ACS Green Chemistry Institute®

Message from the Director: Life As We Know It

Blog Post created by ACS Green Chemistry Institute® on Feb 19, 2014

I've started reading a book called “Countdown” with the subtitle “Our last, best hope for a future on earth?” by Alan Weisman. It is a sequel to Weisman's book “The World Without Us,” where the “Us” is people. Where “The World Without Us” describes how earth would rebound without humans, “Countdown” is the story about the inexorable increase in human population and the many effects that population doubling brings to the world. I think anyone who reads “Countdown” is likely to walk away with a range of emotions that range from disbelief to depression.


Some wouldn't even read the book because it is outside their area of interest and they have no reason to care about it.


Others who read the book will resist the central tenets of the book and will point out a myriad of ways in which technology will find a solution or they think the problem is not really a problem. Years ago I learned that this particular way of viewing things was termed “naïve technological optimism.” I would argue that a large number of people in the science and engineering community fall into this camp.  I have heard things like “Science will triumph and all we need is a little more money for research.” I can only wish that this group of individuals could travel (in the most sustainable fashion possible) to any developing nation, and many large cities in developed nations, to witness firsthand what the author is describing and live as the locals do. That might temper their optimism a bit.


Another group of people are likely to be depressed by what they read as the book chronicles population growth, the state of the environment, our struggle to feed ourselves, and our fight over potable water, among other topics. They will feel impotent and disaffected, unsure that they can do anything that would make a difference and unwilling to try. They would say “What’s the point? I’m just one person, and I can’t change the world.” I can empathize with the depression, but I would argue that change happens with one person at a time making different choices. Personal actions do matter.


Still others would likely say that these are symptoms of political and economic mismanagement and all we need do is find the right political and economic systems to address these problems. It’s not science that will find an answer, there’s more than enough space on the earth to expand into, and we just need to do a better job at distributing resources.  While there are some things in this point of view that are true, I would argue that this group does not have a good understanding of thermodynamics, the limits of sustainability, and the simple mathematics of population doubling.


So what does all this have to do with sustainable and green chemistry?  In my mind, the kinds of emotional reactions I have outlined above are very similar to reactions and conversations I've had with many people over the years about sustainable and green chemistry.  People have a range of emotional reactions to it and I have found it very difficult to move them off their initial reaction.


So you know where I stand, I think chemistry and chemical engineering are absolutely fundamental to life as we know it.  That means life as it is now, with all its opportunities and looming problems as it is chronicled in a book like “Countdown.”  Regardless of which camp you find yourself in, I’d like to encourage you to always be thinking about how you can do the chemistry and engineering you do in a more sustainable and green way.  There really is no reason for you not to do so, and every reason for you to do so.  I just think we are rapidly running out of time to say that it’s optional.  You may not agree, but what do you have to lose?  You might just gain a better world for our children’s, children’s, children…..of all species.


As always, let me know what you think.




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