Monday, July 8, 2024

People blame chemicals, not people, I guess

In this week's C&EN, this remarkable opening to an opinion piece by Amelia Greene, the cofounder of Women in Chemicals, a non-profit group:

"Do you feel guilty?” the woman at a networking event asked me. “Guilty about what?” I replied. “What your company is doing to the environment,” she answered with exasperation. We were in New York City, and after the woman I was talking with had mentioned she worked in finance, I had replied that I worked in the chemical industry. That was enough to prompt her ire.

What about all the good things we’re doing? The chemical industry is spearheading the switch away from fossil fuels, it played a pivotal role in fighting COVID-19, and it ensures a constant viable food supply. The interaction was telling, and I had a major realization: the chemical industry has a massive marketing problem.

I’ve heard countless stories from individuals about the head-scratching responses they get after telling others that they work in the chemical industry. The general population has no idea how vital chemistry is to everyday life. Our industry remains largely hidden from the public, and most individuals don’t realize how often they are interacting with chemistry or the by-products of chemistry in their daily lives.

Ms. Greene's general thoughts about the relative lack of interest by people in the chemical industry, and the marketing problems of the chemical industry are very familiar to the readers of this blog. 

I do have to say that I am genuinely shocked to find people who seem to view the chemical industry as the problem of climate change and environmental damage, as opposed to a broad and complex societal problem to solve together. (Shrugs) That's the real weird part to me. 


  1. When you are a specialist society, it's easy for individuals to not understand how other parts of the society work because they have to spend lots of effort to understand their parts and do them well enough to be OK.
    We like the power - the ability to go places and do things and not be limited by daylight or weather - that chemicals and fossil fuels have given us (and other things may be able to give us). I don't think people want to give up that power and it's easier to blame others (particularly given the above) than to contemplate how we got it and that we might have to give it up (or give up some of it because we need to pay more for what we do get). - Hap

  2. to be honest, it's not like the chemical industry as a whole has proven trustworthy stewards of the environment or people. You just have to look at the "forever" chemical disposal issues, or the accidents such as Bhopal gas tragedy. These things linger in the communal memory and make it really hard for the chemical industry to argue they are the "good guys". That said, I do think the chemical industry needs to do more on the PR side as well. But it will be a huge slog to get past the public trust issue since there have been soooo many incidents where the chemical companies hide problems and poison people and the land as a result. A few bad apples as they say, poisoned the whole barrel.

    1. Also, lauding the chemical industry for it's contributions to the food industry just reminds me how crappy food tastes since it is filled with guar gum, artificial flavors, heavily processed vegetable oils, genetically modified fruits with no smell that are made to bounce on an 18 wheeler from CA or ship from Peru. The chemical industry gave us Ascarel and PCBs in the paper industry, carcinogens for creosote manufacturing and chrome metal plating. I have a degree in chemistry and I don't trust manufacturing related to chemicals so why should the general public?

    2. It's a bit absurd for someone working in finance - an industry built around leveraging wealth to skim the fat off of other people's productivity - to criticize anyone in the chemical industry, which actual provides a plethora of societal benefit. By their very nature, there are going to be downsides to chemical technologies, but use chemists are the ones working to solve those problems. How much farther along would we be on green energy technologies if the brightest undergraduates at the most prestigious schools were willing to solve those problems? Instead, mathematically gifted undergraduates can go into finance or computer science to make twice as much money as they would after getting a chemistry PhD without actually adding much value to society (obviously this is not always true, but I would argue is the majority of people in tech and finance at this point). I mean, really, who is it that usually makes the cost-cutting decisions that lead to accidents in the chemical industry?

    3. Really, you don't think computer science is solving problems as big as those in chemistry? Without the developments in IT every aspect of communication, data storage and retrieval, logistics, and systems management would be slower and less efficient. I don't love that there are Wallstreet finance types who make more in a day than I will in my lifetime but that doesn't make problems in finance and credit unimportant.
      I want smart mathematically adept people involved in the policy and regulation of credit, inflation, and business.

    4. To quote myself "obviously this is not always true, but I would argue is the majority of people in tech and finance at this point". So yes, comp sci does contribute to solving real problems, but what fraction of people are actually engaged in solving serious problems vs. writing another redundant app to do something that people already had a good way of doing? As for finance, how many people do you think go into that industry thinking "I'm doing this to make the world a better place"? Your response even seems to recognize that, since you refer to policy and regulation, the point of which is to prevent people in financial businesses from causing harm.

  3. We beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20