Common Goals and Untapped Potential of the Green Chemistry and Environmental Justice Movements

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By Sederra Ross, Program Specialist, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

The environmental justice and green chemistry movements have a mirrored history and share a common goal, which is for a clean and healthier environment for this and future generations. How these movements achieve such goals might seem quite disparate, but in this article, Sederra Ross invites us to imagine if they weren't.

By Sederra Ross, Program Specialist, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

“Our greatest human challenge isn’t a shortage of answers; it’s the untapped potential of unasked questions.”

This notion, gracefully articulated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, encapsulates the essence of humanity’s pursuit of a sustainable future. The questions we’ve yet to pose reflect the voices we’ve excluded from our conversations. These voices could bring fresh insight and new dimensions to the table (or the lab bench). Asking different questions opens new avenues to explore as we tackle air quality, water pollution, land use, biodiversity, and so many other challenges. In much of our scientific pursuit, we have not considered the role impacted and burdened communities could play in our research and how meaningful and authentic engagement can better inform the chemistries, products, and processes we develop.

For this reason, Green Chemistry is a pathway for positive change that has yet to be fully tapped. Developing and choosing greener synthetic processes and solvent alternatives are examples of more environmentally benign chemistry. But ultimately, by implementing such chemistries you ensure less toxic waste and pollutants are produced.

But why is this important? It all sums up to people and the communities and environments that people live, work, and play in.

Emphasis has been put on the importance of our environment and the need to not disrupt our well-crafted ecosystem. As a result, people often envision the oceans, the birds, the fishes, and the polar bears that will be impacted by climate change and chemical hazards. But what about the people! What about the people who will be first and most impacted by changes in climate, pollution, and toxic waste?

As chemists, it is key that we consider not just the future of our planet, but also that of the people that live here, especially those most impacted, such as workers, those in lower-income demographics, and people of color. Often, those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution.

So, Environmental Justice gives us the terminology to describe who we should be considering when it comes to our chemical innovations and who is most impacted by damage to the environment. Why is this important? The environmental justice and green chemistry movements have a mirrored history and share a common goal, which is for a clean and healthier environment for this and future generations.

mirrored history graphic.png

How these movements achieve such goals might seem quite disparate; but imagine if they weren’t. Imagine if chemists informed community members about green chemistry, and then communities could advocate for greener alternatives to industry and government. Imagine if chemists actively listened to communities and pivoted their research to address current environmental issues such as alternatives/solutions to ethylene oxide to reduce emissions in black and brown communities or single-atom catalysis to assist with green hydrogen production in Indigenous communities for energy alternatives. Then, imagine if chemists and community organizations worked hand-in-hand to solve these problems, leveraging grant funding and journals to share their findings and propagate change not just locally, but globally.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are huge aspirations, and they can’t be solved by any one sector, expert, or community alone. It takes all of us to start making change where we are. Environmental justice is not a political issue to run away from. It is a catalyst to help spread and facilitate green chemistry not just throughout the chemical enterprise, but to every product, process, and life that chemistry touches. It is our responsibility as chemists to consider the impact of our work and how we can be responsible stewards of our knowledge and research.

In chemistry lies the key to change, but without diverse perspectives and synergistic efforts with communities, we will not be able to find the door to a sustainable future. We must have a system thinking approach, and this can’t be achieved if we exclude environmental justice. As green chemists, we have been faced with a grand challenge – but also a grand opportunity! – to enter our renaissance era of chemical innovation. Now, is the time to walk boldly into a shared future, where we not only have questions but the answers as well!