Sherwood Rowland: when good science is not enough

If you want to spur action, you need a disaster - as the case of ozone-destroying CFCs shows.

If you want to spur action, you need a disaster - as the case of ozone-destroying CFCs shows.

After his death on Saturday, much will be written about chemist Sherwood Rowland's triumph in getting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-destroying chemicals banned. The truth about Rowland's story is a little less inspiring than the legend, however.

Rowland and his colleague Mario Molina published the first paper on the threat to the ozone layer in June 1974. It took thirteen years before the Montreal Protocol, limiting the industrial production of those chemicals, was finally ratified.

Those were extremely painful years for Rowland. His colleagues shunned him for his activism in support of a ban. Almost no university chemistry departments would have him come and speak for nearly a decade -- unthinkable for a chemist of his calibre. Twelve years passed without him being invited to speak to industry groups. James Lovelock, now practically a saint, thought Rowland was going too far: he called for a "bit of British caution" in the face of Rowland and Molina's "missionary" zeal for a ban on CFCs.

If the science establishment doesn't come off too well in that era, Rowland was not without fault either. It may have been in response to pressure from his colleagues, but part of the reason the ban took so long to achieve was that, at a crucial time in the debate, Rowland announced results that cast doubt on the case against CFCs before checking them thoroughly or offering them up for review by others.

In 1976, CFCs' defenders had suggested that the ozone-attacking chemicals might get mopped up by nitrogen in the atmosphere. They would then be rendered safe. Rowland entertained the idea and declared that his estimates of likely ozone depletion by CFCs had been between 20 and 30 percent too pessimistic.

The pronouncement threw the whole issue into confusion at an extremely delicate time. The US National Academy had been about to issue a report into what should be done about CFCs; now they said they needed more time. The Observer declared that the "Aerosol scare 'may be over'". Chaos ensued, and the scientists fell upon each other.

Two months later, Rowland had discovered a mistake in his calculations, but the damage was already done. Because of the confusion, the furore and the persistence of doubts, the National Academy eventually issued its report with significantly weakened conclusions -- so weak in fact, that the following day's New York Times reported the Academy as recommending a curb on aerosols, while the headline of the Washington Post screamed out "Aerosol Ban Opposed by Science Unit".

In the end, it wasn't the carefully-honed arguments of scientists that got CFCs banned. In 1985, scientists announced they had discovered an enormous hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. There was a public outcry and the politicians leapt to their feet. The Montreal Protocol was signed two years later. If there's a lesson to be learned from Sherwood Rowland's work, it's that science isn't enough. If you want to spur action, you need a disaster.

In fact, the scientists carried on debating CFCs long after the politicians had moved on. In 1992, five years after Montreal, a group of MIT scientists organised a scientific forum ahead of the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. They invited Mario Molina to give a talk. But they scheduled a Brazilian meteorologist to talk first; to Molina's shock, the Brazilian declared to the assembly that the ozone depletion theory was a sham. If there was any depletion, he said, it was due to chlorine from sea spray and volcanoes.

In many ways, the cautious nature of science is its trump card, its ace in the hole. We trust science precisely because it has got things wrong in the past, gives ear to corrective viewpoints and slowly put itself right. But when something is important, we can't wait for all the scientific arguments to be resolved -- because, as the case of Sherwood Rowland shows, that can take longer than any of us can afford.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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