A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Monday, December 14, 2009

Red Sky At Morning

Ok...here's the first actual "chapter" from Balaam's Ass. Let me know what you think:

Red Sky at Morning

In the late 1920’s, the industrially developed world was faced with a significant if narrowly focused environmental problem. This problem, like so many other such problems, was a problem of human making, and a by-product of a technological advance, in this case, refrigeration. The technological breakthrough of refrigeration had obvious human benefits – meat, milk and other foodstuffs otherwise subject to rapid decomposition could, by being kept artificially cool, be kept longer without spoilage and thus reach larger markets. On the other hand, there already existed a variety of established practices for dealing with the same problem: the curing, smoking, and drying of meat and fish; the processing of milk into cheese, butter, and dried and condensed milk; and the pickling, canning and preserving of other fragile comestibles. Undoubtedly, increasing the amount of fresh food available to a growing urban market was perceived as a benefit, and one for which the urban dwellers themselves would gladly pay, but even this benefit had already largely been achieved through the low-technology innovation of the “ice-box”, an insulated container into which a block of ice could be inserted at regular intervals throughout the week, enabling one to artificially reduce the ambient temperature in the container and thereby retard rapid decomposition of fresh food-stuffs.

The advent of the “household” refrigeration unit, then, was like many technological advances, a slightly more convenient high-tech sophistication upon an already existing low tech solution. As such, its adoption represented something of a trade-off between real and perceived benefits and economic and ecological disadvantages. The new machines required petrol, kerosene, or electricity to run them, and bore with them certain economic and sociological disadvantages, that are less apparent to us now, such as that of putting the “ice-men” out of business. Still, they unquestionably enabled more well-to-do households and farms remote from urban areas to provide year-round temperature control to agricultural products for the first time. In any case, whatever other social utility the technology may or may not have had, refrigeration was certainly financially advantageous to the inventors and manufacturers of the first refrigerators, and that, perhaps, was all that really mattered at the time. Units were built, advertisers primed the pump, and consumers purchased them.

Unfortunately for the principal manufacturer of refrigerators, Frigidaire, these early and otherwise quite marketable machines had developed an unfortunate habit of killing people. Refrigerant gases available at the time – ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide - were all extremely poisonous; and refrigerator leaks were starting to kill substantial numbers of people. In the Chicago area alone, 29 people were killed by methyl chloride poisoning in 1927, and health authorities were already clamoring for cities to start labeling refrigerators as health hazards.[1]

All of this was somewhat embarrassing and potentially expensive for the General Motors Research Corporation, which had recently purchased Frigidaire. In response to these concerns about their newly acquired liability, GM hired Charles Kettering, a legendary auto industry engineer and inventor, to develop a non-poisonous refrigerant for use in Frigidaire products.[2] The resulting product, the result of several months of chemical tinkering by Kettering’s research assistant, Thomas Midgley Jr., was a fluorine-based compound – chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC.[3] In 1928, Frigidaire patented Midgley’s product, and by the end of the same year another firm, DuPont, was hard at work finding a simple and inexpensive way to manufacture the new man-made chemical, which was to be marketed under the catchy sounding name of “Freon.” Another miracle of American technological genius was about to be unveiled.

Quite an unveiling it was, too. Thomas Midgley himself presented the invention to the American public at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in 1930, dramatically making the case for the safety of his new product by inhaling CFC vapors through a rubber tube and then expelling the gas through another such tube to put out a candle flame. In this way, Midgley cleverly demonstrated that “Freon” was, unlike previous refrigerants, neither poisonous nor flammable. Immediately hailed as a miracle solution for the problem of refrigeration, CFC’s were quickly developed for use in other domestic applications such as auto and home air-conditioning units. Then, during World War II, the “bug bomb”, a 3” by 5” inch spray can filled with pyrethrum, DDT, and Freon 12 was developed. These spray cans (also invented by Midgley) were originally designed to be used by American soldiers in the South Pacific, and they proved to be terrifically useful in protecting G.I.’s from the effects of diseases carried by airborne insects. U.S. companies dutifully produced approximately 40 million of these CFC propelled Bug Bombs as part of the war effort and, when World War II was over, settled down to the economically profitable business of producing spray cans of hairspray, deodorant, air fresheners and whipped cream. By the 1950’s, the words “Freon” had become a household word, and soon air conditioning units and spray cans had come to be regarded by most members of the American public as being quite as essential to the American way of life as were, well, refrigerators. As a result, CFC production grew exponentially, expanding from a production of about 100,000 tons per year in the late 1950’s to as many as 1.5 million tons by 1986. Meanwhile, with each leaky fridge, each damaged air-conditioning unit, and each puff of hair-spray, CFC’s floated off into the atmosphere. No one worried about it much though. After all, CFC’s were safe. Science had proven it.

