Dyed in the wool

Color delights us in nature, in fashion, food, design, and in its metaphorical and spiritual meanings. But the history of color is also a story of technological discovery, gruesome manufacturing processes (often involving urine, blood and dung), social and religious dictates, industrial espionage and trade wars. From British author Kassia St. Clair’s fascinating series of essays collected under the title “The Secret Lives of Color”* comes a 13th-century tale of color merchants going to extremes to protect their market dominance. As the story goes, madder merchants held sway for centuries, producing a stable dark red dye from the roots of the madder plant. Madder-dyed fabrics were found in the tomb of King Tut, and madder paint unearthed in Pompeii. Fortunes were made, and by the Middle Ages madder was the must-have color for festive attire including wedding clothes. But in the 13th century, a new process for processing woad, another ancient plant-based colorant (with which British warriors traditionally dyed their skin before going into battle) produced a colorfast blue, the first affordable “indigo” for ordinary people. Fortunes shifted as woad was farmed and processed on an industrial scale throughout northern Europe. In retaliation, German madder merchants launched a potent propaganda campaign, persuading artists to switch from red to blue in their depiction of the devil, hoping to depress blue’s popularity by re-branding it as, literally, the color of hell.

In one of those strange quirks of synchronicity, I happened upon this story on the same day I read a piece in the Pulitzer Prize-winning digest Inside Climate News. The article, “How Fossil Fuel Allies Are Tearing Apart Ohio’s Embrace of Clean Energy,” chronicles recent attacks on a 2008 state regulation designed to reduce GHG emissions and speed the transition to solar and wind energy, and in particular, the work of Ohio state Representative Bill Seitz, who demonized his state’s clean energy goals last March as “something out of the 5-Year Plan playbook of Joseph Stalin.” Seitz’s efforts were bolstered by a flood of biased “studies” (several since repudiated) from the fossil fuel industry and petitions by fake consumer groups that predicted economic ruin, job losses and skyrocketing energy costs, which have been amply refuted by subsequent developments: 25,000 clean energy jobs since 2009, higher state GDP, and a projected $5.6 billion in energy cost savings.

This month the White House’s Office of Management and Budget submitted to Congress a mandatory report on 137 major regulations, detailing the costs and benefits between October 2006 and September 2016. According to The Hill, the report shows that annual benefits of regulations during the Obama administration outweighed the annual costs by somewhere between $209 billion and $796 billion. True to their colors, President Trump’s OMB has indicated they will be changing the cost-benefit methodology for future reports. Perhaps, like Rep. Seitz, they think it’s diabolically unfair to include quantifiable public health benefits and avoided health costs (like fewer respiratory-related hospitalizations) in the calculation, as they work to remove environmental protections, not improve them.

*“The Secret Lives of Color,” by Kassia St. Clair, Penguin Books 2016.


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