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Longtermism and Unknown Knowns: How Security Can Shape the Future

When inventor Thomas Midgley, Jr., died in 1944, he was “laid to rest as a brilliant American maverick of the first order,” according to Steven Johnson in his article for The New York Times. However, Midgley is best known today for a “stretch of his career from 1922 to 1928, during which he managed to invent leaded gasoline and also develop the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons that would create a hole in the ozone layer.”

Though these inventions solved serious challenges of the day, both would have deadly effects far into the future. According to Johnson, “there may be no other single person in history who did as much damage to human health and the planet, all with the best of intentions as an inventor.”

Midgley’s two innovations were Ethyl (leaded gasoline) and Freon (a commercial refrigerant). These products were incredibly popular and lucrative, bringing in billions of dollars for manufacturers. In this way, the two innovations were similar, but they provide quite different lessons.

Ethyl was designed to solve engine knock—a common and destructive problem in engines at the time. According to Joseph A. Williams, writing for the History Channel website, Midgley found that a fuel additive, tetraethyl lead (TEL), eliminated the knocking problem. It also improved the performance of the engine.

The Ethyl corporation did not mention lead when marketing the product because lead poisoning was already a well-known problem. Though the company said TEL was safe, several incidents at manufacturing plants proved otherwise. “In October 1924, at an experimental plant in New Jersey, five workers died and 35 others experienced tremors, hallucinations, and other symptoms of lead poisoning,” writes Williams.

“In the end, leaded gasoline was a mistake of epic proportions,” writes Johnson. “But it was also a preventable mistake.” Lead was a well-known health hazard. The only question was whether the amounts emitted into the atmosphere from cars running on Ethyl would be dangerous.

Freon was different. In 1928, manufacturers used toxic gases to keep refrigerators cold. Fatal accidents occurred when these chemicals leaked, causing people to begin placing refrigerators in their backyards. Companies were on the hunt for a solution to solve a dangerous problem.  Midgley was instrumental in developing that solution. Freon was the first of many chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were quickly adopted and widely used in various industries.

Midgley’s career spurs an already intense philosophical argument. His innovations seemed like brilliant leaps forward at the time but were ultimately destructive. According to Johnson, Midgley’s work poses the problem of long-term thinking, or “longtermism.” The ultimate question becomes, “How do we best bring new things into the world when we recognize, by definition, that their long-term consequences are unknowable?”

Thinking of the future and the long-term implications of current action is very much on the minds of today’s chief security officers (CSOs). In Security Management’s May 2023 coverage, CSOs discuss leadership skills, strategy, and business analysis—all necessary to develop long-term thinking about risk management.

In his article “Think Ahead with Future Proofing,” Matt Bradley, senior vice president of risk solutions for Crisis24, writes that CSOs can future proof their organizations “by leveraging technology to generate the outcomes that lead to value creation.” This, in turn, can lead to a “long-term, value-adding mindset” crucial to maintaining relevance in the future.

As all business leaders know, the cost of failing to think long term is dire, and recovery can take years. “We are still living with the consequences of Midgley’s innovations,” writes Johnson. In 1985, scientists learned that CFCs were causing a hole in the earth’s ozone layer—a natural shield protecting the globe’s inhabitants from dangerous ultraviolet radiation. In January 2023, the United Nations reported that the ozone layer is on track to full recovery—in 40 years.

Teresa Anderson is editor-in-chief of Security Management. Connect with her on LinkedIn or via email at [email protected]