Sustainability: Changing the World, One Scientist at a Time

It is clear that creating a sustainable future is the greatest long-term challenge facing modern society. The world’s supply of fossil fuels is depleting, effects of human-influenced climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, natural diversity is threatened, and the toxic burden carried by humanity has never been higher. As scientists, it is time to stand up and take some responsibility for these problems – because we developed the technologies underlying them. The question is – how do we help shoulder our share of the sustainability burden in a practical, achievable way?

Often when faced with this question, scientists dismiss the issue as being one better left to politicians and industrial concerns. For example, one proposed way to deal with these issues is to drastically increase regulatory activities through passage of ever-more stringent environmental laws. While regulatory action does have a place, increased regulation risks strangling further economic growth and putting a serious damper on sustainability-based innovation, as will be addressed later. A second proposed option is to create a shift in global economic thinking away from market economics and moving to a more sustainability-based model. It seems unlikely, however, that the world economic system will change quickly without a catastrophic driving force, though a long-term change is certainly possible. In the near term, though, citizens living in developed countries are never going to accept a drastically reduced standard of living in order to alleviate environmental stress, and developing nations are not going to accept gross inequities in global wealth distribution. It appears clear that dealing with the ‘sustainability problem’ is going to require some other kind of solution.

The secret to solving this problem lies in the fact that industries – even those that are usually disparaged, such as the petrochemical industry – don’t want to pollute. They don’t want to pollute because companies exist to make money for their shareholders, and environmentally harmful processes are economically wasteful. If a company were able to replace an eco-toxic process with a new substitute that was identical in all ways – only greener – they would do so, because it would save them money.

‘Green’ technologies save industries money because of two basic factors. First, energy- or material-inefficient processes just cost money – both for the purchasing of the excess raw materials or energy and for the disposal of any waste products at the end of the process. Second, the costs of regulatory compliance discourage environmentally harmful industrial processes. In the past 35 years, US legislators have enacted over 100 new federal environmental laws (1). The EPA estimates that the costs associated with compliance with these regulations (including safety precautions, waste disposal costs, fines for illegal waste emissions, and worker time lost due to accidents) are between $100 and $150 billion dollars. In contrast, NIH – the dominant funding agency in the USA – has a budget of $28 billion dollars (2). If these regulatory costs were eliminated, the USA would be able to pour five times the current research budget of NIH into basic scientific research annually. If there are such large industrial incentives to adopt eco-friendly processes – i.e. the opportunity to save large sums of money – why aren’t all industries ‘green’?

It is this author’s opinion that the primary reason industry accepts such environmental and economic wastefulness is because environmentally benign, non-hazardous alternatives to traditional processes do not currently exist. It has been incumbent on the scientific community to produce such tools in place of polluting, inefficient technologies, and as a whole we have failed to do so (excepting a few notable areas). There are a variety of potential reasons for this. First, university researchers have not, by and large, considered the environmental effects of the technologies we’ve developed. Second, the normal paradigm of risk management taught at universities is to minimize the risk of exposure and leave unaddressed the underlying hazard associated with a process or material. Third, the costs associated with material and energy wastes in university laboratories have not been significant enough to worry most academic researchers until very recently. Finally, scientific development relies heavily on previous work, most of which was performed at a time when toxicological and ecological effects of our technologies were poorly understood. While such excuses explain our past inaction, we must change our ways in the face of current realities. If we, as scientists, fail to address sustainability issues, we are abrogating our responsibility for the environmental impact of our actions.

So – what practical steps can scientists take to help address the sustainability issue? Well, I hope that the reader is convinced that if scientists develop green technologies – either as a replacement of current technologies or in new areas of study – industry will adopt them in order to increase efficiency and save money. This may not be immediate, of course, due to potentially high initial costs of adoption compared to long-term gains in efficiency, but so long as green technologies are both more ecofriendly and competitive in terms of conventional measures of efficiency adoption will occur eventually. In this author’s opinion, the adoption of the following steps would greatly encourage the development of green technologies by our research community.

1) The environmental effects of materials and processes we develop in our laboratory must become part of our experimental design, just like the efficiency or limits of detection of our experiment.

2) We must encourage research on the fundamental properties making materials toxic as well as the effects of dose on toxicity. Such an understanding is currently lacking and is an absolute requirement if we are to intelligently design our science to be green.

3) Where applicable, we should keep in mind potential applications of our research to industrial processes. Further, funding – from both industrial and government sources – should encourage this result.

All three proposed actions can be summed up as encouraging awareness amongst academic researchers of the environmental and human health costs of our activities. If we carefully consider the environmental costs of the experiments we perform in the laboratory and design them to be as green as possible, we can create alternatives to traditional industrial processes and do our part to create a cleaner, more sustainable society.


1. For an excellent review of some of the arguments made in this article, including the EPA data quoted here, see ‘Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice’, by Anastas and Warner, Oxford University Press, 1998

2. Science, 306 (2004), p. 1453

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