If you don’t know Thomas Midgely, Jr. (1889-1944), then let me give you a brief CV: Solved the problem of engine knocking in 1921 by adding lead to gasoline. Solved the problem of refrigeration toxicity in 1930 by discovering Freon. Won a lot of accolades from the scientific community. Died by misadventure.
In the decades that followed, of course, it became clear that leaded gasoline and CFCs—Midgely’s miracle solutions—had destroyed the environment far more than anything that had ever existed before. How could he have known that?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about plastic, which to our grandparents and great-grandparents was the miracle solution to so many things, and at which we now turn up our noses. It must be frustrating to see one of the greatest discoveries of the age vilified before your very eyes. (It’s this kind of thing that leads to resentment, conservatism, and generation gaps.)
And so this recent NYT editorial by Susan Freinkel was right in my wheelhouse. “Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless,” she writes, “when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet. If we understood plastic’s true worth, we would stop wasting it on trivial throwaways and take better advantage of what this versatile material can do for us.” It’s smart and well-argued, and you should read it now before you have to pay for it.