Skip navigation


“Stay away from the fire” was a common refrain on my recent camping trip.  We camped with a group of friends that included a family with 5-year-old and 2-year-old boys. “The fire will hurt you!”


Fire certainly can hurt you, yet every night we made a fire, frequently a raging fire.  We sat around it in chairs, bearing scars from the embers of past fires, wearing our camping clothes, similarly marred.  We spent the days hiking, kayaking, fishing, swimming and sailing, all activities that carry risk. I observed, for the first time ever, a giant water bug while swimming.  I didn’t know what it was when I observed it and tried to capture it for a closer look. It was Google that helped me identify it and told me about the potential for the inch long predator to deliver a painful bite, one I avoided only through luck and the water bug’s first line of defense, playing dead. 


I am safe and sound, a couple of blisters and mosquito bites the only negative reminders of a fun weekend.  It was a relaxing time and a time for thought. Camping is one of the few times I have to be conscious of energy.  Effort is exerted both in getting wood for a fire and also in making and maintaining the fire.  Shows like Naked and Afraid demonstrate that fire making is quite an ordeal without the fire starters, lighter and blowpipe we use.  Camping brings both energy and water to the foreground.  The flip of a switch or the turn of a tap isn't possible, even in the cushy state park campground we visited.


Fire is common to both home and camping.  We have a gas stove, gas water heater and gas heat. A simple turn of a valve gives me fire, but it is still fire.  We had a house near us destroyed by fire due to a faulty gas hose.  Fire is, both at the campsite and in the house, risky, yet we still use it.  We still have fire in spite of society’s quest to de-risk. 


Many now agree that mastery of fire is one of the things that served to make us human.  The logic goes that big brains require too much energy for a diet of only raw foods.  Anthropologists and paleontologists are doing fascinating work comparing our physiology to our ape relatives and studying why the more brawny Neanderthals were outcompeted by modern humans, with fire being one of the variables. 


The world of our early human ancestors was certainly riskier than ours today.  The lack of car-sized predators eyeing me as a snack is a risk I don't face. I don't face the risk of hunting game with sharp, yet still ineffective weapons.  Fire consuming the collection of sticks passing for shelter is also something I don't face. Weapons and fire are likely some of the earliest technologies humans mastered, both being major contributors to us becoming human.  Both technologies are themselves risky and both are risky in use. 


Humanity developed technologies and most, if not all, came with new risks. We like going faster than our legs carry us.  The horse, the wheel, the car, the plane, the Zeppelin and others are all riskier than not moving or walking, yet we overcame any risk aversion in all cases.  To this day, transportation is risky.  I take satisfaction in the materials of our industry playing a big role in improving safety of travel.  Automotive fatalities per mile driven continue to drop, enabled by better materials enabling better engineering. 


Car travel is likely as safe as it has ever been. It is also a place where we have raised the bar.  I remember cars without seat belts.  I remember the world before airbags and the Rube Goldberg contraptions devised as passive restraints in the pre-airbag era.  I remember thinking it sounded paradoxical to improve safety by adding an explosive device in the steering wheel – only inches away from my face.  We raised the bar on our expectation of what constituted a safe vehicle.  NASCAR drives vehicles meant to look like our street-legal cars, yet the expectation for safety is elevated.  Installing a roll cage, using a harness rather than a seat belt, and wearing a helmet will certainly increase the safety of car travel, as NASCAR proves.   I am fairly certain that electing to wear a helmet in order to increase personal safety while driving would result in adjectives like “crazy”, “looney” or the now archaic “touched” being used to describe me.  Helmets while driving, surely improving safety, raise the bar higher than we’re willing to endure.  Subjectively we determine there is too little benefit for the extra effort. Zero risk is impossible and not a useful definition of safe. Setting the bar is always subjective.  Risky technologies are at the very core of what makes us human. The history of mankind is one of taming technologies and reducing the risks that came with them to acceptable levels, never zero. 


Chemical risks have been on my mind, brought there by both work related and ACS volunteer activities.  Fire and chemical hazards share some traits.  Fire is both an acute and chronic hazard.  It can hurt you right now and also over time through inhalation of combustion products.   Chemicals similarly can be instantaneously dangerous and pose long term risks to individuals and the environment.


