Educating For Sustainability | September 20, 2010 Issue - Vol. 88 Issue 38 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 88 Issue 38 | p. 32 | ACS Comments
Issue Date: September 20, 2010

Educating For Sustainability

By Joseph S. Francisco, ACS President, and Jeffrey I. Steinfeld, Consultant, Committee on Environmental Improvement
Department: ACS News
Keywords: sustainability
Joseph S. Francisco, ACS President
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Joseph S. Francisco, ACS President
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Jeffrey I. Steinfeld, Consultant, Committee on Environmental Improvement
Credit: Mark Spencer/Carriage House Photography
Jeffrey I. Steinfeld, Consultant, Committee on Environmental Improvement
Credit: Mark Spencer/Carriage House Photography

The American Chemical Society has a key role as the leader on sustainability in the chemical enterprise. Goal 3 of the ACS Strategic Plan states: “ACS will be a global leader in enlisting the world’s scientific professionals to address, through chemistry, the challenges facing our world.” The ACS position statement titled “Sustainability and the Chemical Enterprise” and the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement’s white paper “Increasing ACS Sustainability Leadership” both emphasize the need to improve sustainability literacy among ACS members, educators, students, industrial leaders, policymakers, and the public.

A recent editorial on growth and sustainability in the June 28 issue of Chemical & Engineering News elicited a wide range of responses, clearly demonstrating the need for further education about the importance of sustainability among a variety of stakeholders (C&EN, Aug. 2, page 6). Although some letters to the editor agreed with him that “Growth is a religion … that flies in the face of physical reality, and as such, cannot be maintained [indefinitely],” others took strong exception to this view.

At the August ACS national meeting in Boston, a presidential symposium on “Sustainability Education” explored both the challenges to incorporating sustainability into the educational process and some successful strategies for accomplishing this. The speakers agreed that global sustainability is not just a challenge; rather it is the challenge for this century. They also agreed that sustainability should not be approached as a separate course of study, but should instead be integrated throughout all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects as well as in economics, politics, literature, and art. Students need a strong disciplinary base that will prepare them for their professional careers, along with a multidisciplinary perspective that includes systems thinking, life-cycle analysis, holistic awareness, and a strong ethical perspective.

The next edition of “Chemistry in Context,” the ACS textbook for nonscience majors, makes sustainability its integrating theme and shows how basic chemistry concepts can be the building blocks for sustainability education. For example, mass and energy conservation, which are taught in all beginning chemistry courses, leads to concepts of atom economy, resource conservation, and recycling. Earth provides us with an abundant but finite stock of resources. Chemists are extraordinarily clever in transforming materials into useful forms, but we cannot create materials from nothing.

A systems perspective helps students understand that everything is connected and hidden costs are real costs. Recent events bear this out. The engineering and management breakdowns that led to the catastrophic failure of BP’s Macondo well resulted in severe impacts on fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and affected the price and availability of seafood throughout the U.S. The drought and wildfires in Russia this summer—which may have been exacerbated by climate change—doubled the mortality rate in major Russian cities. It also reduced the Russian wheat crop by nearly 40%, leading to an upward spike in the price of wheat, affecting the cost of bread not only at the corner bakery but in markets throughout poor communities in less-developed parts of the world.

Education must also address the moral and ethical values that are needed to make choices. We don’t own the future, we owe the future. This principle was expressed with great eloquence by John Harte in his 1993 book, “The Green Fuse”:

“Our actions are affecting the lives of future generations. Every barrel of oil we pump from underground and burn is one less barrel for our descendants to use. Every species and every acre of wilderness that we destroy is one less from which they can benefit. Every ton of topsoil washed to the sea by careless land practices is one less ton in which they can grow food. Every child born today is a potential great-great-grandparent of a legacy of people who will occupy space, consume resources, and also will want to create a legacy of great-great-grandchildren.”

In a recent article “Towards a New Economy and a New Politics,” Gus Speth, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, called for replacing our growth-driven economy by a new “sustaining economy—where the priority is to sustain human and natural communities” Achieving Speth's goal will take time, but we do not have a lot of time to get to where we need to be. We need to develop networks of future leaders in sustainability that transcend disciplinary, political, and cultural boundaries. The Youth Encounter on Sustainability short course program ( is one of several programs creating such networks. Programs such as these—when linked to new approaches to education in which the focus is on interconnections instead of isolated phenomena and technologies, the approach is transdisciplinary rather than relentlessly reductionist, and the acquisition of knowledge skills is accompanied by enhancement of moral and ethical understanding—can help move us from our currently unsustainable trajectory to one on which societies, economies, and the natural world can exist together on Earth.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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