Time magazine founder Henry Luce must be spinning in his grave. In a recent issue, Time issued its list of “The 50 Worst Inventions” - “zany to dangerous to just plain dumb … ideas that just didn’t work out,” according to the magazine.
While the list seems rather lame, dilettantish and yawn-inducing - New Coke, Betamax and Nintendo Virtual Boy, to name a few examples - it is notable for its pointed inclusion of a variety of environmentalist hot buttons, including Agent Orange, DDT, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), asbestos and leaded gasoline.
Do these inventions really rate being slammed as “worst”?
Regardless of how you feel about the Vietnam War, the defoliant Agent Orange undoubtedly helped protect many U.S. and South Vietnamese combat troops and civilians from 1962 to 1971. Despite the fact that Congress has legislated benefits for Vietnam vets based on presumed exposure and pretended links between exposure and cancer, the best scientific research (the so-called Ranch Hand study of military personnel with known Agent Orange exposure) has not linked exposure with disease.
From 1943 through its banning by the EPA in 1972, DDT saved hundreds of millions of lives all over the world from a variety of vector-borne diseases. Even when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (and closeted environmental activist) William D. Ruckelshaus banned DDT in 1972, he did so despite a finding from an EPA administrative law judge who, after seven months and 9,000 pages of testimony, ruled that DDT presented no threat of harm to humans or wildlife. Today, a million children die every year from malaria. DDT could safely make a tremendous dent in that toll.
CFCs, of which Freon is the best known, provided an inexpensive and comparatively safe means of refrigeration and fire protection. While it’s true that CFCs react chemically with ozone in the upper atmosphere, it’s not true that there was a “hole” in the ozone layer that was caused by CFCs or that threatened humans or wildlife with increased levels of ultraviolet radiation. Changes in the thickness of the protective ozone layer that occurred over Antarctica remain unexplained and unpredictable despite the fact that CFCs were phased out starting in 1986. If you want to know why it costs so much to recharge your air conditioner nowadays, look no further than the CFC substitutes that, by the way, are more hazardous to boot.
Yes, it’s true that high, long-term occupational exposure to asbestos, particularly among smokers, increased the risk of mesothelioma and asbestosis, but those risks must be laid against the fire-resistance and protection benefits of asbestos. Uncountable civilian and military lives have been protected and/or saved by asbestos, still the best fire-resistant material around. Although asbestos can be used quite safely, overreaction to improper handling of asbestos will result in less safe buildings and ships for the foreseeable future.
As to leaded gasoline, we can safely say that leaded gasoline helped provide America and the world with unprecedented freedom and fueled tremendous prosperity. We don’t use leaded gasoline in the United States anymore, but more because people simply don’t like the idea of leaded gasoline as opposed to any body of science showing that it caused anybody any harm. It’s the dose that makes the poison, and there never was enough lead in the ambient environment to threaten health.
Who’s behind Time’s revisionist history? The list of the 50 worst inventions was put together by two 2009 graduates of the journalism program at Northwestern University, Dan Fletcher and Chris Gentilviso. If these two “journalists” did more than skim through some extreme green websites or the politically correct Wikipedia in putting together their blurbs for slamming the above-mentioned technologies in the same list as Crocs and Snuggie for Dogs, I’ll eat my hat.
Even assuming for the sake of argument that these technologies had downsides, Mr. Fletcher and Mr. Gentilviso seem to argue that unless a technology is entirely without potential for harm, it shouldn’t exist. This would, of course, prevent all technology from developing.
There’s no way “worst” applies to Agent Orange, DDT, CFCs, asbestos and leaded gasoline. It is quite an apt description, however, for a certain pair of wet-behind-the-ears, wanna-be reporters way out on a limb about the great lifesaving and life-enhancing technologies of the 20th century.
Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery 2009).