A single organism’s devastating effect on the atmosphere


Thomas Midgley, the most unfortunate inventor.

He discovered that the addition of lead to gasoline prevented “knocking.” And as a result, all motor cars for seventy-odd years put lead into their petrol, polluting the atmosphere with millions of tonnes of lead and harming millions of people.

Some think it was his guilt about that that led him to think of doing something about the nasty old sulphur dioxide and the nasty old ammonia that we used in refrigeration. So he discovered in three days dichlorofluoromethane. And he was very proud of that, because it’s inert, it’s non-toxic, it’s beneficial; the first of the freons. What did he not know it was also doing? Destroying the ozone layer.

At the age of 51, he contracted polio, which left him severely disabled. This led him to devise an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. One morning he had swung around a little bit oddly, and in the ensuing struggle he strangled himself to death.

J. R. McNeill, an environmental historian, has remarked that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”


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