Monday, June 30, 2008

Chemicals: morally neutral

The story of penicillin is an interesting one: Alexander Fleming discovered that a mold had contaminated his bacterial culture (legend has it that his lab was so dirty, it wasn't actually a culture). By serendipitous luck, he realized that there was a ring around the mold colonies around which no bacteria grew. Upon filtering the broth, he found that it could kill bacteria, wasn't toxic to mice, and had a broad range of activity, at miniscule doses.

The idea that World War II was the best thing that could have happened to the world has been tossed around by those with a historical bent. It wasn't until the Second World War that, given the success of sulfa drugs, penicillin's possibilities became recognized. By 1943, production was 800 million units of this drug by growing up massive cultures of mold and isolating it from the culture--being able to eliminate infected wounds and pneumonia was probably a powerful morale-booster (source: Napoleon's Buttons).

And then things went wrong. Or rather, they didn't go wrong: life happened. Doctors forgot that bacteria have been around for 3.5 billion years--and if they could survive the PreCambrian Extinction, the KT Collapse, the fall of the dinosaurs, and our nuclear testing, a molecule from a mold that they most likely evolved with over the course of the last 2 billion years would merely baffle them, at best.

Drug resistance to penicillin illustrates the premise that chemicals themselves are morally neutral. They are "good" or "bad" only depending on how we use them. A molecule of DDT has no more of a moral code than a brick. But apply it cautiously, or ruthlessly, and people either praise it, or loathe it depending on what value is at stake.

It therefore makes no sense to malign chemical additives, pesticides, and herbicides because of what they are. But that does not grant free license to contaminate our waterways with mercury and pour sulfuric acid into the air. Just because the molecules are morally neutral does not mean we can afford to be.

And here the problem lies in the fundamental "good" and "bad" of the whole Green movement. Just where do we draw the lines, what are the goals, how can we achieve them in a meaningful way? Any one aspect of the Green movement (fewer pollutants, less greenhouse gas, clean water, clean air, no GMOs, organic foods) ultimately fails to see the big picture, and usually fails to consider the social ramifications of what each one recommends.

For instance, if organic farming were to become the mainstay of food production tomorrow: yields of organic crops are usually lower than conventionally-grown produce (usually about 20-50%, depending on the crop, the farmer, the region, the weather), so an organic farmer would need to produce more in order to get the same amount. He must therefore spend more time tilling his fields with a motorized vehicle, adding more greenhouse gases to the environment than the conventional farmer. Now, of course, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the organic farmer most probably does less harm than the pesticides sprayed by the conventional farmer. But how much more, and if your goal is to reduce greenhouse gases, then the organic farmer loses out.

What the Green movement needs first is to define what it wants to achieve in no uncertain terms. Then it needs to look reality squarely in the eye and accept it for what it is.

And the reality is this: we like our bread soft and unmoldy after a week in our pantry; we like our pet's food in conveniently stored and handled packages. We like that our cars don't rust and our pet don't have fleas, that cleaners work without too much elbow grease and hassle. Chemicals, while they can do a lot of harm, can't be blamed for everything, not when the choices we make concerning them are so selfish when it comes to our own time, energy, and money. These choices lie with us, not with the chemicals.

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