Posts Tagged ‘Sustainability’

Sustainable Chemistry

May 30, 2012

A Healthy Wealthy and Sustainable World is indeed possible according to John Emsley. But only if we exploit the skills of chemical engineers.

I have just read two books with a positive message about the role of chemical engineering in modern life.  A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World and Islington Green are both by John Emsley, and they both tell the same story, but in two different ways.

A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World, tells the story ‘straight up’. It considers the role of chemistry in the food we eat, the water we drink, medicine, transport, plastics and city life. In each case Emsley considers whether the status quo is sustainable, and whether it could be conceivably made so. Emsley takes a narrow view of sustainability as implying non-reliance on fossil fuels. But even that’s a tough call and his discussion of what this involves is interesting. If you were teaching GCSE or A level chemistry this would give you a plethora of applications of basic chemistry in the context of our daily lives.

Islington Green tells the same story by introducing two comic-book caricatures  Justin Thyme and Teresa Green (!) who start out trying to live an ‘organic, green’ lifestyle without using any ‘chemicals’. However they end up deciding that the most sustainable and convenient choices are those offered by the chemical industry. Along the way Emsley shares a few traditional Yorkshire opinions on the valuable contribution that merchant bankers make to our society.

I have been an admirer of John Emsley for years, ever since I acquired his book about The Elements now sadly out of print, but replaced by the excellent Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements. I also enjoyed his book on ‘The Elements of Murder: a history of poison‘. He writes in a clear, uncluttered style which is refreshing to read.

But I do have a caveat. If you are sceptical about the role of the chemical industry, you will find little to persuade you to change your mind. He devotes a fair amount of time to demolishing the ‘straw arguments’ of hypothetical ‘greens’, but fails to even acknowledge more mundane concerns. For example Emsley fails to mention the ozone hole

In the 1950s the chemical industry introduced a range of super-chemicals to replace hydrocarbons: chlorocarbons, fluorocarbons and mixed chloro-fluoro-carbons. These chemicals performed fantastically in refrigerators and a range of other applications. But they had the unintended consequence of lingering in the atmosphere and through a bizarre and unanticipated feature of atmospheric chemistry, destroyed the ozone layer above the Antarctic (mainly) and the Arctic (a little) each spring.

This episode must have cost billions of pounds, required the re-engineering of an entire industry, and the ozone layer will still take more than 100 years to return to normal. Independent of whether these chemicals are made with or without fossil fuels, chemistry of this type is clearly not sustainable.

The positive story about the role of the Chemical Industry is a story worth telling, and Emsley tells it well. But in my opinion it is a story worth telling with a little less hubris.

[UPDATE: May 30th: I have updated this article, removing my comments about Biological Washing Powders which may be found here.]

Prosperity without Growth. Is it possible?

April 23, 2012
Prosperity without Growth

Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson. Is it possible to create a prosperous society in which there is no economic growth? Tim Jackson thinks it is, but he didn't convince me.

The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist.

This quotation is from Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson, a book which focuses on the conflict between economic success and ecological sustainability. The book asks the fundamental question:

  • Is it possible to have a prosperous society which is not continually growing?

Jackson asserts that prosperity is indeed possible without growth, but only if we re-consider what we mean by prosperity.

  • Growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), argues Jackson, is not a good indicator of anything that really corresponds to prosperity in people’s lives. GDP growth is linked with increased consumption of all kinds of objects and services, and while that may act as a proxy for prosperity in the developing world, this is no longer true in the developed world. Jackson asks whether a society in which people have ‘too much’ is meaningfully more prosperous than one in which everyone has ‘enough’?
  • Prosperity, he argues, is multi-dimensional: it involves community: access to education, chances to be with our family and the security that comes an ecologically sustainable lifestyle. It involves people ‘flourishing’. He argues that ‘consumerism’ is actually at the root of what makes people miserable.  If we could just find a way to incorporate indicators of genuine prosperity (as is done in Bhutan) and optimise these, then the absence of conventional economic GDP growth would not be catastrophic.

I have never fully understood why ‘growth’ plays such a central role in our capitalist system. I understand that year-on-year people will tend to improve processes and produce more with the same resources. And I understand that over the last two hundred years, astonishing technological changes have driven new ways of doing things, and symbiotic social changes have created new lifestyles that allow (or possibly compel?) us to both produce more and to consume more. So growth has been a feature of the economy we have all grown up in. But is it essential?

So I profoundly sympathise with Jackson‘s key points, but I am appalled by his vision of a zero-growth prosperous society. It reminds me of many of the worst regimes on Earth.

  • Jackson identifies ‘novelty’ as a fundamental problem. A problem? In my lifetime the world has been utterly changed by ‘novelty’, most notably that arising from computing technology. Would a Jacksonian society have stopped with the 386 processor and said: “that’s enough” or “Who could need more that 640k memory?”. Is he in favour of body scanners or are they too novel. How about X-rays? Maybe tractors are too modern because they cause unemployment on farms and employment is a way of ‘flourishing’? What about new alloys?  Or modern telecommunications? Or transport? Or vaccines? At some point a Jacksonian society would try to stop the clock, and the rest of the world would move on. It reminds me of Cuba.
  • Jacksonian society would have full employment and economic activities would be focussed on the sustainable provision of food and energy. It is a world in which ‘The humble broom would be preferred to the diabolical ‘leaf blower’ . This sounds very much like a planned self-sufficient economy in which individual ‘flourishing’ would substitute for material wealth. It reminds me of China during the cultural revolution.
  • Jackson’s vision fails to account for the chaos of human life and our aspiration to do the best we can for ourselves and our family. In the real world there will be dissenting views, and people will be able to leave Jackson-Land for other parts of the world. Peeping across the border, the bright lights and fast cars of unsustainable Jeremy Clarkson-Land would probably look pretty attractive.

I applaud Jackson for trying to be clear about how different his hypothetical world would be, but ultimately it just doesn’t seem like a world in which individual people would choose to live. Do I have an alternative vision? No.

Ultimately, the problem is one of sharing finite resources, and here the technology that Jackson so objects to, has given us previously unimaginable opportunities for novel ways of working and living. And for the first time in history given humanity a shared and truly global perspective.

Given the UK’s previously privileged position, it seems inevitable – whether we like it or not – that we will have to consume less than we have previously. This will feel strange and even just beginning to do it will present severe social challenges. These first steps will be really hard, but some of the principles Jackson expounds could highlight the fact that we have more choices than we might otherwise have imagined.

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