Tag Archives: And Things Could Have Been Much Worse

Technology: Singularity or Collapse? (Part 2: The Ozone Hole)

In my last post, I made the point that techno-optimists, such as Ray Kurweil, see technological change transforming economies through the exponential growth of productivity as the present century progresses. Critically, the analysis of Kurweil and his fellow travellers makes no mention of societal costs—so called externalities in the language of economics. Each innovation or invention is basically self-contained—overcoming a particular problem but without creating any secondary problems in another part of the system.

Unfortunately, this tunnel vision of the benefits of technology does, on many occasions, not correspond to the actual historical record. One technology I have in mind is Thomas Midgley Jr.’s creation of a compound known as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC-12), better know as Freon. CFCs are a classic Kurzweil type solution to a particular problem, in this case the need for a substitute for the highly poisonous gases used up until the 1930s for refrigeration. At the time of their creation and for many years later, CFCs were believed to be inert and totally harmless to human health. In reality, as the CFCs accumulated in the upper atmosphere, they led to the creation of the Antarctic ozone hole. The journalist and author Dianne Dumanoski in her book “The End of the Long Summer” described the ozone hole phenomenon as the most important single event of the 2oth century, even eclipsing Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, since it symbolised “the arrival of a new and ominous epoch when human activity began to disrupt the essential but invisible planetary systems that sustain a dynamic, living Earth.” Even more telling, the environmental historian J.R. McNeill described Midgley himself as having “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth’s history.” Continue reading