Of course, with hindsight, it is now easy to recognize that science had proven no such thing. Indeed, the scientists involved, motivated solely by the desires of technophilic consumers and the economic interests of the industrial corporations employing them, apparently never even considered the deeper environmental questions regarding the safety of CFCs. At best, scientific research had demonstrated that CFCs were not directly poisonous to human beings when inhaled, and that CFCs were not flammable. Indeed, these claims of Midgley, GM, Frigidaire and Dupont were confirmed in 1972 when Dupont brought together academics and research scientists to examine “the ecology of CFCs” in response to worrisome reports by an English scientist named James Lovelock, who had published papers regarding his surprising finding, using an electron capture detector of his own invention, (capable of measuring concentrations of molecules in the air, down to 1 part per trillion) that CFCs were everywhere in the atmosphere, and that the levels were, in his words “accumulating ineluctably.” The discussion at the conference was virtually limited to the question of CFCs’ possible toxic hazard to humans in ordinary household use, however, so it simply served to confirm the public’s long-term conviction that CFCs were harmless and safe to use.

In some minds, however, the fact that CFCs persisted and appeared to be accumulating in the lower atmosphere, raised sobering and potentially significant questions. A professor of chemistry at the University of California, F. Sherwood Rowland, for instance, began to wonder about this odd persistence of CFCs. If rain, degradation in sunlight, and the other ordinary cleansing processes of the lower atmosphere were not removing CFCs from the air, then what, he wondered, might eventually happen to them? As a research chemist, fully cognizant of the complex interactions of light and chemicals, Rowland considered it unreasonable to assume that the accumulating CFCs would remain inert forever. Nevertheless, as nothing suggested to Rowland that CFCs posed any serious danger or health risk, he initially regarded the question as nothing more than a routine but intriguing scientific curiosity, and suggested it in passing as the subject of a possible project for one of his new post-doctoral students, a researcher from Mexico named Mario Molina. Like Rowland, Molina was equally certain that CFCs were unlikely to remain entirely inert in the face of the withering radiation bombardment that these compounds would encounter when they reached the stratosphere. As he would later describe his own state of mind when considering the question: “At the least, I thought it was very bad manners just to release these chemicals without knowing what would happen.”[4] Intrigued by the question, he chose the CFC topic for his postdoctoral research program. As a result, mankind was provided with its first warning of one the most serious environmental crises in human history.[5]

Initially, however, their research resulted in no spectacular findings. Having determined that CFCs did not, indeed, break down in the lower atmosphere as James Lovelock’s measurements of the gas had suggested, Molina and Rowland were then able to calculate that the gaseous compounds could drift around in the atmosphere for as long as 40 to 150 years before gradually emerging into the upper stratosphere, where they would be subject to bombardment by UV rays and break down. On examination, it then became clear that the reaction would result in the liberation of a single free chlorine atom from the compound. Ready to present their findings in 1973, Rowland and Molina hesitated, and decided, after some discussion, to satisfy their own curiosity regarding the single remaining outstanding question that their research had left unanswered before going ahead and publishing their research. This question was: What happens to the free chlorine after it is released into the upper atmosphere?

This apparently straightforward question of gas-phase chemistry resulted in the uncovering of a remarkable and rather frightening fact. The released chlorine atoms, Molina discovered, would destroy ozone by seizing one of the three oxygen atoms that make up the ozone molecule. As atom for molecule replacement, this was hardly significant. Unfortunately, the chlorine atoms themselves were not destroyed in the process, however, because the ozone layer has so many individual atoms of oxygen floating around that these single oxygen atoms served to re-sever the joined chlorine and oxygen atoms, freeing the same chlorine atom to destroy more ozone atoms, again, and again, and again, in a powerful catalytic chain reaction. By Molina’s own calculations, a single chlorine atom could serially destroy as many as 100,000 ozone molecules.

Initially, Molina thought this was probably a matter of mere academic concern, assuming that the concentration of CFCs in the atmosphere would remain negligible. But when he integrated the most up to date industry production figures for CFCs into his calculations, the result was potentially catastrophic. After checking and rechecking these figures, Molina and Rowland were forced to admit that the destructive efficiency of the chlorine atoms, when conjoined with the yearly release into the atmosphere of one million tons of stable CFCs, might result in a genuinely global environmental nightmare once the CFCs reached the stratosphere.

For those of my readers who, like myself, do not possess a detailed understanding of gas-phase chemistry or atmospheric science, it may be useful to review just precisely why this depletion of the ozone layer was so significant that it resulted in the environmentalist panic that was to grip the scientific community in the aftermath of Rowland and Molina’s publication of their findings. The short form of the explanation, for those who wish to skip the next few paragraphs, is this: Without the protection from the sun’s radiation provided by the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere of Earth’s atmosphere, almost every living being on the planet would die, and the biosphere would be reduced to a few hardy single celled bacteria and viruses. Exactly why this is so is a little more complicated, and requires a little explanation.

