Have you heard the one about the moon?
Well, forget it. It’d probably be over your head, anyway.
The bang-or-whimper sweepstakes—that ongoing scientific quest for the latest face of doomsday—has taken some odd turns since the beginning of this decade, when the twin threats of overpopulation and large-scale eco-disaster dominated the field. But dying oceans and mass starvation no longer really seem to grab the spotlight and the final loss of that vision’s popular potency may well have been marked by Alvin Toffler’s recent Eco-Spasm—a brief, readable and thoroughly pessimistic scenario that would have been required reading on every campus in the country a few years ago, but which raised hardly even a shiver this time around.
The last 18 months, however, have also seen what may be the premier techno-threat of the Seventies—a menace that has ascended almost effortlessly to the first order of the apocalypse. It is known technically as ozone depletion—a theory first advanced in June of last year by two California researchers, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, who asked a fairly simple question: What happens to all the fluoro-carbon gas produced worldwide each year—and used almost exclusively in refrigerators and as the propellant in aerosol spray cans?
The answer—that the millions of pounds of inert gas involved may be destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere—could be the perfect doom scenario: The mechanism is invisible and totally unforeseen; every American contributes personally to the problem daily; the ozone that we’re trying to save is in fact an exceedingly acrid-smelling gas which in sufficient quantities can kill us; and one readout of the situation may well be cancer.
The fluorocarbons in question, first developed in 1928 in the search for a nontoxic refrigerant, by now fill not only refrigeration units, but somewhere in the vicinity of one billion spray cans a year. Until recently, these gases earned a relatively clean bill of health: They appeared to be so inert that they did virtually nothing at all, either to earth or to consumer. They simply, it seemed, went away. As with most innovative scientific thinking, it now seems rather remarkable that no one until very recently much wondered where they went.
They went, it develops, up, and in going up—according to Rowland and Molina’s theory—the gases ultimately encounter, in the upper atmosphere, solar radiation so powerful that the fluorocarbon molecules no longer remain passive and inert.