5/10/2008 6:38

Faith in Chemicals

Western culture would seem to have a high level of faith in chemicals which modify our environment. In general, we prefer to use chemicals to control ants, to remove ice, or to kill weeds rather than using physical processes. There is a huge market for chemicals to perform these and other, similar tasks.

There is no question that our society uses chemicals for daily tasks, but it is not quite as clear that we have faith in these chemical tools. Walking around town in the winter, I observe that ice on sidewalks and porches is almost always attacked by liberal applications of salt. Such huge amounts of salt are applied, in fact, that I question whether the homeowners have any faith in the efficacy of the salt as an ice remover. The amount of salt actually applied is often enough not only to soften the winter ice but also to dissolve the cementitious matrix of the underlying pavement.

In the summer, some residents address anthills by applying borax. Vast amounts of borax. (Other residents use more pernicous chemicals but I am unable to visually estimate the quantities.) These residents choose neither to dig out the hills nor to build up balanced environments in their yards, but do they exhibit much faith in the borax?

I suspect that people are choosing chemicals more out of fear of physical effort than from faith in the chemicals. The extreme quantities and frequent repetitions suggest that people generally do not respect the power of chemistry to accomplish the desired effects. They seem to be saying, "Yes, I will use the chemical, but since I think it is weak and nearly impotent I will apply an order of magnitude more than recommended."

Perhaps if chemical effects were visible at the time scale as people's attention to the effort they would have more faith. People who are willing to give 5 minutes attention to the problem of ice on the sidewalk may expect to see the ice melting within 5 minutes. Or perhaps even if the chemicals effects occurred at the same rate as the motion of the sun (which is not directly visible to human eyes) people might be more accepting of its reality. But borax affects ants over several days, and salt eats away concrete when spring comes.

Whatever the reasons, the evidence is that people are not faithful to their chemical agents. They do not keep faith with the borax on the anthill or the salt on the patch of ice; they do not allow it to do its work but instead add more, superfluous borax, hindering or diverting the effects and creating waste.

In the use of chemicals in residential life, the chemicals are entirely true to their nature. They are faithful, in the limited way of minerals. But the people applying these chemicals are not always faithful to the chemicals, or we might say the people do not have faith in the chemicals.

Faithfulness is a bi-directional relationship. The employer must have faith in the employees' work just as the employee must have faith in the managers' decisions; otherwise nothing is done. The teacher must have faith in the student's learning and the student must have faith in the teaching; otherwise nothing is taught. If the student doesn't believe the teacher, all the lessons are dismissed and forgotten. If the teacher isn't faithful to the student, the student isn't given the opportunity to learn as much or as completely as could be.

The homeowner who is not full of faith in the salt, who is not faithful to the salt, wastes the salt and the concrete beneath it. What are the costs when we are not full of faith in each other?