For too long sustainability and environmental protection have been defined by those saying that we need to do less, have less, expect less. For too long, we have been told that we need to consume less energy, use less materials, travel less, give up the vast array of modern conveniences. I couldn’t disagree more and thank goodness the leading inventors and designers of our time agree with me.
I believe the problem of sustainability largely isn’t that we use too much, it’s that we have designed the products and processes of our society and our economy so foolishly. Nature was never told to cut back and stop generating so much waste. Why? Because it has used its billions of years of design brilliance to do things correctly rather than doing it so terribly wrong that the only way to be less harmful is to do less of it. Unlike Nature, we have built the pillars of daily life around energy and materials that are finite and depleting rather than renewable and regenerating. We have built economic growth around “things and stuff” rather than function and performance. And we’ve done it on a massive scale. It’s no wonder that the sustainability challenges we are facing are so daunting.
Enter the leaders of sustainable design and innovation. Armies of “Green Chemists and Engineers” from around the world are reinventing the things we make and the way that we make them.
- Imagine the feedstocks for chemical production that are edible rather than toxic.
- Imagine manufacturing with sunlight rather than chemicals.
- Imagine plastics that are made from waste and become nutrients for the soil rather than persist in a landfill for millennia.
- Now imagine that you’re not imagining.
At the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, professors and students alike are developing new ways to make energy ranging from oil from algae to splitting water with sunlight. New ways of purifying water by using the waste shells from shell fish to using waste heat to power forward osmosis have been developed. New approaches to understanding how to design chemicals so that they are incapable of being toxic are being investigated. These are just few of the projects that are not just staying in the lab but being spun out into companies and are now available in the marketplace.
But Yale is far from alone in this great endeavor. Universities, companies and institutes from across the North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and more recently South America and Africa are pursuing Green Chemistry. Why? Because it is economically profitable while being environmentally sustainable. For too long the culture of “less” has said that sustainability will always be a cost. Through truly sustainable design, people are finding that more often than not, sustainability can result in “more” and come at a profit. This is the secret that is being discovered by inventors and entrepreneurs the world around.
One reason that I am so proud to be spending next week at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., is because I get to spend my time not only with some of the best innovators and scientists of our time but also with the best scientists and innovators of tomorrow. Tomorrow will largely be what we design it to be. Rather than the fragile, depleting, degrading design of society since the 20th Century, the next generation of scientists will stand on the shoulders of green chemistry giants of today and design a sustainable resilient tomorrow. I have no doubt.
As Robert F. Kennedy used to like to quote, “Some see the World as it is and ask ‘Why?’ Others dream of the World as it could be and ask, ‘Why not?’
Anastas recently served in the Obama Administration as the Assistant Administrator for the U.S. EPA for Research and Development and the Agency Science Advisor. Anastas recently returned to his position at Yale University where he is the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Chair of Chemistry for the Environment and the Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale. His is widely known as “The Father of Green Chemistry”.