CO2: The Elixir of All Life
Can a society forget the crucial rules and skills of its success and slide down a slope into irreparable decline?
In several books, the anthropologist Margaret Mead recounted the tale of “bold mariners” in Polynesian Island tribes who built streamlined canoes for crossing large stretches of the Pacific and catching netloads of fish.
These tribes flourished and dominated the region. But they began taking their fishery wealth for granted. They preferred to lounge on the beach rather than cleave the waves in pursuit of food and in defense of their fisheries.
They suffered what might be called cultural amnesia. They simply forgot the sources of their good fortune and even survival.
The tribes once superb canoe-crafting skills slipped away. They lost the capabilities enabling them to flourish in what was and otherwise unforgiving environment jungle and beach.
Their descendants ended up isolated on small islands, close to starvation, and headed for extinction. Mead describes the men gazing fecklessly at the sea as if it were an alien realm irrelevant to their shortage of food or possibilities of travel.
Mead asked the vital question: “If simple men on islands forgot how to build canoes, might more complex people also forget something equally essential to their lives?”
A Society of Chemophobes
Today, our very complex human societies — led by sophisticated politicians and economists — seem to be losing many skills vital to health and survival.
Central to our success as a society has been our mastery of chemistry. Our energy, our food, our clothing, our medicine, our lodgings, our manufacturing, and our national security all depend on our ability to identify and combine chemicals in different ways to achieve economic and social goals.
But today we have become a society of chemophobes. We treat CO2 as if it were a poison rather than the elixir of all life. Like the fishermen who forgot their mastery of Pacific fisheries, we forget our understanding of chemistry.
Turning fear of chemistry into litigation has become one of our most lucrative industries. At a time of a coronavirus threat from China and terrorist attacks, we wail about completely commonplace events of changing weather.
We waste tens of billions erecting quixotic totem poles called windmills and spreading druidical solar panels across the scarce arable lands of the planet.
Out of fear of asbestos we have bankrupted some 36 major chemical companies and as many as 60 other firms with only tenuous connections to asbestos production.
Less than ten percent of asbestos takes the long form that is associated with disease in humans and then only through long exposure. Yet asbestos can prevent fires which demonstrably pose a threat to human environments everywhere. We can use asbestos with sucking it into our lungs for the benefit of lawyers.
We condemn poisons to remove rodents that can spread plagues. We ban DDT to remove mosquitos that can spread malaria and other deadly diseases.
We coil into fetal fear about nuclear energy and perversely dismantle this cheap and unlimited source of energy.
We lack any sense of proportion about different levels of threat.
As the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness Newsletter, written by the eminent Dr. Jane Orient, comments: “Biologic agents, unlike radioactive fallout, have a doubling time, not a half-life.”
“Crowded and unsanitary conditions owing to homeless camps on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco have led President Trump to consider federal intervention. The Environmental Protection Agency has cited California for ‘piles of human feces’… Also San Francisco discharges more than a billion gallons of ‘sewage and storm-water’ into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean annually, and 200 water systems have ‘health-based exceedances that put the drinking water of nearly 800,000 residents at risk.”
At a time of recurrent viruses and diseases and terrorist threats, we worry about innocuous chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.
In my neighborhood in Western Massachusetts, local politicians have just extorted a further $63 million from General Electric following the company’s previous outlays of some $500 million to remediate this supremely safe chemical. Adding to GE’s payments here are equal outlays elsewhere to remove dirt containing this trace elements of PCBs.
It seems that even General Electric cannot defend itself from obscurantism and chemophobia.
It doesn’t matter that while PCBs have never been shown to inflict any damage on humans, the substance was a valuable insulator for the turbines that run our power grid and keep humans alive.
Our colleges are fostering the false belief that chemistry is a threat rather than a tool, that menacing the planet are too many humans rather than human foolishness and fear propagated by ignorant elites.
With business publications such as Barron’s focusing increasingly on chemophobic environmentalism rather than on the opportunities in chemistry and other sciences, investors must search the world for upside surprises and entrepreneurial creations.
That is what we try to do in these Daily Prophecies. I may have had to cancel scheduled trips to China, but I am off to London to keynote a conference on the future and the flaw in cryptocurrencies.
I will be reporting soon.
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy