, and his son Thomas Midgley Jr. initially trained as an engineer, but eventually took after his father to become an inventor as well.
The first problem Midgley turned his attention to was engine knock and associated fuel efficiency. His unfortunate solution was to add a lead solution to the fuel (tetra-ethyl lead or TEL). There were less toxic solutions available which he discovered at the same time, but lead was the cheapest, had the least offensive odour and was the most efficient, so Midgley ran with it. And the evidence indicates that he ran with it while being fully aware of the toxic affects of lead in the atmosphere and in the human body.
People started dying almost immediately from the affects of his innovation. By the mid 1920’s more than 40 factory workers who produced the lead fortified fuel for Ethyl (the corporation who produced the product) were dead or deranged. The Ethyl factory in Deepwater was nicknamed the 'House of Butterflies’ by the workers because of the hallucinations they experienced while working there.
Midgley’s crime is that he knowingly introduced a "creeping and malicious poison" into the environment, and also that he then deliberately assisted in the large scale corporate cover up which followed for the next 50-60 years.
TEL is still being produced, although we stopped adding it to fuel in the 1980’s. Of course we’re stuck with the lead; which is now in the atmosphere forever.
So just in case you think that’s not enough to earn Midgley some kind of serious enemy-of-the-planet status – just wait, there’s more...
The second problem Midgley addressed was the serious one of poisonous gases leaking from early refrigerators.
“Midgley set out to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive, and safe to breathe. With an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny, he invented chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.”So first he flooded the atmosphere with lead, then created the ultimate ozone annihilator. The man was a planet killer!
A postscipt: In case you'd prefer a hero to inspire rather than someone to revile - there's no shortage of those, and we could do worse than to look to a man called Clair Patterson. Patterson discovered a method of measuring lead in the atmosphere and then sacrificed his career by carrying out a courageous long term campaign against Ethyl and other large lead producing corporations. It is largely due to his efforts that lead was finally banned from food containers and fuel in the 70's and 80's.
Labels: philosophies + opinions