Actually, even the atmospheric scientists themselves had not quite fully grasped the significance of the ozone layer by the time in Midgely invented CFCs. Although as early as the mid-19th century, scientists studying sunlight had observed that shorter waves of the ultra-violet spectrum (UVB) were absent, it was not immediately apparent why this was the case. By the 1870’s however, many scientists had begun to realize that some gas in the atmosphere must be responsible for absorbing or reflecting UVB, and in 1880, an chemistry professor at the Royal College of Science in Dublin figured out that the intervening gas must be ozone, a rare and poisonous oxygen molecule composed of three oxygen atoms. He also concluded that there had to be a great deal more of it somewhere in the upper atmosphere, in order for the atmosphere to be as efficient as it was at shielding us from UV. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1920’s, that anyone arrived at a decent estimate of precisely where the “ozone layer” was, or of precisely how much ozone this layer contained. In fact, it was not until 1927, just a single year before CFCs were synthesized, that an Oxford University physicist named Gordon Dobson actually invented a device that could measure the ozone overhead, making the first actual study of the “ozone layer” practicable.

It was thus in the same year that Thomas Midgely Jr. performed his dramatic introduction of “Freon” that Sydney Chapman’s seminal paper “A Theory of Upper Atmospheric Ozone” was published in the Memoirs of the Royal Meteorological Society. This paper finally theorized how the “ozone layer” developed, and how it works. The paper argued (correctly, as we now know) that ultraviolet light interacts with oxygen molecules (O2) that percolate upwards from the Earth (where they are principally produced by photosynthesizing plants) and splits these ordinary oxygen molecules into separate oxygen atoms. These solo atoms then unite with ordinary oxygen molecules to form molecules of ozone, a poisonous and rare three-atom form of the gas. As ozone is relatively unstable, however, further bombardment of these molecules by UVB subdivides it back into O2 and a single atom of oxygen, which, in turn, reacts quickly to repeat the process by recreating ozone – thus sustaining the quantity of ozone in the upper atmosphere. This growth in the ozone layer, however, is countered by a countervailing process in which the atmosphere loses ozone when ozone molecules encounter a free oxygen atom and recombine with it to create two ordinary oxygen (O2) molecules.

It is this process of mutually opposed photo-chemical reactions, which atmospheric scientists now argue began almost 2 billion years ago (when oxygen first started to reach the upper atmosphere in significant quantities), and which finally attained its current dynamic state of balance some 600 million years ago, that has maintained the ozone layer ever since. It is this complex chemical interaction between light and oxygen in the upper atmosphere that absorbs the dangerous UVB rays that would otherwise strike the earth and be converted into heat. The diversion of these UVB rays by the ozone layer simultaneously warms the stratosphere, which has a variety of climactic benefits, while at the same time protecting the earth from a deadly form of radiation that would, in its absence, result in the extinction of most complex forms of land-based life on earth.

So when Rowland and Molina published their findings in an article in Nature on June 28, 1974, it was rather like a grenade going off in the scientific community, and the article touched off a ferocious debate concerning the reality and magnitude of the environmental threat posed by CFCs and about what, if anything, humans could do to avoid the disaster it envisaged. Rowland and Molina themselves warned that the ozone layer at mid-latitudes would suffer increasing erosion in the decades ahead if CFC continued to increase, as it had for decades, at the rate of 10 percent a year. By their calculations, this would result in a 5 to 7 percent loss by as early as 1995, and as much as an utterly disastrous and possibly lethal 50 percent by 2050. Other scientists argued that these figures were inflated, or, in some cases, too cautious.

In the years to follow, there was an ongoing flurry of scientific research and further assessments of the problem which resulted in even less clarity and more uncertainty as to what the actual effects of CFCs might be, as scientists from various fields and with various prior commitments introduced additional factors and increasingly complex atmospheric variables into the simple reactions that Rowland and Molina had initially discovered. According to one historian of the debate, estimates of then current ozone depletion varied wildly, “from almost 20 percent to no loss at all.”[6] As further evidence of the scientific panic and confusion, the National Academy of Science released no less than four assessments of the CFC threat during the following ten years, all of which affirmed the validity of Rowland and Molina’s theory, but each of which offered a different estimate of the significance of the threat. The final report, published in 1986, concluded (to everyone’s relief) that the ozone layer was considerably less vulnerable to CFCs than had been previously thought, and that the damage would probably be limited to no more than 2 to 4 percent in the foreseeable future. A science magazine of the time triumphantly reported the results of this report in an article entitled: “Ozone, The Crisis That Wasn’t.”[7]

In the midst of our own heated discussions about such issues as global warming and peak oil production, this debate, and the mindsets of its academic, corporate, journalistic, and political participants seems sadly and fatefully familiar. However, at least one event which transpired in the midst of this debate stands out, to me at least, as almost shockingly incongruous.[8] In 1977, the American government under the Carter Administration took what now appears to have been a courageously aggressive action in the face of the possible ecological threat, a decision that would have been almost unimaginable in any of the administrations which have succeeded it, moving unilaterally to phase out all nonessential uses of CFCs in the United States by the end of 1978. By the early 1980’s, though, given the reduced concern of the scientific community, and given the growing complacency and forgetfulness of the public (none of whom had died yet!) the Carter administration’s apparently hasty decision was widely regarded as a rather pointless and unnecessarily quixotic act. CFCs, while not exactly harmless, were not going to result in any serious damage to the environment for many years, possibly not until late in the 21st century. Certainly there was nothing to get uptight about. Americans appeared to have been temporarily deprived of their cheese-whiz and hairspray cans for nothing.

