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Institute for Green Science

Education & Ethics

Green Chemistry: The responsibility of chemists to promote sustainability

This section of our website represents a contribution to the development of an ethical context that might help chemists to think about sustainability and the use of chemistry as a tool to move towards it.

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Introduction

Is Green Chemistry an Ethical Imperative for Research Chemistry?

To answer this question we must consider the following points:

  • Do we live in a sustainable civilization?
  • Is the pursuit of sustainability an ethical imperative for humanity?
  • What role can chemistry play in allowing a high technology civilization to become sustainable?
  • Is moving technology towards sustainable processes an ethical imperative for chemists?

What is a Sustainable Civilization?

Civilization: n 1 a: a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specif: the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained b: the culture characteristic of a particular time or place 2: the process of becoming civilized 3 a: refinement of thought, manners or taste b: a situation of urban comfort

—Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

A sustainable human civilization is one in which the net sum of what the people who comprise it do each day, individually and collectively, can be carried on into the indefinite future without undermining the ability of the future generations to live with at least a comparably advantageous welfare.

Human activities fall into two classes with regard to their impact on sustainability:

Activities that are apparently positive or benign towards sustainability

Predicting whether an apparently benign practice will promote the welfare of future generations of a civilization is difficult.

Some apparently benign practices are later discovered to be not benign at all. Examples include:

  • the use of lead for water pipes, drinking vessels, etc.
  • the CFC/stratospheric ozone depletion story

In the chemical area, this situation has arisen repeatedly with persistent compounds.

Our practices and especially our technologies should be reexamined and parameterized with respect to their ability to promote or detract from sustainability.

Activities that clearly cannot be sustained into the indefinite future and that apparently detract from overall sustainability

Often a technology has been launched when its future potential to detract from sustainability is not at all apparent. The inventors and initial developers have generally had no experience to draw on with respect to sustainability questions. Over time, driven by the enthusiasm about its usefulness, the technology takes on a life of its own, regardless of its impact on sustainability. Some of the day-to-day functions of the civilization can become utterly dependent upon the technology.

These technologies often have these characteristics:

  • they are based upon a nonsustainable level of consumption
  • they produce lasting detractors from sustainability that accumulate in the environment
  • they are frequently associated with the production of persistent compounds

Civilization must adjust to deal with the power of entrenched technologies to undermine its own sustainability.

Sustainability: An Ethical Imperative?

In a brilliant book, which should be read by anyone concerned about sustainability, “The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age” (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984) Hans Jonas argues that there is a need for a new ethics that will better enable our civilization to deal with the power over the ecosphere that it has acquired through science and technology.

The book opens as follows:

“All previous ethics — whether in the form of issuing direct enjoinders to do and not to do certain things, or in the form of defining principles for such enjoinders, or in the form of establishing the ground of obligation for obeying such principles — had these interconnected tacit premises in common: that the human condition, determined by the nature of man and the nature of things, was given once for all; that the human good on that basis was readily determinable; and that the range of human action and therefore responsibility was narrowly circumscribed. It will be the burden of the present argument to show that these premises no longer hold, and to reflect on the meaning of this fact for our moral condition. More specifically, it will be my contention that with certain developments of our powers the nature of human action has changed, and, since ethics is concerned with action, it should follow that the changed nature of human action calls for a change in ethics as well: this not merely in the sense that new objects of action have added to the case material on which received rules of conduct are to be applied, but in the more radical sense that the qualitatively novel nature of certain of our actions has opened up a whole new dimension of ethical relevance for which there is no precedent in the standards and canons of traditional ethics.”

The greatly increasing pressure of technology-based human activity on the ecosphere has given rise to the uncertainty and the insecurity captured in the concept of sustainability.

Can we continue to operate our civilization as we have been doing without spoiling or even ruining the future possibly for ourselves and almost certainly for our descendants?

Since much of the technological power underlying the sustainability dilemma has been devised by chemists, it is reasonable for chemists to ask how chemistry might be advanced to contribute to the sustainability of our civilization.

Green chemistry is arising as a field representing the practical expression of the willingness of chemists to turn technology towards sustainability.

The Quadrants of Human Action

quadrants of Human Action chartadapted from "First Things First", Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994, ISBN: 0-684-80203-1 (Pbk).

To understand how to deal with sustainability, we must first understand ourselves and how to direct ourselves in positive directions.

The Quadrant of Necessity

Quadrant of Necessity: Here we do what we genuinely must.An activity that is urgent and important is something we each understand we must and will do.

The Quadrant of Deception

Quadrant of Deception: Here we can let systems steal our chances to be authentic.Most individuals in our civilization live their professional lives in the quadrant of deception.

They are performing activities that are urgent (to the system in which the individual is working) but not important (to the individual performing the task).

In all likelihood, individuals locked into the quadrant of deception will eventually feel unsatisfied and unfulfilled in their positions because they are spending so much of their time performing tasks that do not represent a form of true self-expression.

The Quadrant of Waste

Quadrant of Waste: Here we can squander our chances to be authentic.Performing an activity that is both not urgent and not important amounts to wasting time.

If we are wasting too much time in this way, in all likelihood our failure to express our authenticity will begin eating at us, making us realize we are unfulfilled.

The Quadrant of Originality

Quadrants of Originality: Here we define our authenticity and frame the great contributions we are capable of.Activities that are not urgent but important refine our originality.

These activities are the most vital for humans, for science, and especially for the question of sustainability.

Green Chemistry

“Green chemistry is the utilization of a set of principles that reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and application of chemical products.”
– Paul T. Anastas: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Central to green chemistry is the quest for the reduction and elimination of pollution.

We say the environment is polluted when the practice of a human technology jeopardizes any life-form that is recognized to be important to us.

The Principles of Green Chemistry

  1. It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed.
  2. Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process to the final product
  3. Whenever practicable, synthetic methodologies should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.
  4. Chemical methods should be designed to preserve efficacy of function while reducing toxicity.
  5. The use of auxiliary substances (e.g. solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary whenever possible and, innocuous when used.
  6. Energy requirements should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. Synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.
  7. A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting wherever technically and economically practicable.
  8. Unnecessary derivatization (blocking group, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be avoided whenever possible.
  9. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.
  10. Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they do not persist in the environment and break down into innocuous degradation products.
  11. Analytical methods needed to be further developed to allow for real time, in process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.
  12. Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen so as to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, ISBN 0 19 850234 6].

The Great Fields of Green Chemistry

The questions associated with the sustainability of our technologically powerful civilization are significantly chemical in nature.

The field of green chemistry is arising to solve problems that are of great significance to the future of humanity.

Three problem areas stand out:

  • inventing technology to support the expanded availability and use of renewable energy
  • developing renewable feedstocks and products based on them
  • creating technology that does not produce pollution

The underlying theme and hope of green chemistry is that chemists can divert technology from paths that run Nature down and exhaust its bounty to new courses that promote the vitality of Nature and the sustainability of our civilization.

Green Chemistry: The Professional Challenges

Chemists will need to subsume into pure chemistry the questions of environmental impact and sustainability.

It is vital that green chemistry not become a fad.

Certain of the large sustainability issues, where chemists have so much to offer, will require new approaches that can only be built with long-term commitment.