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by John Wilson


Aspirin and Global Warming

From "Molecules That Matter" to free-market environmentalists.

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So far as I know, aspirin won't prevent global warming. But it might just suggest a way to think about the problem.

On Saturday September 8, I was at Skidmore College in New York State for the opening of a fascinating exhibition, "Molecules That Matter," at Skidmore's Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition, co-sponsored by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, features ten molecules—one for each decade of the 20th century—that made a significant impact on everyday life. In addition to meticulously fashioned models of the molecules and supporting material supplying context, the exhibition also includes works of art inspired by the scientific subject matter, as well as a selection of items showing how the impact of this new "molecular knowledge" was registered in popular culture.

In some respects the exhibition recalls the rhetoric of an earlier era, the techno-optimism that dominated the 1950s, when I was a boy. Clearly the overall impression is one of progress won through ever-greater control of the "molecular world," progress that seemed well nigh miraculous to earlier generations (as period magazine ads for aspirin and penicillin suggest). But this is a more reflective optimism, chastened at least to some degree. It will be interesting to see how the essays in the catalogue—promised for later this year—handle this theme.

If you have an opportunity to visit Skidmore between now and April 13, 2008, be sure to catch the exhibition, which was jointly curated by Raymond J. Giguere, Class of 1962 Term Professor of Chemistry at Skidmore, and John S. Weber, director of the Tang. From Skidmore the show travels to the CHF in Philadelphia beginning in August 2008, and then onto the College of Wooster, Baylor University, and Grinnell College. Whether or not you are able to see the exhibition in person, check out the splendid web feature that accompanies it.

From New York I traveled to Montana, ending up about an hour's drive from Bozeman on a ranch near the Gallatin River, made famous by A River Runs Through It. I was there for a conference for "Religious Leaders" (in my case that term is pretty misleading, but you get the idea) on "Environmental Stewardship and Climate Change." The conference was put together by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), a delightful band of contrarians who combine a passionate love for the natural world with a deep appreciation for the virtues of free markets (and for the explanatory power of economic principles more generally). You've heard biologists rhapsodizing about the structure of DNA? These folks talk about the market in the same way.

The speakers—Holly Hunt from Montana State University, Steven Eagle from George Mason, Dwight Lee from the University of Georgia, John Nagle from Notre Dame, Lakshman Guruswamy from the University of Colorado, and Ed Larson from Pepperdine and the University of Georgia—were nicely varied in topic and angle of approach. (I'm proud to say that two of them—Nagle and Larson—are Books & Culture contributors.) The participants represented a fairly wide swath of denominations (Quakers in particular made a good showing) and a range of views regarding how we might best deal with climate change and other pressing concerns. John Baden, the chairman of FREE, Pete Geddes, the executive vice-president, and Ramona Marotz-Baden, professor emeritus at MSU, kept the pot boiling.

Were many minds changed? I'm not sure, but everyone (I'm convinced) benefited from the conversation. I'd love to attend a similar event with a couple of speakers representing different points of view—Bill McKibben, say, in dialogue with a free-market environmentalist or with a "prioritizer" in the Lomborg vein.

I wonder if the "Molecules That Matter" exhibition doesn't give us another angle on the issue of climate change. Is it foolish to suppose that the 21st century will bring discoveries, innovations, new ways of seeing of the world, as far-reaching in their impact as the molecules highlighted in the exhibition? Their impact, like that of polyethylene and DDT and progestin (see The Pill) and Prozac, will hardly be an unmixed blessing. But won't our approach to climate change and related matters unfold in contexts that we can't at this moment readily foresee?

This doesn't imply, of course, that we can go merrily on our way, heedless of the consequences of the choices we are making at this moment, waving our hands to hint at Breakthroughs that loom just around the corner. But it does suggest an alternative narrative as we contemplate the challenges ahead.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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