Saturday, May 18, 2013

It's Thomas Midgeley day

It's Thomas Midgeley day:
Today would be his 124th birthday. A fine occasion to think about the
effects of industrialization, and what happens when short-term
profit-taking meets marketing.
Midgeley
is responsible for millions of deaths.
Not directly, of course, but by, "just doing his job," and then pushing
hard to market ideas he knew weren't true—so he and his bosses could
turn a profit.
His first mistake began when he figured out that adding lead to
gasoline appeared to make cars perform better. At the time, two things
were widely known by chemists: 1. Adding grain alcohol to gasoline
dramatically increases octane and performance, and 2. Ingesting or
sniffing lead can lead to serious injury, brain damage and death.
The problem for those that wanted to be in the gasoline business was
that grain alcohol wasn't cheap, and the idea couldn't be patented. As a
result, the search was on for a process that could be protected, that
was cheaper and that could open the door for market dominance. If you
own the patent on the cheap and easy way to make cars run quieter (and
no one notices the brain damage and the deaths) then you can corner the
market in a fast-growing profitable industry...
As soon as the lead started being used, people began dying. Factory
workers would drop dead, right there in the plant. Even Thomas himself
contracted lead poisoning. Later, at a press conference where he tried
to demonstrate the safety of the gasoline, he washed his hands in it and
sniffed it... even though he knew it was already killing people. That
brief exposure was sufficient to require six months off the job for him
to recover his health.
Does this sound familiar? An entrenched industry needs the public and
its governments to ignore what they're doing so they can defend their
status quo and extract the maximum value from their assets. They sow
seeds of doubt, and remind themselves (and us) of the profts made and
the money saved.
And we give them a pass. Because it's their job, or because it's our job, or because our culture has created a dividing line between individuals who create negative impacts and organizations that do.
People who just might, in other circumstances, stand up and speak up,
decide to quietly stand by, or worse, actively lie as they engage in
PR campaigns aimed at belittling or undermining those that are brave
enough to point out just how damaging the status quo is.
It took sixty years for leaded gas to be banned in my country, and
worse, it's still used in many places that can ill afford to deal with
its effects.
After leaded gasoline, Midgeley did it again, this time with CFCs,
responsible for a gaping hole in the ozone layer. He probably didn't know the effects in advance this time, but yes, the industry fought hard to maintain the status quo for years once the damage was widely known. It's going to take at
least a millenium to clean that up.
We might consider erecting a statue of him in every lobbyist's office, a reminder
to all of us that we're ultimately responsible for what we make, that
spinning to defend the status quo hurts all of us, and most of all, that
we have to balance the undeniable benefits of progress, innovation and
industry with the costs to all concerned. Scaling has impact, so let's
scale the things that work. No, nothing is perfect, but yes, some things are better than others.
I can't imagine a better person as the symbol for a day that's not about
honoring or celebrating, but could be about vigilance, candor and
outspokenness instead.
[Previously: No such thing as business ethics.]