I’m not an apologist for the chemical industry. Chemical industry has a checkered past in many ways. The pesticide, petrochemicals, and mining industries have left a deep and abiding foul taste in the mouths of many communities. In a previous era, heavy industry has fouled rivers, lakes, air, and ground water. It has lead to illness, death, and loss of livelihood to many people.

But in the modern era much of this wanton issuance of hazardous industrial material into the air and waters has been halted or greatly diminished. And it is not because industry suddenly found religion. The “regulatory environment” became so compelling a liability cost factor that industry set its mind to engineering plants into compliance. 

I would make the observation that today, the major chemical health issues before us are not so much about bulk environmental pollution by waste products. Rather, I would offer that the most important matter has to do with the chronic exposure of consumers to various levels of manufactured chemical products. High fructose corn sweeteners, veterinary antibiotic residues, endocrine disrupters, smoking, highly potent pharmaceuticals, and volatiles from polymers and adhesives to name a few.

Modern life has come to require the consumption of many things.  A modern nation must have a thriving chemical industry to sustain at least some of its need for manufactured materials. It is quite difficult and isolating to live a life free of paint and plastics or diesel and drugs. Choosing paper over plastic at the supermarket requires a difficult calculation of comparative environmental insults. Pulp manufacture vs polymer manufacture- which is the least evil? I’m not sure.  

The path to a cleaner and safer life in these modern times is surely a life that pursues fewer consumables. Less throw-away stuff.  Less calorie intake and greater calorie expenditure. Reduced consumption of foods engineered by modifiers and additives.

Given the expectation of multitasking in our culture, it is increasingly difficult to arrange to prepare fresh foods. Meal preparation time eats into commuting time.

Now that I think it through, maybe it’s our culture that is killing us? Maybe our adverse exposure to deleterious substances is an artifact of a cultural requirement for increased productivity.

At the outset, I said I was not an apologist for the chemical industry. But I am not a Luddite either. Modern material science (which includes chemistry) has brought aid against a great many of the hazards and inconveniences of life. As we pass through the age of increasing population and peak oil we must adjust our expectations of the benefits of manufactured goods in the betterment of our lives. Linear extrapolations such as “more = better” begin to fail at high levels of consumption. That is the lesson that I’ve taken.

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