Spaceship economics. It's a concept that goes back more than 40 years, attributed to the late economist Kenneth E. Boulding, then at the University of Colorado. Boulding's ideas now seem particularly prescient to Donald Rogich, a longtime observer and analyst of the big picture of how materials flow from their raw states and points of origin through the products we make and use in our constructed landscapes.
"You have to think of the planet as a spaceship," Rogich told me recently when I asked him about his take on the chemical enterprise's challenge to operate in more sustainable ways. "You have everything you are ever going to have, and you have all of the space you are ever going to have." If you think this way about the planet, he says, you eventually are going to do what it takes to keep the ship's life-support systems healthy for the long haul.
Rogich, who was a career researcher with the now dismantled Bureau of Mines and for years since retiring has been consulting with think tanks such as the World Resources Institute, has been getting more worried about a growing global population whose per capita consumption of energy and resources continues increasing faster than efforts to conserve, recycle, reuse, and otherwise produce and consume in more sustainable ways.
"I try to maintain an optimistic viewpoint," Rogich told me, but now, he says, "it is just a scary situation."
Centuries ago there still were new worlds, full of untapped resources, to be discovered. "The world looked like an open system" that could accommodate ever more people consuming ever more resources, and absorb ever more wastes, Rogich says. There are no more new worlds. "At some point," says Rogich, "you have to accommodate to a closed cycle," even to a framework of efficiency that Stanford University chemist Barry M. Trost articulated for chemists in 1995 as the "atom economy" in which every atom that goes into well-designed reactions comes out as part of something useful.
Accommodation to a closed system must happen at every level of society, from the homeowner substituting a muscle-driven push mower for his power mower to transnational organizations whose members bind themselves to making the things the world needs without trashing the planet.
So far at least, rather than inspiring a lot of concrete action, the ideal of sustainability has spawned a cottage industry of advisers, pundits, how-to book authors, researchers, politicians, media professionals, entrepreneurs, and others who have made sustainability their cause célÈbre.
The sustainability ethic may be infiltrating the mind-set of a widening swath of humanity, but there also is a collective shoulder-shrug about how to realize it. In this issue of C&EN, we examine this conundrum as it pertains to the chemical enterprise, whose participants have the knowledge and skill sets best suited to render "sustainability" more than a word.
Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum argues that most important of all is to learn to live off the sun in real time instead of consuming "fossilized sunshine" in such forms as petroleum and coal. Assistant Managing Editor Michael McCoy reports that industry and environmentalists are replacing mutual antagonism with collaboration aimed at achieving both environmental and financial sustainability. Senior Editor Stephen Ritter defines the chemist's challenge as coming up with the 10,000 innovations it will take to make, use, and manage products without wrecking the planet's systems. Senior Editor Cheryl Hogue investigates regulatory incentives that local, state, national, and international governmental bodies are using to redirect today's seemingly unsustainable global trends toward ones that can endure.
The chemical enterprise is all about inputs and outputs. The task of those involved in the chemical enterprise is to recast what they do as though they were traveling and living on the only spaceship they and future generations will ever have.
Thanks for reading.
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