Better Living Through Chemistry?
In the last century, chemistry has made our lives better—and worse. Given that, what does it mean to be a Christian and a chemist?
11 min. read
October 2, 2016

This article originally appeared on June 23, 2016 in Comment, a publication of Cardus:

Singing the praises of modern plastics and synthetic fabrics, the Wonderful World of Chemistry musical gave voice (and dance) to 1964’s widespread technological optimism. It was Du Pont’s contribution to that year’s World Fair, and a bookend to their corporate slogan: “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry.”

This hope in chemistry was catalyzed by a wide variety of new products that caused dramatic changes in people’s day-to-day lives: plastics, synthetic textiles, antibiotics, pesticides, food products, refrigerants, as well as efficient processes to synthesize fertilizers and convert crude oil into gasoline.

But just as the Du Pont singers were proclaiming the wonders and promise of modern chemistry, the belief that the products of modern chemistry really led to “better things” and “better living” was called into question, as a dark side to some of these new synthetic chemicals was exposed. The insecticide DDT, for example, had been hailed as a “miracle compound” for its ability to increase agricultural yields and for its role in virtually eradicating insect-borne diseases in several developing countries. But soon significant negative effects on wildlife, ecosystems and risks to human health due to the widespread and indiscriminate use of DDT were documented, along with evidence of insect resistance.

An optimism rooted in chemistry remains for some today, but it is clouded by an increasing awareness that this “better living” comes with costs to creation and often to our own human health.

“These new forms of matter, or new processes for transforming matter, are cultural artifacts that have a tremendous influence on human culture.”

Chemistry: A transforming vision

Chemistry has always concerned itself with two essential projects: understanding the nature of the material world (What is matter composed of? How is matter organized? How does matter behave?) and manipulating the raw materials of the world into new forms of matter that are more useful and valuable (How can matter be transformed?). These two projects have worked in tandem to develop an incredible level of knowledge of the structure and behaviour of the material world and have provided new products and technologies that have played an important role in shaping human cultures throughout history, and continue to do so in the present in profound ways.

Chemistry aims to create new forms of matter from the raw materials of the created world. These new forms of matter, or new processes for transforming matter, are cultural artifacts that have a tremendous influence on human culture.

From air to food

For example, in the past century, the global population has approximately quadrupled. Perhaps the most important factor behind this is the tremendous increase in global food production due to the availability of synthetic, nitrogen-rich fertilizers arising from one basic chemical reaction: the conversion of nitrogen in the air into ammonia. It is estimated that today almost half of humanity is alive because of the discovery of this one chemical process. It is arguably the most important discovery of the twentieth century.

As an essential component of most biomolecules, nitrogen is a vitally important chemical element for life. In fact, nitrogen is often a limiting nutrient for the growth of living organisms: once an organism’s supply of nitrogen is depleted, it ceases to grow further or dies. We humans get our required nitrogen through our diets by eating plants and animals, which ultimately get their nitrogen from the soil, typically in the form of ammonium or nitrate ions.

In order to sustain food production in a given location, something must be done to replenish the soil nitrogen. Crop rotation encourages soil bacteria to convert dinitrogen molecules in the atmosphere into forms of nitrogen useful for growing plants. The spreading of manure and compost also helps return usable nitrogen to the soil. In order to further increase crop yields through the late 1800s, European nations began importing vast amounts of nitrogen-rich guano (dried bird or bat feces) and the mineral saltpeter (potassium nitrate) from the west coast of South America and applying it to their fields.

At the close of the 1800s, however, there was great concern that food production in Europe could not keep pace with the growing population. “England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril,” argued Sir William Crookes, president of the British Academy of Sciences. There was not enough natural fertilizer in the world to meet the needs of the twentieth century. “It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty,” he continued. “It is the chemist who must come to the rescue.”

The scientist who ultimately solved this great problem was the Jewish chemist Fritz Haber working in Germany. In 1908, Haber discovered that nitrogen from air could be made to react with hydrogen under high pressure and high temperature in the presence of a metal catalyst to form ammonia. Carl Bosch and his team at the German chemical company BASF were able to develop the high-pressure-reaction vessels to scale the process up, and the first nitrogen-fixing ammonia factory was opened in 1913. The atmospheric nitrogen that was “fixed” into ammonia could subsequently be converted into other forms of nitrogen useful for fertilizers.

“It is the chemist who must come to the rescue.”

Or explosives. World War I broke out shortly after, and the British navy blocked nitrogen-containing saltpeter imports into Germany. Haber was able to modify his fertilizer-making technology to supply the raw materials for making explosives for the German military. Haber’s involvement in the military deepened as he became the driving force behind the use of poisonous gases in the trenches, like those used on Canadian troops in Ypres. It is ironic that the inventor of a process that today keeps nearly half of the globe’s population fed is also considered the father of modern chemical warfare. The irony of Fritz Haber’s life is even more profound: he was Jewish and desperately wanted to make contributions to German society. While he was lauded in the years that followed World War I, the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s changed all that. Seeing that Jewish researchers were being fired from universities and government, Haber resigned his prominent position and left Germany for good in 1933, dying shortly after in Switzerland. Perhaps the greatest, and most tragic, irony is that the Nazis used Zyklon B—an offshoot of the pesticide research Haber had carried out—in concentration-camp gas chambers to kill Jews, including some of his relatives.

