I have just read two books with a positive message about the role of chemical engineering in modern life. A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World and Islington Green are both by John Emsley, and they both tell the same story, but in two different ways.
A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World, tells the story ‘straight up’. It considers the role of chemistry in the food we eat, the water we drink, medicine, transport, plastics and city life. In each case Emsley considers whether the status quo is sustainable, and whether it could be conceivably made so. Emsley takes a narrow view of sustainability as implying non-reliance on fossil fuels. But even that’s a tough call and his discussion of what this involves is interesting. If you were teaching GCSE or A level chemistry this would give you a plethora of applications of basic chemistry in the context of our daily lives.
Islington Green tells the same story by introducing two comic-book caricatures Justin Thyme and Teresa Green (!) who start out trying to live an ‘organic, green’ lifestyle without using any ‘chemicals’. However they end up deciding that the most sustainable and convenient choices are those offered by the chemical industry. Along the way Emsley shares a few traditional Yorkshire opinions on the valuable contribution that merchant bankers make to our society.
I have been an admirer of John Emsley for years, ever since I acquired his book about The Elements now sadly out of print, but replaced by the excellent Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements. I also enjoyed his book on ‘The Elements of Murder: a history of poison‘. He writes in a clear, uncluttered style which is refreshing to read.
But I do have a caveat. If you are sceptical about the role of the chemical industry, you will find little to persuade you to change your mind. He devotes a fair amount of time to demolishing the ‘straw arguments’ of hypothetical ‘greens’, but fails to even acknowledge more mundane concerns. For example Emsley fails to mention the ozone hole.
In the 1950s the chemical industry introduced a range of super-chemicals to replace hydrocarbons: chlorocarbons, fluorocarbons and mixed chloro-fluoro-carbons. These chemicals performed fantastically in refrigerators and a range of other applications. But they had the unintended consequence of lingering in the atmosphere and through a bizarre and unanticipated feature of atmospheric chemistry, destroyed the ozone layer above the Antarctic (mainly) and the Arctic (a little) each spring.
This episode must have cost billions of pounds, required the re-engineering of an entire industry, and the ozone layer will still take more than 100 years to return to normal. Independent of whether these chemicals are made with or without fossil fuels, chemistry of this type is clearly not sustainable.
The positive story about the role of the Chemical Industry is a story worth telling, and Emsley tells it well. But in my opinion it is a story worth telling with a little less hubris.
[UPDATE: May 30th: I have updated this article, removing my comments about Biological Washing Powders which may be found here.]