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A Nuanced Chemical History
on December 12, 2010
There are also several academic case histories of particular industrial establishments across the country. However, none of these earlier works make the connections between chemical innovation, consumer culture and the political manipulation of science, in a synthetic way that Ross and Amter provide in The Polluters. The authors start the book with three important questions: "What is the basis of scientific authority? Is science value-free or is it shaped by social and economic conditions? How does economic power influence government?"
These questions need to be addressed by scientists, engineers and policy-makers in concert and The Polluters provides a nuanced historical context for this conversation in a globalized economy. To this day most economists continue to refer to pollution as an "externality" - suggesting that the salience of the natural environment cannot be captured by market mechanisms. This book shows us how this linear logic of economic expediency in the early twentieth century defiled not only the environment but also the scientific process itself.
Where industry deserves to be praised, the authors are willing to do so without hesitation. Numerous industrial researchers who stood up for environmental consciousness are mentioned in heroic terms. In particular the authors devote a chapter to Wilhelm Hueper who started to work on environmental cancer concerns long before Rachel Carson's work popularized concerns about the impact of pesticides in this context. His career trajectory, which started at Haskell Labs and meandered through industrial appointments, ultimately landed him at the National Cancer Institute. Even at the corporate level, where there was a shift in compliance culture, positive trends are acknowledged. For example, the environmental management of the Hanford site by Dupont is highlighted as ahead of its times and the leadership of corporate executives is duly praised.
Overall, The Polluters, is a commendable effort to present the history of industrial environmental harm with candor and clarity in a readable anecdotal form. The lessons of "regulatory capture" by industry and other special interest groups and its implications on scientific progress are important for us to consider in these times when global environmental issues are gaining political prominence.