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« Every day is an investment | Main | Learning by analogy »

It's Thomas Midgley 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.

Midgley 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.]

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