Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Interconnections We Forget


From The Oil Drum:
"[Secretary] Chu noted that solar PV will play a major - if not the major - role in energy 100 years from now. He also noted that we really need cheap solar cells with polymer backing. Of course most of our polymers are oil-derived, which is just another example of how we take for granted the role that cheap oil plays in enabling some of these renewable technologies."
This quote (I started this post last week) is a perfect segue into some comments about John Warner's talk at Babson last week. I was fortunate enough to be invited to sit in on Asheen Phansey's (founder of Quaking Aspen) MBA class targeted at students interested in learning how to integrate Nature's design wisdom into their businesses. I twittered (I'm still not sure what twitter will get me in the long run...here are some funny videos about it) about the class so I'll not go into too much detail; we talked about ecosystem succession, the different types of organisms, and what they do. If you're twitter person and are interested, search for #babson and you'll find my comments.

So, John Warner is the founder of The Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry located in Woburn, MA (pretty appropriate given the history of chemical pollution in that town, remember A Civil Action?) and what some might consider the Godfather of the Green chemistry movement. His billing was not undersold. I thoroughly enjoyed his story, and found myself muttering agreements to myself, nodding, and generally resisting the temptation to leap up and yell "Amen brother!".

So what was I so excited about? He recognizes the flaws in the system.

What struck me most, tying back into the comment about forgotten connections, was John's realization after working in academia & industrial chemistry making cool molecules, publishing papers, and becoming a bit of a chemistry rockstar he had not once been taught about the potential impacts these compounds might have on nature (including people). A personal loss (something that took the air out of the room when he told us) related to a rare birth defect sparked this realization; he said (I'm paraphrasing a bit) "what if a molecule that I touched, that I worked on, was somehow responsible for this?" How would he know? This is when he started to see the flaws in the educational paradigm that created chemists.

In the academic discipline of chemistry, no part of the curriculum addresses the potential for toxic consequences. It reminds me of my own undergraduate mechanical engineering education at WPI; there was absolutely no mention of the social and environmental impacts of our design decisions had. What does it mean environmentally if you choose aluminum alloy A over alloy B? What happens at its end of life? How much energy goes into its manufacture? Where was it sourced? What did its creation do to the native habitats from whence it came? [I can give some credit to WPI, John said he taught an evening class in green chemistry and WPI did launch a sustainability initiative in the spring of 2008 - only a little behind the curve]

What John reaffirmed for me was that we, and everything else are connected, that decisions we make have far-reaching and often unintended consequences that we are bound to start taking into consideration. He noted (and I believe) that collectively we have made the choice to accept economic practices that create pollutants, that create hazardous materials that have known toxic properties. He challenged us to think about why this is...and then think about ways to change it. Of course, this requires the asking of difficult questions, and remaining conscious of the challenges we face while maintaining a resilient posture in the face of those challenges.

Choosing to create toxic substances for the improvement of the human condition is an oxymoron.

I suppose one of the things we have going for us is that younger generations have a different perspective on industry (The days of The Organization Man are long gone). They have not been taught by the scientists and engineers that were born of the Apollo Project. In many ways, the hard work that our parents and grandparents put in to create these institutions and values that have inadvertently placed us on an unsustainable course have allowed us the luxury to take a step back and look at the system and say "Hey, you know what? This is great and everything and we appreciate your hard work. Let's look at what we can improve and move ahead with building a just and regenerative society." We do not have to settle for business-as-usual. In fact, that's probably the biggest danger we face.

Here's to the future...

Oh, and I just could not help but come back to The Oil Drum, some interesting analysis on the influence of oil prices on our economy (bubbles lead to recessions). Remember, it's all about connections.

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