The subsequent discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 thus surprised everyone. In the face of the concerns raised by Rowland and Molina, scientists had just completed more than a decade of careful atmospheric research and investigation, and the sense that “science” now had a pretty decent handle on what would or would not damage the atmosphere had become somewhat smugly accepted. That something so catastrophic could be discovered so soon after a reassuring assessment by a scientific body as respected and authoritative as the National Academy of Sciences served notice that scientific ignorance in the face of complex planetary wide systems remained vastly greater than the pundits had led us to believe. For there it was, a carefully documented report that 40 percent of the ozone layer had disappeared in the spring of 1985 over Antarctica, written by Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey, and published in May 1985 in Nature, the same journal in which Rowland and Molina’s initial study had been published.[9] Not only did it document the ozone depletion, but the authors of the article also reemphasized the significance of the partially debunked correlation between CFCs and ozone depletion by publishing a graph plotting the ozone and CFC data measured since the early 1970’s – a graph which clearly demonstrated an inversely matching trajectory: as CFC levels rose, ozone levels plummeted.

Initially, the report was greeted with skepticism on two fronts. Firstly, the data initially appeared to contradict the data reported by NASA’s much more sophisticated satellite monitoring of ozone levels. Secondly, the notion that a gaping whole in the ozone layer could open up in just a couple of weeks was, in terms of the general scientific understanding of how the ozone layer worked, simply impossible, something akin to a dark miracle. No natural mechanism understood at the time could have the capacity to effect such an alarming change – as a consequence, a great many scientists initially preferred to believe that the report must be wrong.

Unfortunately for these skeptics, a quick review of the NASA data by NASA officials responsible for the program monitoring worldwide ozone levels showed that their own two satellite-based ozone measuring devices had, in fact, measured the same dramatic ozone loss recorded by the more primitive hand-held devices of the British Antarctic Survey team, but that the computer that NASA used to process the satellite readings had been programmed to exclude extremely low or high readings from the data compilations prepared for human analysis. The data readings in question were simply too low to be possible, on the best scientific models available to NASA at the time, so they were rejected by the software designed for the project as probable instrument error anomalies, to be flagged, stored, and ignored. It remains unclear, even now, and is sobering to consider, just how long it might have taken the world to discover the desperate ecological disaster unfolding under the noses of the most sophisticated atmospheric measuring system of its time, had the British government not included, almost as an afterthought, the small grant that provided the funding for the members of the British Antarctic Survey team to waggle a small hand-held spectrometer about in the air on their mapping expedition of Antarctica.

Once the preposterous data was confirmed as valid, scientists engaged in a mad scramble to uncover its cause. In order to acquire the necessary data, researchers were forced to engage in high-altitude flights into the ozone layer, risking dangerous UVB levels to acquire the necessary current information about the chemistry of the stratosphere. The data thus acquired made it sinisterly certain that Midgley’s CFCs were, indeed, the environmental threat previously theorized, though the rapid elimination of the ozone in the Antarctic (and later, to a lesser extent, the Arctic) region was, considerably more complexly, the result of a runaway catalytic chemical reaction involving rare stratospheric clouds that form in the extreme cold and dark of the polar winter. Unfortunately, this process, which involved heterogenous chemical reactions on ice particles, was not quite the same process as the ordinary gas-phase ozone-depletion chemistry going on elsewhere in the upper atmosphere at a relatively sedate pace. Rather, it was massively more rapid and destructive. What is more, it quicky became distressingly obvious to all concerned that nothing could be done about the problem in the atmosphere itself. The process was there to stay, as long as the culprit - Midgley’s CFCs - remained in the atmosphere. All there was left for human beings to do was to change their behavior. And, for the most part anyway, in the face of a catastrophic and only barely avoidable planetary-wide ecological disaster, humans did.

Recognizing the gravity of the recent scientific finding regarding the appearance of the ozone hole, in 1987, representatives from 183 nations drafted the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty binding the nations ratifying it to a compact mandating the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons, along with halons, methyl chloroform, methyl bromide, carbon tetrachloride, and other substances which subsequent research had also determined to be ozone depleting in the upper atmosphere. As a result, the concentration of CFCs, at least, reached a peak in 1995 and is now starting to decline in both the lower and, to a lesser extent, the upper levels of the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the aftermath has been severe, with Antarctica experiencing, as recently as 2006, the largest ozone hole on record, an event during which all of the ozone layer between 8 and 13 miles simply disappeared as a result of record cold temperatures and very high levels of ozone depleting chemicals. What is more, the recovery of the ozone layer over Antarctica will apparently take decades even if all goes well and the Montreal Protocol continues to be fully respected. According to Alan Weisman, “the best current hope is that the South Pole’s hole, and the thinning of the ozone layer everywhere else, will heal by 2060, after the destructive substances are exhausted.[10]

Unfortunately, there are reasons even now to be mildly pessimistic about achieving a full recovery of the ozone layer. For one thing, the Protocol-mandated disuse of CFCs, in the absence of any cost effective solution to the problem of eliminating existing supplies of the chemical[11], has meant that millions of tons of CFCs, especially in developing countries, continue to linger on in older equipment, or to sit in landfills, where they are temporarily contained in retired refrigerators, air conditioning units, refrigerated trucks and railroad cars. These will, of course, eventually crack and release the CFCs thus contained back into the atmosphere to continue the ozone depletion cycle. There is also a thriving black market in CFC’s, even in the industrial nations, and some CFCs, even now, continue to be legally produced for “domestic needs” in developing countries.

