Better living through chemistry – a solution for every problem – if we have enough time left

Teachers and students experience hydrogen-powered vehicles in Nanjing University on May 12. China,Yang Bo, Chinese People’s Daily, 5-14-12)

Better living through chemistry was a commercial slogan, but it is also a mindset that has dominated western European thinking for two centuries.   I have no idea exactly when it the idea first started to gain traction, sometime in the 19th century.   Science seemed to be able to solve every problem we as a society faced and lead us into a better and richer future.  The inventions driven by the evolving sciences changed the way people lived.  Those inventions have come in a constant stream for two hundred years; steam power, cotton gins, railroads, electric lights, telegraph, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, radios, television, computers and the internet.  Inventions rushed out of scientific brains as if they came from the wands of magicians.  It was the same with medicine; the plague, polio, malaria, leprosy, bacteria infections, measles, mumps, tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea and practically any other disease that plagued humanity for the last five or ten thousand years, except, of course, that pesky cancer, can be cured or at least made endurable through modern medicine.  Today it is possible to replace hearts, kidneys, knees, shoulders and many other organs or body parts – got a worn out part, it can either be tuned up or replaced.  Science has all  the answers; we live better lives with a little help from those friendly chemical, don’t we?

The inventors just followed the science; and science was applied where it was needed it most – or possibly where the rewards are greatest; necessity is the mother of invention -right?  That is a good thing, because we have a couple of really big problems that are going to need to be solved if the human race is to survive in its present state.  As the population of the planet works its way toward 10 billion people we are running out of liveable space, farmable land, potable water and of course the fuel that has powered the last hundred years of economic growth and expansion – fossil fuels.  A solution to those problems has not been commercially viable enough for the scientific geniuses and their super-powerful computers to really put their efforts into the subject; so here we sit, all of the people in the world, using up our most important and non-renewable resources, waiting and until science decides to quit making better plastic, slicker communication devices and new lungs for old people and find some way to make places to live, food to eat, water to drink and a bit of fuel to speed us on our way.

In the 19th century, the British and European scientists were the guys on the job, in the 20th century, the Americans stepped up and took up much of the heavy lifting, but who is going to do that in the 21st century?   I think it will be the Chinese; first there are more of them and they have a much greater need for land, water and fuel than any country except India.  Secondly, because they are less apt to do a calculation on the economic return on investment before taking on a problem than any other country that might be leading the charge.  Therefore the Chinese are free to do what needs to be done, instead of what pays to be done.  I don’t think we need to worry about forcing Detroit to make alternative fuel cars – I think the Chinese will do it for us.

The Chinese are buying more cars a year now than we are, they are faced with worse pollution problems that Los Angeles in the 1970s and the have a middle class clambering to have cars.  The Chinese really need cars that run on something other than fossil fuels and it looks like they are on the way to finding a solution to the problem.   We will not like it when we have to buy our cars from China because there simply is not enough fossil fuel left on earth to fuel our internal combustion engine automobiles – but we won’t have a choice.  There are some things that cannot be put off for ever – if we don’t solve the problems someone else will, like the Chinese.  Or not, in the or not case, we will all die when there is not enough oxygen in the air or enough water in the ground to sustain human life.  An i-phone, new knee, faster food or bigger house will not be of any use to us then, will it?  Nor will it matter who makes the most efficient car.


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May 2012
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