Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Just" One Person's Impact

It's a funny thing to bring up on Earth Day, but recently my husband and I were talking about an individual named Thomas Midgley Jr., and ever since I've been thinking a lot about him. 

An engineer, industrial chemist and inventor, Midgley introduced leaded gasoline to the world, fully aware of the dangers posed by lead back in the 1920s. Originally developed to prevent "knocking" in car engines, the discovery of leaded fuel would result in decades of  GM (and Midgley) convincing the public of its safety. That is, until the deaths, hallucinations and insanity of workers; the lead from emissions entering plants, animals and humans and even Midgley's poor health led to its ban in the 1980s. Only then did levels of lead in children's blood become dramatically reduced.

Midgely also invented the compound dichloroflouromethane, the first of the CFCs which became known as Freon. Although an inert gas, it would take several decades before it was discovered that its accumulation in the upper atmosphere resulted in the breakup of the ozone layer. The ozone layer, as we all know, protects the Earth from much of the harmful UV radiation from the sun. The number of cases of skin cancer attributable to the reduced ozone layer has already been estimated to be in the millions. 

According to environmental historian J.R. MacNeill, Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in the history of life on Earth."

All it took to get us in this mess is one person. 

When I took Climate Smart's program a few years ago, I started to seriously doubt what difference a single household (let alone a single person) could make, given the main sources of emissions that contribute to climate change (industry, construction...). It seemed hopeless, futile. We're taking one step forward and 10 steps back. 

Ironically, reading about Midgley actually inspired me and even renewed my sense of hope in this cause. If it only took one man to start the ball rolling, surely it could take one person to reverse the effects. Maybe. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. I've come to the belief that anything is possible. Especially when I hear my optimistic 11-year old son brainstorming contraptions he could devise to reduce pollution in the air.

As a teen, my husband was jeered by his friends for going out of his way to throw garbage in the bin instead of tossing it on the ground, like every other teen did at the time. What's the point, his friends reasoned, as garbage is everywhere anyway. He converted them all that day, giving them a light bulb moment by responding "Yeah, well, at least I know I didn't contribute to it."  

If we all took that attitude towards the environment, combined with the optimistic hope of what one or more persons could do to reverse the seemingly irreversible, the thriving of future generations will be commensurate with every effort in our power.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi 


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