Peter Dykstra: Environmental “solutions” too good to be true

I have long been fascinated by Thomas Midgley Jr. In the 1920s and 1930s he was about to join Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin as one of the GOATs of science and invention.


Midgley’s two giant finds changed lives – in a good way to begin with, but then in tragic ways. He found that tetraethyl lead (TEL) eliminated engine knock, a plague of early motorists. And its development of chlorofluorocarbon chemicals (CFCs) as refrigerants has revolutionized air conditioning and food storage.

He was a science rock star, until we learned that the lead in TEL was a potent neurotoxin, hampering children’s brain development; and CFCs were destroying the Earth’s ozone layer.

Whoops. He’s not alone: ​​too often we “solve” health and environmental problems only to learn that we have created bigger ones.

Miracle chemicals

Midgley never won a Nobel Prize, but Swiss chemist Paul Müller did in 1948. Müller resurrected a long-forgotten synthetic chemical compound, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

DDT has shown a remarkable talent for eliminating certain agricultural pests as well as human torturers such as lice and mosquitoes. DDT is credited with allowing US and Allied troops to drive Japan out of the rainforests of the Pacific.

Scientist and author Rachel Carson showcased DDT’s other talent: thinning the shells of bird eggs, from tiny hummingbirds to raptors like the bald eagle. Bans in the United States (1972) and most other countries have saved countless species from oblivion.

The peaceful atom

When nuclear weapons destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II, there was little public dissent among Americans. The dominant argument was that the hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens killed by the blasts would look like small potatoes compared to the death toll from a land invasion.

In the 1950s, the USSR was trying to catch up with the United States. During the 1950s and at the height of the Cold War, the “peaceful atom” became a civic objective. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis L. Strauss saw a future with “electricity too cheap to be measured.” The Eisenhower administration proposed to create a deep-water port in Point Hope, Alaska, by digging a crater in the Arctic Ocean.

In the 1960s and 1970s, fervor for building nuclear power plants grew, and then began to fade as concerns about costs, nuclear waste disposal, and safety increased. If the near-disaster of 1979 at Three Mile Island dampened Wall Street’s interest in commercial nuclear power, the calamitous Chernobyl disaster of 1986 nearly ended it.

Deck fuel?

Nuclear power’s “carbon-free” status kept the industry’s hopes up for some time. Then, in the early 2000s, with oil men George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at the helm, came a bold piece of the oil and gas industry.

Hydraulic fracturing – hydraulic fracturing – was a relatively new approach to extracting natural gas from places previously inaccessible. Fracking promised “bridge fuel” that could wean Americans off dirtier fossil fuels en route to a clean energy future.

The bridge fuel talk was so tempting that the venerable Sierra Club received around $ 25 million from fracking giant Chesapeake Energy to help Sierra’s “Beyond Coal” campaign.

Meanwhile, cheap fracking gas is undermining both coal and nuclear power markets, just as several trolls have taken a peek under the bridge: The huge climate impacts of fracking. methane releases and its rampant use of water and toxic chemicals.

But wait … there is more!

Years of clogged landfills and cluttered waste streams highlight the global plastics recycling failure.

Plastic packaging has made our lives easier. And easier. And easier. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), we now use 5 trillion single-use plastic bags per year. A tiny fraction is in fact recycled. Others find virtually indestructible homes in landfills or oceans. Or, with the decline in recycling of household plastics, they are being shipped to the decreasing number of developing countries that will accept them.

We fail to learn the lessons of a century, from Midgley and DDT to nuclear weapons, fracking and plastics. Maybe the least we can do is make sure our solutions actually solve the problems.

Peter Dykstra is our editor and weekend columnist and can be reached at [email protected] or @pdykstra.

Its views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo credit: OCG Saving The Ocean / Unsplash

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