By Donella Meadows
–March 14, 1996–
We thought DDT was great, until we found robins dying on our lawns and eagle eggs broken in their nests.
Thalidomide eased morning sickness in pregnant women; then their babies were born without arms or legs.
Our cars performed better with tetraethyl lead in the gas, but the lead came out the tailpipes and poisoned us.
Everyone believed that chlorofluorocarbons such as Freon were harmless, until we found them chewing up the ozone layer.
Those are just a few of the nasty chemical surprises we have suffered over the past half-century. Now we find that a wide assortment of chemicals — pesticides, cleaning agents, plastic additives, PCBs, dioxins — act like hormones, messing up communications within the bodies of all forms of life that have endocrine systems, including ourselves. Infinitesimal quantities of these endocrine disrupters can produce devastating results, especially in developing embryos. The damage may show up as birth defects, gender confusion, miscarriage, or, years later, cancer or infertility.
Maybe this most recent addition to the long list of terrible surprises, will wake us up to the unsurprising fact that when we dump chemicals into nature, they go somewhere. They work their way into the stratosphere or our own sperm. They react with each other, break down into new chemicals, do things we never imagined, never created tests for, never thought to regulate.
Human ingenuity produces a thousand or so new molecules of commercial value every year. Companies that hope to profit from them say, essentially, “Let us make them by the ton. We’ve tested them. They’re OK. Trust us.”
We should not trust them, because neither they nor we can predict the fates or effects of their products. Planet Earth carries on enormously complex chemistry of its own. Dump strange substances into the mix, or increase the rate at which old ones move around, and the real surprise would be NOT to experience a continuous stream of surprises.
We can try to fix chemical problems with zero-emission manufacturing or risk-benefit analyses or a million regulations, but what mainly needs fixing is the way we think about chemicals. They’re not ends in themselves, but means to our real ends. They’re costs, not benefits, to be minimized, not sloshed around.
That means/ends point was impressed on me by Dr. Michael Mehnert, a professor of chemistry in Kassel, Germany. A few years ago I heard him give a presentation on “sustainable chemistry.” Mehnert’s guidelines would go a long way toward solving our present and future chemical problems.
We don’t want detergents, he said, we want clean clothes. We want pest-free crops, not pesticides; health, not medicines; the product, not the package. The fewer chemicals we use to get what we want, the cheaper, the safer, the better.
A similar insight is revolutionizing the energy industry. We want light, heat and motion, not kilowatt-hours or barrels of oil. Substitute insulation for bigger furnaces, compact fluorescent bulbs for incandescents, clever car design for V-8 engines, intelligence for brute force, and we can cut our energy bills by at least half, probably three-quarters, maybe even 90 percent.
Such reductions are possible for chemicals too. The practice called integrated pest management, for example, includes the bright idea of not spraying unless a pest is actually present. It produces high crop yields with 80-90 percent less pesticide.
Mehnert also suggests recycling chemicals wherever possible, and designing molecules that have long “technical lifetimes” — that don’t break down in use. The trick is to combine long lifetimes in use with short lifetimes in nature, he says. The few chemicals we do need should break down quickly in the environment. They should not be soluble in fat (so they won’t be stored in bodies and accumulated up the food chain.) We should be specially wary of chlorine-containing chemicals, which presently make up 60 percent of organic chemical production, and which tend to be toxic, long-lived, and bioaccumulated.
Some more of Mehnert’s guidelines: To avoid disrupting ecosystems, never emit a chemical faster than 10 percent of the rate that chemical naturally moves in the environment. (In other words, don’t flood the system.) Minimize chemical change in the production process — don’t, for example, break down petroleum to one or two carbons and then reassemble larger molecules. Instead use the complex structures that nature provides for free. Improve energy and materials efficiency in all products. Shift to renewable sources. Imitate nature’s information-rich, low-temperature, low-pressure, solar-powered assembly techniques.
These ideas would benefit everyone except chemical companies, which are rewarded by the market for selling more, not less. Remembering that all companies exist to serve society and not the other way around, we could regulate them out of business. (Some think we already do.) Or we could get creative about making markets that reward them for producing the ends instead of the means — helping us grow crops, clean clothes, package products, maintain our health with fewer and safer chemicals.
As it did in the energy industry, that idea sounds ridiculous at first, but that’s only because it’s new, not because it’s impossible.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996