Even apart from these worries, the representatives drafting the Montreal Protocol, responding to the criticism and demands of industrial nations with their perceived need for a simple and readily available replacement for CFCs as refrigerants, accepted as a quick technological fix the Dupont Corporation’s substitution of a newly synthesized replacement for CFC, the hydrochloro-fluorocarbons (HCFCs).[12] These compounds, while they posed less immediate threat to the ozone layer, being only about 15% as destructive as Midgley’s CFCs, nevertheless contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. As a result, these newer chemicals have now become a concern, both in their residual ozone depleting effects and in their contribution to global warming, particularly as the growing prosperity of highly populated India and China have resulted in booming sales of home and auto air-conditioning units, which have in turn resulted in massively greater production figures for HCFCs than were originally assumed by the Montreal Protocol. In response to these newer concerns, the 191 nations now participating in the Montreal Protocol recently agreed to accelerate the phaseout of HCFCs by a decade from the original deadline. It remains to be seen, however, if this promise will become a reality, as it remains entirely unclear with what they are to be replaced.

Other problems have also reared their heads in the years since the ratification of the Montreal Protocols. One of the more serious ones has to do with the fact that the currently existing ozone depletion, by cooling the stratosphere, is contributing to a shift in wind patterns around Antarctica. These shifting winds appear to be causing warmer waters to flow beneath the Antarctic ice shelves now, resulting in melting and producing “surprisingly rapid changes” to an enormous sheet of Antarctic Ice, sufficient, if fully melted, to raise world-wide sea-levels approximately 20 feet. In short - to use an environmentally dubious metaphor – our civilization isn’t out of the woods yet.

In spite of these concerns, the story of CFCs and the ozone layer, and the historic Montreal Protocol with which the world’s nations responded, is often related as an example of an environmental success story.[13] In a limited sense, of course, the Montreal Protocol was a success. The worst, after all, did not happen, and we are still around to talk about the aftermath. Certainly, those dedicated, curious and sometimes courageous researchers such as Lovelock, Rowland, Molina, and the members of the British Antarctic Survey team deserve great praise for their role in uncovering the false assumptions upon which the widespread use of CFCs were based; and the heroism of those who manned the flights to collect data on the Antarctic stratospheric conditions is undeniable. The Carter administration, too, which led the way in taking action in response to the potential CFC threat, deserves a great deal of praise for its leadership in creating a positive political climate for the environmentalist action that triumphed in Montreal, as do those who hammered out the details of the protocol in the face of a great deal of industrial, political, and sometimes popular opposition. Nothing should be permitted to denigrate the genuine achievements that these actions represent. The extent to which the Montreal Protocol is, in this sense, a partial success, however, must not be permitted to blind us to the fact that now, 22 years further along into the Montreal Protocol mandated clean-up we are still, at best, more than 55 years from correcting the environmental damage that our civilization ignorantly and arrogantly managed, in a mere 50 years, to inflict upon an atmospheric system utterly necessary to sustain terrestrial land-based life. Moreover, this damage was inflicted by a single technological product, a family of synthetic compounds, the uses of which were, for the most part, peripheral to the genuine needs and necessities of human life, and whose contributions to the religious, aesthetic, cultural or intellectual values of mankind have been very nearly nil.

All this is to simply to say that the “success story” of the Montreal Protocol is also the story of Midgely’s CFCs, and this is a story, far more truly, of cultural and technological hubris - of folly, ignorance and greed. That the world avoided a disaster of genuinely apocalyptic proportions is at least in part a result of such monumental and unwarranted luck that a certain type of religious mind almost cannot resist the urge to invoke providence. If, concurrent with Thomas Midgely’ invention of CFC, neither the tool for measuring atmospheric ozone had been invented, nor the basic theoretical mechanism for the existence and functioning of the ozone layer been discovered, it is likely that it would have been impossible for anyone to discover, understand, or take action in response to the ozone depletion these compounds caused in a timely fashion. Moreover, if James Lovelock not invented the electron capture detector by the mid-1960’s, which enabled him to measure the atmospheric quantities of CFCs in such minimal amounts as parts per trillion, it is difficult to see how anyone might have been able to pinpoint CFCs as potential culprit in the first place, even once the ozone depletion was finally discovered. Similarly, had Rowland and Molina not responded to Lovelock’s findings by studying a perplexing but apparently insignificant question concerning what ultimately happens to the minute quantities of CFCs that persist in the atmosphere, then the scientific and political communities would not have had ten years of advanced notice and intensive atmospheric study to prepare them to better understand and intelligently respond to the (even then) surprising discovery of the ozone hole. Finally, had the British Antarctic Survey team not chosen, for all intents and purposes, to pointlessly duplicate the more sophisticated ozone measuring program of NASA – but with such fatefully different results – mankind might not have discovered the disaster unfolding until it was far too late to successfully act upon it.

Again, to the religious mind, all this can sound suspiciously like providence.[14] The truth, however, as it often is, is probably darker and more disturbing. Indeed, whether these events are construed as purely fortuitous or providential, they demonstrate the desperate nearness with which mankind’s hubris approached oblivion. This degree of nearness was rendered even more graphic by the subsequent discovery of the horrifying ozone-destructive power of bromide, a chemical similar to chloride, and one of several possible alternatives from which Midgely might have synthesized an apparently safe refrigerant. Paul Crutzen, who shared the Nobel Prize with Rowland and Molina in 1995 for his findings regarding the ozone depleting characteristics of this second substance, described this specter in his Nobel acceptance speech as follows:

Bromine [is] almost 100 times more dangerous for ozone than chlorine on an atom to atom basis. This brings up the nightmarish thought that if the chemical industry had developed organobromide compounds instead of CFCs – or alternately, if chlorine chemistry had behaved more like that of bromine – then without any preparedness, we would have been faced with a catastrophic ozone hole everywhere and at all seasons during the 1970’s, probably before the atmospheric chemists had developed the necessary knowledge to identify the problem and the appropriate techniques for the necessary critical measurements. Noting that nobody had worried about the atmospheric consequences of the release of either Cl or Br before 1974, I can only conclude that we have been extremely lucky, which shows that we must always be on our guard for the potential consequences of the release of new products into the environment.[15]

It is in this darker light, I suggest, that the story of CFCs and ozone depletion is most fully instructive. As we have seen in our story of Balaam’s Ass, a near brush with death, once perceived, can be terrifically clarifying, and this is no exception. What lessons, then, can we learn from our own?

Firstly, I think, this story of mankind’s near brush with disaster highlights the intrinsic potential for disaster that the use of modern technology inevitably represents. The power of technology, when harnessed to a heedless system of production for production’s sake in which every innovation is conceived of, in advance, as progress, creates a real potential for incurring consequences that we cannot immediately recognize or understand. Even when theorized reductively, nature is a marvelously complex system, replete with non-linear systems that can respond sensitively to even the most microscopic of effects. Ozone depletion, as we have seen, was triggered by CFC concentrations of as little as one part per billion, a miniscule quantity whose temporal equivalent would be that of “a single second in the time-span of a 32 year life.”[16] In such a wildly non-linear and complex system, however, even the most miniscule of insults can result in swift destruction. Yet for all that, in our efforts to make a better pesticide, to create a more waterproof sealant, or to create a more effective propellant for whipped cheese, human ingenuity can now easily synthesize substances which have never existed before, substances about whose use we have no experience and no accumulated wisdom upon which to rely. Once created and moved into industrial production, such substances can very quickly be released into the environment in significant quantities. In the case of CFCs, as we have seen, it took only ten years for the quantities of the new product to reach accumulations that would, some 40 years later, begin the process of ozone depletion. Yet, according to a recent study, there are now some 80,000 chemically synthesized substances which are or have been in production worldwide during the last century.[17] Again, in the wildly non-linear world of complex systems, there is no way to know for certain what they will do individually, or in tandem, or what quantity of such substances will be necessary to create an ecological reaction. For all of our recently acquired technological brilliance, ecologically speaking, humans are village idiots, and the fact that this is so is an irreducible effect of our ongoing interaction with the non-linearity of the natural systems that sustain life, and of the non-linearity of biological creatures themselves. No one, however smart, however well-trained, can possibly know enough to be able to look at a chemical formula and predictively determine what effect it will have on the world. In most cases, apart from the immediately and innately poisonous and destructive effects of some substances (many of which we have chosen to produce and use anyway) there is simply no way to determine precisely what will happen when a new substance is released into the environment. This is, as Molina suggested, “at the very least, impolite.” At its worst, it is more like playing Russian roulette.

The second lesson that this example can teach us is that not all environmental effects are either straightforwardly reversible or technologically fixable. The “Mister Fixit” approach to environmental problems, with its optimistic assumption that the world is a simple math problem for which each equation has a solution, is predicated on the assumption that all of our actions in the world are linear - gradual, incremental, and isolated - such that every action is intrinsically reversible. This assumption is demonstrably untrue. Certain systems, as we have seen in the case of CFCs, may be largely unaffected by a gradual accumulation of an environmental effect for an extensive period of time. When such systems are pushed beyond a certain point, however, effects of great magnitude can result very quickly.

