Science Wednesday: Sustainability and Leadership

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in recent years when discussing current environmental events. On the heels of the BP Oil Spill, it has become an imperative. Last week I attended a speech by Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D., EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development. The speech was the keynote address at the American Chemical Society’s Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference.

Anastas, the “father of green chemistry” and one of the founders of the conference, focused his remarks on the importance of leadership and the opportunity for innovation in the fields of green chemistry and engineering. Using the oil spill as an example, the speech was punctuated by stirring images, including the technologically impressive offshore drilling platform and the less than inventive booms, one of the tools employed during the clean-up. It made me question the decision to put all our stock into technology that is efficient at acquiring natural resources, but fails to protect or sustain them.

As a student of architecture who has worked on projects involving sustainable design I was pleased to hear Anastas champion elegant technology. His comments made me think about my own attempts to foster sustainability. With any new idea, cutting-edge technology can only get you so far. An ugly idea is unappealing to the general public. However, when technology is wrapped in an attractive and efficient package it can be successful. Clearly, technology is only one part of the equation to reach sustainable goals, and I think a lot of work must be done to bridge the gap between ideology and practice.

I was particularly struck by the remark that Anastas made about how he coined the term “green chemistry,” choosing the label green based on both environmental and economic principles (“Green is the color of money,” he pointed out.)

The terms “environmental” and “economic” seem at odds with each other in a modern context as the country continues to experience the effects of a fiscal downturn and many proposed sustainable methods have proved both costly and inefficient. The development of new technology that is successful on both levels can create the opportunity for economic growth and recovery without degrading the environment and threatening human health. However, I was inspired by the optimistic tone and the reassurance that we have the ability to reconcile these two values, that with persistence and ingenuity we can redefine a sustainable future and employ our creativity to “become the leaders we have been waiting for.”

About the Author: Hillary Kett is a student contractor with the Communications team in the Office of Research and Development.