Friday, January 16, 2015

The Midgley Effect

The title comes from Kurt Cobb's January 11, 2015 article on He's not addressing Fermi 3, or Fermi 2, or even nuclear power specifically. His topic - the religion of eternal progress - is quite a bit broader than that. It's still worth our time to read.

Unfortunately, this religion, if we can call it that, is one of the major obstacles to organizing an effective movement opposing nuclear reactors. Of course, it is not an organized religion, but it is a faith which allows believers to be comfortable dismissing the dangers of nuclear reactors. In that respect, it is certainly like a religion. People resent it when you challenge their faith, whether it's comes from an organized religion or not.

Here's how Mr. Cobb describes 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.

There is no guaranteed effective way of overcoming an individual's faith in progress, even in a one-on-one conversation. If the person with such faith is trying to be rational, then maybe you can undermine the faith with a clear example like the Midgley Effect, but that's if and only if they are trying to be rational.

There's still no guarantee it will work. The counter-argument might be raised that lead in gasoline was eventually eliminated, and so was freon. And the counter-counter-argument naturally follows, that nuclear reactors also need to be eliminated. Certainly, we should not be building more.

Whether our arguments are immediately effective or not, we still have to keep trying. Sometimes they are effective, even though we don't necessarily get the feedback to let us know they're effective. Sometimes, the effect is months or years later.

If we can simply get people to consider the idea that nuclear reactors are both expensive and dangerous, then facts make the rest of the case for eliminating nuclear power in favor of better alternatives. As Kurt Cobb said, "... inventions can be potentially catastrophic." The history of nuclear reactors has demonstrated that several times over. Let's hope it does not have to be demonstrated yet again before people in general understand - if we don't eliminate them, they can eliminate us.

Art Myatt

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