A very simple example of such a system, one with which we are all familiar, is to be seen in the flow of tap water. As the spigot is turned slowly, the water continues to flow evenly in an ever gradually stronger stream until, at a particular moment, which modern chaos theory tells us is in principle impossible to predict, the flow breaks down into a disorderly chaos of churning water. This is an example of a transition from an orderly to a chaotic system, and such transitions are a common feature of the natural world. To use a more ecologically relevant example, one can, for instance, log 10,000 acres from an old growth forest, crisscrossing it with roads, and then remove a few 1,000 more acres by clearing trees and burning the undergrowth to clear some of the land for agricultural use. The forest, though smaller now, continues to successfully function as a carbon dioxide sink, still aids in the refreshment of the water table, still resists forest fires and arboreal disease, and still sustains a recognizable biodiversity of flora and fauna. To all intents and purposes, no significant harm appears to have been done. However, as one keeps on whittling away at the forest’s integrity, eventually, at a point which is, again, in principle impossible to determine precisely, the damage has all of a sudden, and already, been done. The forest fails. It ceases to absorb carbon dioxide effectively, the biological system it has sustained collapses, and the arboreal ecosystem still remaining can no longer effectively resist fires or diseases, a shift that renders the remaining trees almost as much of an ecological hazard as the intact forest itself was a benefit. A tipping point has been reached, and once it has, precious little can be done about it. Planting more trees, bringing in fertilizers and tree doctors, reintroducing animal or plant species - even evicting humans – none of this appears to have much effect at this point. A forest has died, although quite a few of the trees are still there.

As should be obvious, however, there is no technological short cut to growing a forest, as opposed to, say, planting a tree farm – and even a tree farm cannot grow faster than the individual trees. One simply cannot reverse time and “re-construct” a forest in the same way and in the same manner and with the same speed as one can destroy it. Linear effects can and often do produce non-linear results. Again, this should be no surprise to us. Our ordinary life is full of common examples of the same theme. A two year old, just by waggling his finger can bring down a house of cards that took his older sister half a day to carefully and painstakingly construct. The display of power thus manifested is certainly impressive, most of all to the toddler himself. It does not follow, however, that the ability of a two year old to wreak havoc implies any ability on his part to fix what he has ruined.

Similarly, in the wake of ecological disasters, technological solutions are not always available. In the case of ozone depletion, for instance, there was no technically feasible way to “filter” the entire planetary atmosphere in order to remove a single part per billion of CFC. Nor was there any technically feasible way to keep the Antarctic from getting cold and dark in the winter. Nor, indeed, was there any technological method to prevent ice crystals from forming in stratospheric clouds in the dark of winter. The created order has its own laws, and they are neither subject to human whim nor always amenable to human manipulation. The specious idea that one can do whatever one likes, and then always and inevitably invent a technological solution after the fact is, in fact, a quite specific mode of human inauthenticity – one of great religious and philosophical significance. Sophocles called it hubris. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures call it pride. It is, in fact, a Luciferian refusal to recognize and accept genuine human limitations. Again, this should be no surprise to us, for, lest we forget, death too is a physical process, and may also be described as a non-gradual and irreversible change from a stable to a chaotic system – and death, too, has no technological solution. The perennial wisdom of mankind, both secular and religious, is united in its affirmation that human life is most authentically lived in the gracious acceptance of certain limitations that no amount of human effort can overcome, and any genuine ecological wisdom must come to terms with the same truth. A civilization, like our own, which is so dedicated to forgetting this simple reality is simply puerile, and it is high time for adults to once again resume the charge of it.

The third lesson, and perhaps the most important lesson the example of ozone depletion can teach us, is that some ecological consequences of our actions are genuinely disastrous. This is not so much to suggest (although in certain limited cases this may also be true) that nature herself is fragile, but rather to acknowledge that we, and many of the other biological creatures who share the world with us, truly are. Nature may be, as my rural neighbor, fresh from listening to Rush Limbaugh, used to say, “a tough old bird,” but this should not blind us to the genuine enormity of some of our acts. The complete destruction of the ozone layer was a real possibility, completely unacknowledged and unperceived, but for all that, genuinely latent in our human activities. Once we recognize this, we can no longer take refuge in the assumption that all of our effects upon nature are gradual and limited in character, or hold as a naïve article of a priori faith that “the Creator has put some foolproof elements into his handiwork, and that man is powerless to do it any titanic damage.”[18] We can do “titanic damage”, and if the recognition that this is so has slowly dawned upon us with respect to the horrifying potential of mankind’s nuclear arsenal (a genuine environmental threat in its own right), it is still far too seldom recognized for the all pervasive potential that our technological meddling represents. Our science is driven by technology, and our technology, as we have seen, is harnessed to an irrational economic system that is unsustainably built on greed and arrogance. As a result, as a civilization, we are driven to act before we fully understand what we are doing and, in our constant quest for novelty and competitive advantage, we substitute and replace products at such a rapid pace that we seldom obtain a chance to grow wise in the use of any of the things we have made. Whether intentionally or not, in thus inverting the whole hierarchy of human rationality, we have conditioned ourselves to leap before we look; and that way disaster lies.

On a pre-theoretical level of common sense, of course, we already know this. Ignorance of consequences is always dangerous. Risky behavior is generally stupid, and sometimes lethal. An unimpeachable faith in one’s own putatively God-like powers is irrational and frequently iniquitous. In our heart of hearts we already know this, however much we would rather not think about it. Even the most heedless of us cannot help but be at least dimly aware of the danger - that we may eventually pull a technological trigger and discover that there is an ecological bullet in the chamber with our name on it. Are not the free floating anxiety, depression, and nihilism of our civilization a kind of mute testimony to this nameless dread?

