AMERICA IN BLACK AND GREEN
Compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and the other heroes of American consumerism, the name Thomas Midgley rings few, if any, bells. And yet despite his relative obscurity, Midgley, a research chemist born in 1889 who died, according to one obituary, by accidentally strangling himself with “a self-devised harness for getting in and out of bed,” played a fundamental role in some of the consumer age's most celebrated products. 1
Over his career, Midgley made two discoveries that profoundly influenced both the course of American consumer culture and the make-up of the atmosphere. In 1921, while working for General Motors (GM), he uncovered that lead, when added to gasoline, eliminated engine knock, a breakthrough that allowed automakers to boost engine performance and sell faster, racier cars. The advance, however, came at the expense of releasing a known poison into the environment. Later, Midgley went on to invent Freon, the first chlorofluorocarbon. Americans received better air conditioners, deodorants, and hair sprays, but future generations would pay the price for them with skin cancer as the compounds damaged the ozone layer, which shields the earth from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. Midgley, in the words of historian J. R. McNeill, “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history.” 2
In the automobile-oriented suburbs sprouting up all over the nation after World War II, land that had once yielded food was paved over with asphalt and converted into sprawling subdivisions and lawns. Forced to hit the road to fill their stomachs, Americans piled into cars and headed for supermarkets and restaurants, especially after Congress created more time for leisure by passing legislation (in 1938) making the 40-hour, five-day work week the national standard. Fast food hamburger outfits remained so centered around the automobile that it took over a decade after opening in the 1950s before McDonald's even bothered to install seats and tables in its restaurants.
Car culture ushered in a vast and sweeping network of roads and interstate highways for knitting together metropolitan centers and outlying suburbs. In a sense, the freeway took the place of manure in uniting the ecological fortunes of the country and the city. Gone were the animals, hay, and potato fields, and instead tract housing arose and the lawn was born, grass that was grown mainly for its aesthetic appeal. Cut off from any direct relationship with their food supply, Americans now had the luxury of planting turf grass (originally imported from northern Europe) and dousing it with tons of water, fertilizer, and pesticides— rendering the land from coast to coast into a verdant sea. With 3 0 million acres