by Rebecca Altman
Aeon, January 2, 2019
I wanted to pitch an essay that would explore the concept of environmental legacy, environmental problems so enduring they are passed from one generation to the next. This will be explored through the story of two early-20th century technologies that are called “legacy contaminants” today. One is PCBs, the family of ubiquitous pollutants featured in a recent essay I did with Ross Anderson at The Atlantic. The other: PFOA, a fluorocarbon compound once considered essential to making Teflon, the stuff of non-stick pans and space suits and artificial heart valves. PFOA, like PCBs, is found in the blood of most people alive today (e.g., 99.7% Americans carry trace levels, according to this study). PCBs and PFOA make us into waking, walking time capsules of 20th century technology.
In their earlier years, these compounds were considered advanced technologies because engineered to endure —to endure the harshest (industrial and earthly) conditions imaginable, and to withstand time itself.
So enduring were these materials, in fact, that they were used in real and imagined ways to communicate with generations beyond ours—as lasting sealants to protect a 5000-year time capsule (e.g., like the one buried at the 1939 World’s Fair) and as the indelible films with which to preserve human history for posterity. Fluorocarbons, or so one of their early inventors thought, could easily outlast us, surviving to tell our story to Earth’s future inhabitants, those civilizations who would inherit the Earth after humankind ran its course.
And yet, despite their use in legacy-making, it was something of a revelation when PCBs and later PFOA (and its brethren) were found “here, there and everywhere” and so persistent as to pose environmental problems for the 21st century and beyond. The very materials with which our ancestors thought to safeguard and inscribe human legacy were found to impose a legacy of their own.
I envision a braided essay (~ 5000 words) that interweaves the lives of a chemist, a publicist (and, if space allows) an artist, all caught up in the mid-century work of creating, promoting and deploying these long-lived molecules whose production dispersed them widely. Curiously, all three were also invested in projects dedicated to the prospects of some distant, future generation (a book, a sculpture, and a time capsule). I haven’t figured out how to make sense of this duality, but hope, by bringing it front and center, and in the act of completing this essay, I’ll have written my way into an answer: How is it that our most lasting legacies can be what we leave inadvertently?
The other possible question/irony to grapple with, and which echoes other critical analyses of the project of legacy-making and time capsules is this: perhaps the messages we cast into the future are far less telling of who we are than the bottles in which those message were contained. This is a topic Aeon has considered previously (Matthew Battles’s 2015 The Ache of Immortality, about the Golden Record time capsules carried into interstellar space by the two 1977 Voyager missions. Interestingly, Carl Sagan who curated these “time capsules” was inspired to do so because he attended the 1939 World’s Fair and remembers the capsule about which I’m proposing to write.)
In all likelihood, and so far as I can tell, these three men didn’t know one another, but their lives are entangled with each and with ours because of what they left, intentionally and unintentionally to the future. They lived and worked in parallel during the consequential middle third of the 20th century, a period of unbounded technological and industrial advances, and bounded on either end by two World’s Fair (the first 1939-1940, and the second in 1964-65, both in NY) that celebrated a future reimagined by science, and technology, industry and progress.
The two World’s Fairs will anchor the story. 5000-year time capsules were deposited at both, and their shifting contents allow me to explore the material and technological culture at the time of their burial. I will also use the fairs and their time capsules to draw out the human drive to both celebrate technology and leave something for future generations, while heightening the irony of what was actually cast forward into tomorrow.
Below, I’ve included drafted snippets of these narrative strands so you can see how I’m starting to lay out the parts. The science-history research for this piece has been completed. It took three years, and is supported by dissertation research before that. In all, this will be built on the foundation of over a decade of work on the history, politics and science of Teflon plastics and PCBs. I’ve also done extensive archival work and interviews, the data from which hasn’t been published before. For the rest, I’ll be pulling from secondary sources, books and magazine articles from (or about) the World Fair’s, fluorocarbons (1950s’ science writing on this is gorgeous!) and the fascination with (and meaning of) time capsules in 20th century culture. Putting time capsules and legacy contaminants side by side is the device I hope provides the most analytic leverage to dig into the topic.
I have pitched Aeon earlier iterations of some of this content, but before I understood a workable container and a compelling narrative thread, and so I hope you’ll find something here more aligned with Aeon’s mission to tell bigger, idea-driven stories.
I’m open to editorial direction and feedback on how best to weave the themes and content.