With social media being the dominant mode of communication in the 21st century, celebrities, Twitter sound bites and sweeping simplistic slogans have usurped the general public’s confidence in scientists. “Natural and local” are good. “Synthetic and global” are bad. “Fossil fuel-based chemicals” will destroy the planet. “Bio-based materials” will save the world. Chemistry is powerful and often too powerful to be easily understood by the general public. There is a general fear of any shipments of petroleum and/or chemicals by any means. Yet it is our own desire for everyday security and comfort that has created and sustained the markets for more innovative chemical products developed through more ingenious chemistry. Chemical sciences practitioners have a professional and moral obligation to bridge this highly damaging gulf of misunderstanding between public perception and real chemistry.
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are considered by the public as “bad;” 56 percent of Canadians do not want GMOs in their food. Yet canola oil, one of the world’s most popular food ingredients, is a Canadian GMO technology that turned poisonous rapeseed oil into edible canola oil 70 years ago. Eighty percent of the corn production in the United States is based on GMO seeds. It is exceedingly difficult and expensive to source food products in the developed world without GMO ingredients. Over the past 50 years, during a period of enormous growth in chemistry, life expectancy in Canada increased from 70 years to more than 80 years, helped by chemical advances, which is something to be celebrated.
Climate change was the focus of the recently released Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. We must recognize the inevitable anthropogenic impacts on the earth ecosystem when there are seven billion inhabitants. Practitioners in the chemical sciences and engineering must exercise knowledge and expertise to minimize such impacts and achieve long-term sustainability. With the rapid development of green chemistry and engineering, the role of fossil-based products in our economy will likely be drastically reduced within the next 50 years. To make dire projections about the earth’s ecosystem to the end of the 21st century based on current practices borders on fearmongering. The spectacularly erroneous forecast of imminent shortages of food and copper by the Club of Rome in 1972 should not be forgotten. They could not have known that mobile and wireless phone system using fibre optics, satellites and integrated circuits drastically reduced the need for copper wiring. Chemistry must help find next-generation solutions to minimize anthropogenic impacts on the earth’s ecosystem.
Fearmongering based on past mistakes of industry is similar to driving a car forward while looking only in the rear-view mirror. Chemists, technologists and engineers must learn from the mistakes of the past but should not become hostages to them.
Mathematics and sciences are fundamental to surviving and prospering in today’s technology dominated world. A well-educated public will have the capacity to distinguish between real threats and fearmongering. Chemical sciences practitioners and the primary education system must not allow the public to become fearful of chemistry while living every moment in the luxury and comfort generated through this science.
The Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) recognizes this responsibility and has implemented the policy to allow free access to the Canadian Chemical News (ACCN) by high school science teachers. All CIC members should help promote this progressive access in their respective communities, including all parent teacher associations. Our future health and prosperity and those of our children and grandchildren can only be secured through the knowledgeable application of chemistry.