Friday, June 1, 2012

History Friday: The Man Who Destroyed the World

When it comes to such concepts as "good" and "bad," there are few opportunities to use superlatives to describe human beings - people are rarely pure good or pure evil.  For example, even Mother Theresa was said to care more about publicity than the succor of the sick.  And even Hitler, that fucking douchebag asswipe, loved dogs and treated his non-military staff well.

When in comes to the environment, though, we have the ability to speak in terms of both best and worst.

The best, in terms of the environment, has to be Norman Borlaug.  He observed a problem endemic to wheat - that when it grew too tall, it would bend over from its own weight. This kept yields low, which meant that entire countries, like India, could not grow enough food to feed its people, resulting in widespread famine. He developed two strains of wheat that grew shorter - he called it "dwarf wheat" - and which did not droop.

This one innovation increased yield per acre by a factor of four.  Yep - he QUADRUPLED the amount of food that came from an acre of wheat. And countries that had been marked by chronic famine, like India and Mexico, could feed themselves with relative ease.

Norman Borlaug fed billions of people.  So he qualifies as best.

The man who might very well be the worst person in the entire world, at least as it pertains to the environment, was Thomas Midgely, Jr.

We pick up the story in 1921, as Midgely is a young scientist working for General Motors.  He and his team were charged with finding a solution to engine knock - which reduced engine efficency and caused increased wear and metal fatigue on motors.

He discovered that the addition of alcohol to gasoline would solve the problem. Unfortunately, since GM could not patent or regulate the use of alcohol, they stood to make very little money off the discovery.

No problem, Midgely said.  You can do the exact same thing if you add something else to gasoline, a compound called...

...Tetra-Ethyl Lead. And you can patent that. And boy, did they ever. Not wanting to call it "lead," they decided instead to call it "Ethyl." Mechanics of the day would joke that when they filled a car up they'd be "pumping Ethyl."

They set up factories to create the additive, only to have to close them down within months as employees would succumb to lead poisoning, a demon's brew of hallucinations, dementia, and ultimately, death. Midgely himself fell victim to lead poisoning a first time in 1923 and had to take a whole year off.

When he returned to work, he found that TEL had gotten a bad reputation, what with its killing people by the dozen and all.  Midgely went on a campaign to try and convince the world to un-learn what it had already come to know, namely that lead was a deadly poison, and that it was going to be ok if GM poured millions of pounds of it into the environment.

The funny thing was, it almost worked.  He held a press conference October 30, 1924, during which he "demonstrated" the safety of TEL by pouring the additive on his hands over and over, then taking a bottle of it and inhaling its contents for a full minute.  However the main goal of the press conference - to stop the state of New Jersey from shutting down a factory for being dangerous - was not met, as the state continued with its plans to shut the factory down.

And Midgely required eleven months to recover from a second bout of lead poisoning that his dimwitted demonstration caused.

During his convalescence, he was relieved of his Vice-Presidency of GM's subsidiary GMCC, the General Motors Chemical Company, and his work with lead was finally through.  However lead remained a gasoline additive in the United States until 1995.

So: Midgely is now out of the lead business.  What did he do for an encore?

He invented CFC's.  Yep, that's right. In 1937 or so, he discovered that adding fluorine to a hydrocarbon molecule had the necessary properties to act as a refrigerant. He invented with his own hands the chemical that we've known all these years as Freon, or R21.

 Characteristically he brushed aside any suggestions that unleashing fluorine into the atmosphere could in any possible way be harmful.  And in fairness he was not alone in this view; he received the highest honor the US Chemical industry can bestow, the Perkin Medal. Of course now we know that CFC's never actually go away, and that they slowly rise up in the atmosphere and react with ozone in the upper  reaches of the atmosphere and destroy it.

So one human being was responsible for the single most harmful atmospheric pollution in the planet's history and, for an encore, destroyed the ozone layer.  It's not for nothing that J. R. MacNeill, an environmental historian, said that Midgely "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history."

EPILOGUE: In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgely contracted polio and was confined to his bed.  He developed an intricate system of ropes and pulleys so that his healthcare providers could get him into and out of bed with a minimum of hassle.  He died when he got tangled in his ropes and slowly strangled himself to death.

Some people, I guess, actually do pay for their actions.

20 comments:

  1. You should submit a few samples of these to blog I read called "Interesting Thing of the Day"--http://itotd.com/write/--

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  2. Not a bad idea, "Ross," if that's your real name...

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  3. You should submit some of these to a blog I read called "Boring Thing of the Day". :)

    Btw LOVE the new look of your blog. Well done!

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  4. Oh come on - the same guy who put lead in gasoline also invented CFC's? You can't make that shit up!

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    1. Testing 123 I want to see if my new profile pic shows up. Also think I should go baƧk to classic one eye pic?

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    2. It's a nicer picture big, but the other picture is better small. Know what I mean? And btw thanks for the kind words on the new layout.

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    3. Ohhh shoot. The top of my head is cut off.

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    4. Yes but that accentuates your eyes.

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  5. Replies
    1. Thanks boss. Some people thought it was boring...hmmph...

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  6. What Mojo said. Keep up with the History Fridays!

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    1. Wow, thanks Crank! That's awfully kind of you.

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    2. I love history posts :) New layout is easy in the eyes. Josie nice picture! We can see your handsome face now!

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    3. Carmel, thanks for saying both those nice things. It's good to hear from you! And yeah, Josie gets a little embarrassed when I say this, but she's got those cheekbones that remind me of Sophia Loren - and that new picture shows them off nicely.

      In other news, I'm weird and creepy.

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    4. Omfg Carmel! Cranky, I blame you for Carmel 's comment!

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    5. HA! Yeah, I wasn't about to pile on there...

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    6. Handsome is good Josie! This past week I was called "intimidating" twice "mean" once and "disrespectful" !

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    7. Handsome is a beautiful thing, Josie!

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    8. Maybe so - but I would never call a woman "handsome" in front of her. I think the word conjures up more sturdiness than beauty. My mind turns to Bea Arthur when I hear a woman called "handsome."

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    9. Not helpful, Mr. Southpaw! In no way was my reference to Josie as "handsome" code for "sturdy." I was referring to her feminine pulchritudishness, using a word less hackneyed than "pretty" or "beautiful."

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