Thursday, November 17, 2011

Paul Anastas: words of encouragement

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a small lunch for, and a larger-public lecture by, Professor Paul Anastas--Yale professor, 'father' of green chemistry, and currently the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development and Science Advisor to the EPA.

WOW!  This guy was positive.  Using wise quotes from Einstein (you're not going to solve a problem with the same thinking that created it...) and others, and excellent examples, he talked about why we have to break away from thinking about incremental improvements and focus more on truly transformative technological innovation.  Indeed, he kept saying that the best solution to a problem doesn't involve technology, it involves not using technology at all.  

For example, what's better:  a gas-powered lawn mower, a solar-powered lawn mower, an electric lawn mower, or a push mower?  Thinking only about energy use, you can develop arguments and ways to incrementally improve the efficiency of lawn mowers.  However, that's not the point. What if you planted grass that didn't require cutting because it didn't grow long blades.  No technology is required.  

Or consider phones.  Where should phone lines be?  How can they be made more efficient.  What about not using phone lines at all and have cell-phone towers. 

He talked in general terms about bio-mimicry and how many toxic industrial processes use heat, and dangerous chemicals to catalyze reactions, but nature builds things that are useful to us without the heat and toxic chemicals. These ideas are ripe for the pickin'.

He also talked broadly about the importance of systems thinking.  Despite our best intentions, if we're too focused on a single problem, we may cause more problems in the long-term.  We have to think about the entire system--the Earth's environment in this case.

The salience of transformative thinking was just hammered into me in a discussion I had after the talk.  

Have you seen those new 'green' plastic bottles...the ones that say they are made from natural products?  Turns out that they use plant products (which is as bad as running cars on plants because it takes food out of people's mouths) AND to make the plastics, many of the same toxic chemicals that are used to make regular plastics are used to make so-called 'vegetable' plastics.  UG.  We really need an alternative (recyclable bottles anyone?)!

1 comment:

  1. Dan,

    Your comment on "green" fuel is perfect. Here in Brazil, the government has been developing programs to promote the production and use of fuel from plants. As a result of that, many areas in the country are used to grow sugarcane and other species to produce fuel, not food. We are also losing significant areas that could be conserved and maintained as forests.