The Haber-Bosch process contributed to the rapid expansion of fertilizer production in the post–World War II era. Along with the use of pesticides, mechanization, irrigation, and new crop varieties, the increased availability of nitrogen has led to dramatic growth in agriculture yields. In 1913, when the first ammonia factory came online, the global population was about 1.4 billion. Today the global population has exceeded 7 billion. It is estimated that about 40–50 percent of the nitrogen atoms in our bodies have at some point been “fixed” over a metal catalyst in the Haber-Bosch process. In other words, almost half of the world’s human population would likely not be alive without the Haber-Bosch process!

Increased food production arising from this chemical innovation has certainly led to “better living” for most citizens of the world. In nations where synthetic fertilizers are used in significant quantities, widespread food shortages and famines no longer occur. For this we should be deeply thankful.

“Does the Christian tradition have anything to offer chemists looking to make a better world through their vocation?”

On the other hand, the rapidly increasing use of synthetic fertilizers does not lead exclusively to better living. In many underdeveloped nations, challenges in food distribution and access to fertilizers remain. And here in North America, the overabundance of cheap food has contributed to an obesity epidemic. There are also significant negative effects on the creation, as the global nitrogen cycle is being altered to the point where we have exceeded one of earth’s key “planetary boundaries.” There is a tendency to use an excess of fertilizer, and these excess nutrients end up in streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean, where they cause unwanted algae blooms and deoxygenated “dead zones.” Furthermore, soil bacteria can metabolize excess nitrogen fertilizers into nitrous oxide (N2O) gas, which enters the atmosphere and can cause depletion of the ozone layer, promotes warming of the atmosphere, and contributes to the formation of smog, which often plagues urban areas.

The Haber-Bosch process, and the increased agricultural output it has enabled, has dramatically shaped human culture over the past one hundred years. It will continue to be an indispensable element of twenty-first-century global human culture. Without it, the world as we know it, with 7 billion humans living on this planet, could not exist. There is no going back, especially since the population is projected to increase by at least another 2 billion over the next century. In the words of Vaclav Smil, humanity has “developed a profound chemical dependence.”

Stewarding the periodic table

So where does that leave a chemist today? Does the Christian tradition have anything to offer chemists looking to make a better world through their vocation? What are the elements of chemical stewardship?

The first is a rediscovery of awe in the face of the material world. For a Christian and a chemist this implies an awe of God—an acknowledgement that the material world we study is God’s creation and design. Matter is worthy of study simply because it is from God, it is designed by God, and it is deemed to be very good by God. One important aspect of chemistry is uncovering and discovering the creational laws of nature that God has put in place and sustains. As we learn more and more about the material world through the discipline of chemistry, a Christian should be moved to a sense of wonder and awe at God’s elegant, ordered, yet mysterious design of matter. Awe of the material world might not be sufficient for a proper use of chemistry, but its absence makes proper use impossible.

Being a Christian and a chemist means recognizing that God has created human beings as his image bearers here on earth. He has not only given us the ability to investigate and understand his creation, but has actually tasked us to be creators, to make something of the material world he created. The enterprise of chemistry is so much more than just understanding the nature of matter. It also includes creating new forms of matter that have never existed before. Christians who work in the field of chemistry should express their God-given creativity in unfolding and developing the potential that lies within God’s creation.

And this leads to another important question that needs to be asked: What should we be creating? How should we be directing our creative energies as they apply to chemistry? With chemical knowledge of the material world comes a great deal of power, even mastery, over the creation. Through chemistry, we have gained the power to heal through medicines, but also the power to kill through explosives. We have gained the power to provide clean water, yet have the power to pollute our streams, lakes, and oceans. We have the power to convert air into fertilizer for food, yet have the power to pollute our atmosphere, causing smog, acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change. With the knowledge that comes through chemistry comes great responsibility to wield this power and authority with great care, particularly for the Christian. If the “better living” of the Du Pont slogan can be understood as a way of serving our neighbours and enhancing creation with care, then a Christian chemist has much to contribute.

There is much potential to apply knowledge of chemistry to developing new technologies or refining existing technologies to fulfill needs for food, medicine, energy, and clean water in affordable and practical ways. Knowledge of chemistry can also serve creation itself: we can monitor and mitigate environmental pollution, design chemical processes that require less energy and produce less waste, develop new materials for more efficient energy use in buildings and transportation and so on.

If I had been at the World’s Fair in 1964, I don’t think I would have joined in singing wholeheartedly “Better things for better living through chemistry.” But I might have just hummed and tapped my foot.

Dr. Darren Brouwer is associate professor of chemistry at Redeemer University College.

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