Less Bad vs. Good

Changing our energy infrastructure from one that contributes to climate change to one that is renewable and sustainable poses enormous challenges technically, politically, socially, and economically. There isn't going to be a single solution, but a combination of technological changes, policy changes, efficiency gains, and adaptations to local environments will likely go a long way to making our current system better.

But there is a big difference between better and good. In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect Bill McDonough and environmental chemist Michael Braungart discuss how engineering and design can go beyond making existing industries more eco-efficient to making them eco-effective, from less bad to good:

Eco-efficiency is an outwardly admirable, even noble, concept but it is not a strategy for success over the long term, because it does not reach deep enough. It works within the same system that caused the problem in the first place, merely slowing it down with moral proscriptions and punitive measures. It presents little more than an illusion of change. Relying on eco-efficiency to save the environment will in fact achieve the opposite; it will let industry finish off everything, quietly, persistently, and completely.

Newish technologies like synthetic biology and other biotechnologies have huge potential for changing how we produce fuels, medicines, industrial chemicals, and materials for the better. Large investments and lots of smart people are pouring into the field, hoping to make safe, efficient, effective, fair, and carbon-neutral technologies. But we have to also be able to think outside of the current industrial system, not just increasing efficiency, but making something truly good. That is why I am hugely disappointed by what's going on with iGEM.

Budget crises around the world are making it hard to find funding, and exuberantly optimistic undergraduate synthetic biology competitions are no exception. This year, iGEM is being sponsored in part by government organizations such as the National Science Foundation and NASA, biotech companies such as Agilent Technologies, and, surprisingly, the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative.

The Oil Sands Leadership Initiative is a collaborative network of five Canadian oil companies, who've come together to "serve one common goal: improving the oil sands industry's reputation by demonstrating and communicating environmental, social and economic performance and technological advancements." How can iGEM help improve the reputation of companies that are extracting oil from Canadian oil sands at significant environmental cost?

Sponsorship is offered in iGEM's "Energy & Environment" track. Teams are invited to submit iGEM project proposals especially in the area of biologically based solutions to improve the environmental sustainability of oil sands bitumen extraction, upgrading and refining, for either in situ or surface mining processes.


Bituminous sands are naturally occurring dense mixtures of sand and very thick petroleum that must be extracted from the sand and heavily refined before it can be sold and burned as non-renewable fuel. Extraction leads to significant environmental damage as dangerous heavy metals are released into land and waterways, and refining and processing require so much energy that a barrel of oil sands oil ends up producing 1.3-1.7 times the carbon dioxide emissions of conventional crude oil.

Even if oil sands could be mined at the same efficiency and environmental cost as traditional crude oil, burning oil is what is causing so many problems in the first place. New biological techniques for bioremediation of destroyed Canadian landscapes, or extraction and refining of the oil could certainly make this process more efficient and less bad for the environment, but it certainly wouldn't be good in the long run. Previous iGEM teams from Alberta, Canada funded in part by the OSLI used the money to try and engineer a bacterium that could clean up some of the toxic waste being spilled into tailings ponds of oil sands mining operations. As the bacteria eat the toxic compounds left in the water, they can break them down into more usable compounds that could be further processed into usable hydrocarbons.

Should young, bright, and idealistic biotechnology students spend their summer coming up with technologies for oil companies to exploit so that they can more cleanly and efficiently pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or should they be trying to come up with new fuels, new processes, new systems, new industries that can some day actually be good? iGEM is an inspirational experience, where you can meet hundreds of amazing students doing hundreds of amazing and creative things. Let's not stifle their creativity and potential for change by having them try to make a fundamentally flawed and dangerous system less bad.


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Very exactly right. We'll never get out of this hole by investing in smaller shovels.

I certainly hope your faith in "young, bright, and idealistic biotechnology students" is not misplaced.

I'd hate to see them morph into old, instransigent, corrupted bureaucrats and corporate shills, the way so many of our generation did.

I remember being young and idealistically looking forward to the day when people my age ran things, expecting that it would be much, much better than the old folks' ways.

Boy, was I ever wrong!

If we do less environmental damage per person, and take that as carte blanche to have more people, the environment is just as badly off.

Looks to me like the main thrust in oil sands technology has been, will be, in making it economically viable, and, mainly by use of creative framing and advertising, at least marginally environmentally acceptable to the consumer. The first goal is being helped along by ever higher energy prices, and marginally better processes. The second part is now oil company standard procedure.

It is hard not to notice the TV ads pushing the two parts of the argument; energy is vital for both modern life and jobs, and it keeps getting marginally less destructive and more efficient. The combination of pointing out how millions of jobs depend on oil and how they can drill with fewer platforms (A major objection in coastal areas), and nonsense like 'ecomagination' a meant to make it all just a little bit friendlier.

Why should the development of oil sands be any different?

It all starts to sound to me like a wife-beaters passive/aggressive argument: 'You need me. You would be nothing without me. I'm trying to change. I'm getting better ... really I am'.

Could you clarify this statement:

and refining and processing require so much energy that a barrel of oil sands oil ends up producing 1.3-1.7 times the carbon dioxide emissions of conventional crude oil.

It isn't clear whether the factor of 1.3-1.7 is comparing the CO2 released during the refining and processing phase or whether it compares the total CO2 of getting the oil produced as well as the CO2 released during the consumption of that barrel of oil. I think I've heard that the factor you've quoted is the former and that the CO2 released during the consumption of any barrel of oil dwarfs the CO2 released during the acquisition and production regardless of the method, conventional or oil sands.

If that is the case, then it seems to me that efforts to reduce CO2 emissions should focus on consumption.

Sorry for missing the point of your post, in which you do point out that it is the consumption that is the big picture.

McDonough asked the difficult question: How to live such that each thing we do can enhance the rest of the ecosystem? Sustainability for him, and me, means: How to live inorder to persist (with all other life) for geologic time? How to re-integrate ourselves with the ecosystem from which we sprung? Monumental tasks, but everything else is at best stalling for time.