We have many examples where solving an acute problem creates a chronic one.  DDT killed mosquitoes that present an acute health risk.  Persistence in the environment created a chronic environmental problem. We are becoming far better at predicting risk, with great strides in predictive toxicology allowing focus on technologies where the benefits more than outweigh the risks.  In an era where significant numbers of reasonably intelligent, well-meaning folks question technologies like vaccines and GMOs, we simply have to do better. Human progress is due to assuming some risk for a greater benefit.  We need to get it right.


Author's NotePlease consider attending the workshop on the risk of genetic modification scheduled for the Philadelphia ACS meeting.



Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.

I’ve just returned from visiting Yosemite and Lake Tahoe for the first time.  Both places add a new dimension to the word awesome.  One night, I also had a very interesting conversation with our Airbnb host, who pointed out that almost all of his business came from the over-55 age group, a group that is generally neglected in the hospitality business: “We wouldn’t make a living without them” was his summary. And he was amazed that so many businesses still focused on the 25-54 age group to drive their revenues and profits.

The conversation was a living example of the  argument I made in my blog post last month, when  I suggested that the supply-driven models that served us so well during the Baby-Boomer-led Supercycle (when the U.S. economy suffered just 16 months of recession between 1983 and 2007) are now well past their sell-by date.  Economic growth is decelerating under the influence of today’s ageing populations.  Common sense tells us that older people already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they approach retirement.  New business models are needed if the chemical and pharma industries are to continue to grow revenues and profit in the future.


As I found on my travels, we have to forget the conventional view that those under the age of 55 are the only demographic that matters when it comes to consumer markets.  This concept made sense when life expectancy was close to retirement age, but it makes no sense at all today.  Latest data from Social Security shows the average 65 year-old male can now expect to live to age 84, and a woman till age 87.

The key issue, as the chart above highlights (based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data), is that household spending patterns change quite dramatically with age:

  • The under-25s have least money, with many dependent on their parents for accommodation, and for financial support through college
  • Between 25 -34, spending increases by nearly 60% as people’s careers develop and they begin to settle down and set up home
  • Between 35 – 44, spending increases a further 25%, as family needs develop, particularly for those with children, whilst their incomes continue to rise
  • Spending then peaks between the ages of 45 - 54, when it is double the spend of the under-25s as family needs and incomes peak
  • Between 55 – 64, spending drops by 16% as children leave home and needs reduce, as people own most of what they need and prepare for retirement
  • After 65, spending is 25% below peak levels, as people move into retirement
  • At 75 and over, spending is almost back to the level of the under-25s

Another critical factor, of course, is that people’s needs change quite dramatically as they get older. The ageing of the Baby Boomers has meant that U.S. housing markets, for example, have seen a reversal of their Supercycle demand patterns.  Large McMansion-size single family homes in the suburbs are no longer the growth area. Instead, apartment-living in city centers is coming back into fashion, as the Boomers prefer to drive less and to be closer to shops, friends and medical services.

In turn, this change is impacting driving habits, with latest Department of Transport data showing average vehicle miles driven per adult have fallen by 6% to 12500 miles/year since the 2004 peak.  And, of course, the decline in spending power with age highlights the need for companies to think in terms of affordability rather than always focusing on opportunities for premium pricing.

Increasing life expectancy is one of humanity’s great triumphs.  If it means lower, or even negative economic growth, then I can’t imagine many of us would worry too much about the trade-off involved.  But it does mean that our business models need to adapt to this New Normal world.  We have to recognise that success will come from developing products that match demand, rather than only focusing on supply.  In simple terms, one-size no longer fits all.


Paul Hodges is chairman of International eChem (, trusted advisers to the chemical industry and its investment community. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Industrial Council on chemicals, advanced materials and biotechnology, and presents the ACS ‘Chemistry & the Economy’ webinars.


Paul's biannual ACS Webinar on chemistry and the economy will be held on Thursday, July 21, at 2 PM ET. Join us for Chemistry and the Economy: The Brexit, Challenges of Over-Supply and the End of Bank Stimulus. -2016.htmlPaul Hodges and Bill Carroll, another Industry Voices contributor, will share how the Brexit, oversupply and the demand in emerging markets are shaping the economy for chemists.