All the anti-depressants, insurance policies, electronic diversions and religious palliatives in the world cannot fully dispel this well-grounded anxiety. In quiet moments it descends upon the secular and the religious alike, as the threat of the premature annihilation of all we know and love or, in the case of the religious, as the further threat of the well-merited judgment of God in the face of such an atrocity. Balaam’s ass has spoken, the angel of death stands before us in all his limbic horror, and we must change the road we are on if we are to restore ourselves to a way of life more authentically answerable to the deepest and best impulses of our human nature, and to the special purpose to which we have been called by God. To this end, we must seek to restore the ancient and natural connection between human need and production, while finding ways to better harmonize the creative intelligence of human making and manipulation with the ancient recognition of human limitations, the moral law, and the intrinsic goodness of all created being. To do this rightly, though, it will help to understand how, and why, things have gone so horribly wrong during the last three and a half centuries of our civilization. To this topic we shall now turn.

[1] Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, Between Earth and Sky (New York: Pantheon, 1993), p [sorry about the lacuna…I forgot to write the page number down and now I need to wait to retrieve the book by interlibrary loan].

[2] Kettering’s own attitude toward technology is summed up in his comment that “the price of progress is trouble, and I don’t think the price is too high”, quoted by Zay Jefferies in his biography Charles Franklin Kettering: 1876-1958 (Washington D.C. National Academy of Sciences, 1960), 81.

[3] Thomas Midgley Jr. is also famous, or rather infamous, for his invention of another “safe” product, the gasoline additive tetraethyl lead which prevented “knocking.” This additive, which Thomas Midgely knew to be poisonous, resulted in neurological damage to millions of children worldwide until its use was finally banned in the 1980’s

[4] Molina and Rowland, “The CFC Ozone Puzzle: Environmental Science in the Global Arena”, John Chafer Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment, National Academy of Sciences, Washington D.C., Dec. 7, 2000, www.nsconline.org/NCSconference/Chafee/.

[5] The significance of his research also resulted in himself and Rowland being awarded, along with Paul Crutzen, with one of the most richly deserved Nobel Prizes of the 20th century.

[6] Sharon Roan, Ozone Crisis, (New York: Wiley, 1989) 89

[7] Sharon Roan, ibid, 111

[8] The fact that I find it so may be more a sad sign of my own increasing skepticism about the ability of our government to providing moral leadership in a crisis than it is a comment upon the action itself, however.

[9] J.C.Farman,B. G. Gardiner, and J. D. Shanklin, “Large Losses in Total Ozone in Antarctica Reveal Seasonal ClO2x/NOx Interaction”, Nature 315 (1985): 207-210.

[10] Alan Weisman The World Without Us (Virgin Books Inc.:London, 2007) 204.

[11] CFCs were designed to be indestructible, and they very nearly are. Apart from the deterioration by solar bombardment in the upper atmosphere, the only other technically feasible methods for destroying CFCs require the use of energy-intensive tools such as argon plasma arcs and rotary kilns that are generally unavailable in developing nations. See the discussion of the problem in Alan Wiesman, ibid. 205.

[12] These HCFCs were developed and manufactured by Dupont in the years immediately preceding the Montreal Protocol, leaving Dupont with a clear economic advantage over its competitors. Unsurprisingly, Dupont lobbied heavily in many countries for the ratification of the Montreal Protocols. This situation is discussed at length in various places in Reiner Grundmann’s magisterial account, entitled Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1997. This work was used extensively as a source for much of the information contained in this chapter concerning the Montreal Protocols.

[13] This, for instance is how Reiner Grundmann sees it in his Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1997.

[14] Indeed, one can almost imagine some Anglo-American religious philosopher such as Richard Swinburne artfully constructing a c-inductive case for the existence of God from the success of the Montreal Protocols.

[15] Crutzen, P.J. My life with O3, NOx and other YZOx compounds (Nobel Lecture). Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. Engl., 35, 1758-1777, p. 1771.

[16] Dianne Dumanoski, The End of the Long Summer (Crown Publishers: New York, 2009) 62.

[17] [Again, to my chagrin I have misplaced this recent article, online from CNN. I will add it when I relocate it.]

[18] Robert A. Millikan: Robert A. Millikan, “Alleged Sins of Science,” Scribner’s Magazine 87, no. 2 (Feb. 1930): 121.


  1. I am a biology teacher from Seattle and I have enjoyed finding this blog and getting to read your book in progress. I'm not conventionally religious, but I was raised by a Greek-Orthodox stepmother, and I am impressed by the conjunction of religious faith and environmental awareness that this blog represents. I guess I had always rather simplistically thought that these were contradictory impulses, but I'm glad to have been proven wrong. Thanks once again!

  2. I'm glad you found the blog and that you've enjoyed it. I appreciate the compliment. Obviously I do not think that religious belief and environmental awareness are at all contradictory commitments. At least not for Eastern Orthodox Christian. Keep reading and see if you don't agree...