Pearl River We should all know the name, Thomas Midgley?
He was a chemist for General Motors almost one-hundred years ago, when General Motors and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of New Jersey were the Google and Facebook of their day, or maybe I should say Google and Facebook are the GM and Standard Oil of today. GM had a problem. There was a “knock” in the gas that was upsetting drivers and engine performance, so they set Midgley and their chemists to work solving it. He came up with tetraethyl lead, which they marketed as the additive ethyl, rather than leaded gasoline, which many called it anyway. All of this despite the fact that the human harm from lead at almost any level was well-known. There were other alternatives like ethanol, but ethyl was something that GM could market and make billions on, so why would they worry if they damaged people and their communities for a century and still counting?
Just for that one invention, Midgley should be on any listing of corporate rogue’s gallery. He should be joined there along with his enabler from GM, Charles Kettering, known these days still as the donor making amends through his philanthropy later in institutions like Sloan-Kettering. Amazingly, Midgley was not a one-hit wonder. GM owned the Frigidaire brand of refrigerators. Some of the cooling chemicals were leaking and making people sick. Midgley was tasked with coming up with something else that would do the job of keep everything cool. He invented chlorofluorocarbons that did the trick and were marketed as freon. CFCs also powered aerosol cans on everything you can imagine. Of course, as we all know now, the widespread global use of CFCs created holes in the atmosphere’s ozone layer, joining other problems to create the climate change crisis we face now.
As Barbara Freese pointed out in her book, Industrial-Strength Denial¸ and on Wade’s World the company’s went to great pains to protect their profits and deny that there was any harm from all of this. Often in fact, they claimed being poisoned was good for all of us. Freese’s book highlights six other case studies from slavers to seatbelts to smoking to sub-primes, including many of ACORN’s old nemeses like Ameriquest, Countrywide, and New Century, all of whom drug out the damages for decades with one farfetched denial after another.
Freese points out that corporations like to claim that they are also “innocent until proven guilty,” and, amazingly, this was only really trumped in the CFC battle. How do they get away with this? As we watch the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, we know that the FDA is requiring that drug companies prove they will work without adverse impacts. Why are companies and their products not held to similar standards by the Federal Trade Commission and other consumer agencies?
Profit is powerful, and money talks, even while killing people, but this is a perversion of the law and the marketplace. Corporations need to adopt the slogan of “doing no harm,” but without regulation and strict governmental enforcement, it will just be a slogan, rather than a reality, and we’ll all pay the price, just as we have in the past.