Note: This piece was adapted from a speech given at the History of Ideas Program’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero!” event.
No person can make history without a cast of key supporters and people that are willing to follow them. Without companies to use his polluting technology, Thomas Midgley wouldn’t be in environmental history textbooks. Without his cadre, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been the destructive figure we all know him as. Pinning the actions of many upon one person may be easier, but it silences the true story behind many historical events.
To pick a recent example, Donald Trump did not make history solo. In office, his inflammatory and destructive actions were not carried out by his hand alone. One of Trump’s most egregious actions, the revival of the Keystone XL Pipeline project, was not done alone. The project couldn’t have been revived without the help of several key entities, including Canadian provincial governments and the energy company that owns the pipeline, TC Energy. This pipeline, which would have run across swaths of Indigenous land to carry barrels upon barrels of the planet’s dirtiest oil from Alberta, Canada to mid-United-States processing facilities, was not solely Trump’s doing. Without the culturally-destructive approval of Canadian legislators, Keystone XL couldn’t have happened. Without the inane commitment to environmental destruction from TC Energy, Keystone XL couldn’t have happened. Although this pipeline’s approval is rightly labeled as one of Trump’s worst actions, it was not his action alone.
Trump also frequently receives full credit for the passage of problematic bills, with headlines like “5 Problematic Laws You Didn’t Know Trump Passed” making the former president seem solely culpable for destructive legislative changes. But, these laws wouldn’t have even landed on his desk were it not for congressional Republicans. When Trump signed legislation that repealed stream protections, allowing coal companies to freely dump debris in rivers, he was rightly ridiculed. In criticism of this bill, it was said over and over again that “Trump just killed a rule restricting coal companies.” While Trump did play an absolutely instrumental role in the repeal of this vital environmental protection, he wouldn’t have even had a chance to sign it were it not for a majority in both chambers of Congress choosing to pass the law.
While the Keystone XL revival and stream protection repeal happened because of Trump, he was not requisite for their occurrence. A different, like-minded Republican president would have started the pipeline project again. Any Republican president would jump at the opportunity to spite Obama and give benefits to polluting companies at the same time. While Trump set the pipeline and the repeal in motion, he was certainly not the only one who could have done so.
Another example of an individual who has received more credit than they deserve is Thomas Midgley. Midgley was the inventor of tetraethyl-lead-added gasoline and helped improve the synthesizing process for chlorofluorocarbons (also known as CFCs). In less scientific terms, Midgley added lead to our gasoline and atmospheric-ozone-depleting chemicals to our planet. But, he had no idea of the worlds to come when he invented these calamitous chemicals.
Midgley, who has been said to have “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history,” certainly made a significant impact on the planet. Leaded gasoline killed millions and CFCs helped create a hole in our planet’s ozone layer.
While Midgley’s discoveries were transformative, they wouldn’t have been significant if the technology wasn’t used by massive corporations. Gas companies and car manufacturers alike jumped on leaded gasoline, because it significantly reduced engine knock and allowed engines to output more power.
Midgley couldn’t have had the same massive, unending impact on our environment had his inventions not been used worldwide. CFCs were used in aerosol sprays and refrigerants for decades, until an unprecedentedly large and successful international convention came together to regulate their use in 1987. After multiple international conventions on the use of these ozone-depleting chemicals, they are being phased out for less-harmful Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs.
The inventor of the chemicals is not at fault for the destruction that they wrought upon our stratosphere, though. The massive corporations that used them and denied their harm are at fault. Using these chemicals recklessly, after being made aware of their risks, is what made history. The ozone hole that appeared in the late 20th century was not created by Midgley, it was created by refrigeration corporations who used CFCs to save money and make a “better product.”
A similar truth holds for the use of leaded gasoline. Lead was introduced to gasoline in 1922, and its sale was stopped in 1996. Although it was only used for a short time, it caused immense damage to millions of people each year it was in use. Tetraethyl lead gasoline, an invention of Midgley’s, was used by companies despite their knowledge that lead is toxic to humans.
But, much like with CFCs, Midgley is not at fault for the damage that leaded gasoline did to the population. The companies that chose to implement his invention into marketplaces without proper consumer protections, and with an eye only for their bottom line, are at fault.
Although Midgley may have enabled history to be made, big corporations who used and abused his products are truly to blame. They degraded our environment, not Midgley. Blame the polluter, not the inventor.
In case you can’t tell by the topics I touched on, I’m an environmental studies student. I abhor the destruction of the planet around us, and I think it’s incredibly important to attribute blame properly. I find that although it’s easy to place blame on individual legislators or otherwise misguided actors, it’s often not the right way to go about things. Correctly placing blame on enabling governing bodies or malevolent corporations can allow for real dialogue instead of mindless mudslinging.