Wednesday, January 14, 2015

neologism: the midgley effect


resilience |  We imagine ourselves to be members of a thoroughly scientific culture and to be scientifically minded. But, what science tells us is that the evolution of the universe and thus of planet Earth and its inhabitants is random. It is following no predetermined felicitous course. This process of change could be favorable to humans or it could be horrifically dangerous to them.

Our technological innovations will not necessarily shield us from this change. In fact, these innovations are part of the change. They influence climate in a way that is deleterious to the human future; they empty fisheries with a swiftness never before seen; they lead to degradation of the soil, not in isolated areas, but worldwide; and they poison the food, the air and the water in a manner that is global in scale.

A friend refers to this as the Midgley Effect. Chemist Thomas Midgley Jr. was heralded for his work in creating leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. The story of leaded gasoline is rehearsed every time we pull up to a gas pump and fill our automobiles with UNLEADED gasoline. Lead added to gasoline for the purpose of preventing so-called engine knocking turned out to be very bad for human health. Big surprise!

But chlorofluorocarbons were even worse. Used primarily as refrigerants from the 1930s onward and later as aerosol propellants, they escaped into the air. No one thought to track their destination until the 1970s when one scientist, F. Sherwood Rowland, asked where these compounds ended up. They were by design inert--that is, they didn't readily break down--so they must be somewhere.

That somewhere turned out to be high in the atmosphere attacking the ozone layer which protects humans and other living creatures from excessive radiation from the Sun. Had it not been for Rowland asking a very specific question and receiving a grant to fund the answer, we might well be living with little or no atmospheric protection from dangerous levels of solar radiation. Such are the perils of our technology. In this case, only one curious man stood between the human species and widespread disaster. Chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-destroying chemicals were subsequently phased out worldwide by the Montreal Protocol.

Midgley--who believed he was doing good things for society and received many awards for his discoveries--turned out to have "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history," according to environmental historian J. R. McNeill. And, it wasn't a good impact.
One of the pillars of our modern techno-utopian outlook is that invention is presumed to be good and should not be unduly impeded. It turns out, however, that our own science has shown that inventions can be potentially catastrophic.

So, now we come to the central contradiction of the modern outlook. We rely on science. We say we believe in science. But what science tells us about the trajectory of the universe and thus human beings is no more complicated that what "Planet of the Apes" tells us. There is no particular or preordained direction for the future development of humans or the universe we live in.

Yet, the techno-utopian vision that we cling to as modern people rejects this view even as we say our favored instrument of progress is science. Thus, we must conclude that our dissenting party guest's reply above--"They'll figure something out. They always have."--enunciates a religious belief, not a scientific observation.