Science Wednesday: The Future is Sustainability

By Paul Anastas

LPJ-at-NRCWow! November 30th was an amazing day for the EPA. Not only are we in the midst of commemorating four decades of accomplishments in protecting the health and the environment, but Administrator Jackson also made a landmark speech at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Science on the future of the EPA. That future is sustainability. The Administrator laid out her vision to a packed house of luminaries from across the spectrum, from academia to industry, to environmental groups.

The speech launched a study being conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) to provide an operational framework for EPA to incorporate sustainability into all the work we do; all of our decisions and all of our actions. While the Administrator was clear to emphasize that dramatic change like this doesn’t occur overnight, she also made it clear that just as the risk paradigm before it, a sustainability framework can have impact everyday even as it is continually refined and honed. In the summer of next year (2011) the NRC report with all of its recommendations will be completed and ready for review by the Agency. What this means is that we will continue to move forward and progress beyond the problem-by-problem approach to environmental protection and recognize that all environmental issues are linked; climate to energy; energy to water; water to agriculture, etc. We know that systems problems call for systems solutions and this sustainability framework will help us more effectively and more potently accomplish our mission in the future.

The body of excellent work on sustainability science has been rapidly growing for over two decades. There is widespread recognition across the scientific community that sustainability, holistic thinking, and a systems approach to environmental protection are the only way forward. The study launched yesterday is the critical step that so many sustainability scientists have been waiting for.

So what does this mean for the work of EPA? It means that the excellent work that is already being done—the science, the research, the innovative thinking and technology development—will of course continue. But, our work will be revitalized by taking advantage of the new tools, perspectives and enhanced effectiveness that goes along with sustainability.

The response to the Administrator’s announcement was uniformly positive and enthusiastic. This positive energy will continue to grow as the power and potential of sustainability science is realized.

Yesterday was a tremendous day for sustainability. But what’s most exciting is that it was just the beginning.

About the Author: Paul Anastas is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and is widely known as “The Father of Green Chemistry.”

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