Smog - innovations and remedial action

(Excerpt from Chapter 12) One interesting case was the discovery of the cause ground-level ozone, or smog. On the PBS television series Race to Save the Planet, chemistry professor Jim Pitts1 discussed smog in the Los Angeles area in the late 1940s: "the crops were being impacted.. and it was not clear what it was.. the public was furious."

Scientists did not recognize this as any known crop disease, so they looked for the culprit in airborne corrosive agents, industrial emissions and garbage burning, but even after these were restricted, the problem persisted. Arie Haagen-Smit, a Dutch chemist working at Caltech, noticed that the crop damage was similar to the effect of ozone on plant life, but ozone was not one of the known industrial emissions. He experimented with a combination of various known pollutant gases. "He had a hunch" said Pitts, "lets take hydrocarbons from cars and oxides of nitrogen, lets put them together and see what happens, but nothing happened. Then he said `Aha!' we have a sun in southern California—and around the world in summertime—put an artificial light on, an ultraviolet light and bingo, you had photochemical smog." The catalyst for ozone was sunlight.

With this smog clearing affair on record, as well as international opinion that fuel burning has increased global warming at an unprecedented rate, politicians have no excuse for inaction. Claiming a lack of scientific proof is merely a rationalization of timidity.

The case of stratospheric ozone also illustrates technical overconfidence and failure. The upper ozone layer's depletion is caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), a complex compound originally called Freon gas, used mostly in refrigerators, aerosols and industrial cleaning. Its inventor demonstrated its harmlessness by inhaling it. Not till many years later, after crop damage and occurrences of skin cancer increased, did instruments in space verify that the ozone `hole' was a reality, prompting the termination of CFC production.

These instances with their damage to plants and humans prove that where environmental safety is concerned, it is not wise to wait for absolute empirical proof before taking remedial action. In addition, these cases also prove that it is unwise to avoid action merely because absolute confirmation of cause is not available.

This is especially true in the field of energy. We invest more in life sciences than in alternative energy technology, allowing those who would clone humans to bring forth life into a dangerously toxic world, rather than ensuring that the planet is safe for those who already inhabit it. There are many exciting energy innovations available, among them fuel cells, micro turbines, solar panels, and hybrid cars, but they have not generated the kind of investor enthusiasm that for example, early computers did. The need for non-fossil fuel energy sources may be more critical today.

1. Jim Pitts, "Only one Atmosphere," Race to save the Planet, Episode 2 (Television series), Annenberg/CPB Project, 1991.

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"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)