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Sustainable Growth Is An Oxymoron

by Rudy M. Baum
November 8, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 45

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

The following is based on an after-dinner talk delivered by C&EN Editor-in-Chief Rudy M. Baum at the 25th Annual William S. Johnson Symposium at Stanford University on Oct. 8, 2010.

Good evening. It has been a remarkable day. The talks we’ve heard from some of the true luminaries of the chemistry enterprise have been inspiring and remind us of how vibrant our science is. They also remind us of how much there is still to learn about the chemistry that makes our world so dynamic, that makes us who we are, and lets us live the lives we live.

The title of William S. Johnson’s autobiography, “A Fifty-Year Love Affair with Organic Chemistry,” could not be more fitting. Indeed, Johnson did have a 50-year love affair with organic chemistry, and his contributions to the field were enormous. In an epilogue, Paul A. Bartlett, William R. Bartlett, John D. Roberts, and Gilbert Stork wrote: “Bill Johnson’s work didn’t just alter the way we approach synthesis, it helped change our view of what is even possible. As a result, an entire continent, stereospecific cationic cyclization, has been added to the world of organic chemistry. When he began his historic work on the polyene cyclization problem, no one seriously imagined that a complex structure like that of a natural steroid could, one day, be assembled with essentially complete regio- and stereospecificity; some actually stated so quite strongly! Although we are amused at how stunningly wrong this view turned out to be, we must not overlook the fact that when Johnson started his career, the concept of controlling the stereochemical course of a sequence of organic reactions was unknown. The few syntheses of natural products that had been recorded only served to emphasize the improbability of success in assembling more complex structures.”

I want to discuss a topic, climate change, which I think will affect our lives and our science dramatically in the coming years.

As Bill McKibben observes in his recent book “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” many politicians and other policy makers have had a habit of discussing global warming as a phenomenon that will affect future generations unless we do something now to avert it. However, that’s just not the case. Climate change is occurring right now. It’s not a problem for our children and grandchildren; it’s a problem for us.

In fact, the terms climate change and global warming may be misleading. I attended the Kavli Award ceremonies in Oslo in September. At a policy forum on international collaboration in science and technology, President Barack Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, made an interesting point. He said: “Global warming is a dangerous misnomer. It suggests that the changes are uniform, primarily about temperature, gradual, and likely benign. None of these are true.” What we should be calling the phenomenon, he said, is “global climate disruption.”

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the plot of the concentration of atmospheric CO2 at 3,000 meters on Mauna Loa in Hawaii over time. It’s called the “Keeling Curve” after Charles David Keeling, the man who made most of the measurements. Keeling received his Ph.D. in geochemistry from Northwestern University. He began measuring CO2 as a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology in the mid-1950s in places like Pasadena and Big Sur. He took a position at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1956 and started measuring CO2 on Mauna Loa in 1958.

This is a truly remarkable data set. Of course, it shows that atmospheric CO2 concentrations are rising, but that real­ly should not have been surprising. No one had measured it before, but given the amount of fossil fuel that was being burned, a simple mass-balance analysis guarantees the observed increase over time. The only thing in doubt is the slope of this line because we didn’t know then, and we still don’t have a very good understanding of, the role of the oceans in absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere.

What’s truly remarkable about this plot is that it shows that Earth breathes, one breath per year. Each decrease in CO2 is an inhalation, each increase an exhalation. Keeling understood what he was seeing immediately. Because the majority of Earth’s landmass is in the Northern Hemisphere, there are more plants in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere. In the spring and summer, those plants are absorbing CO2 as they grow and produce leaves. In the fall and winter, the leaves fall and decompose.

One of the most unnerving aspects of global climate change for the human psyche to absorb is that it drives home with absolute finality the notion that Earth is finite. I know, that sounds obvious, but people have never behaved as if Earth were finite. They have behaved as if Earth and its resources, the environment itself, were infinite.

The Keeling Curve doesn’t demonstrate that climate is changing; it simply provides the evidence that supports the most obvious mechanism to account for the global warming that has also been measured. It does show, in two very concrete ways, that Earth’s atmosphere is finite and can be impacted by the biosphere. Humans account for the increase over time; plants account for the annual periodicity.

If Earth is finite, then by definition, so is our capacity to produce and consume. Yet we exist within a socioeconomic system that is predicated on endless growth. The rate of growth—in population and economic activity—turned exponential about 200 years ago with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. We call it the Industrial Revolution, but that revolution was really a revolution based on the extraction of fossil fuels from Earth and their use to power machines and eventually to produce electricity. Civilization as we know it is entirely dependent on burning fossilized sunshine cheaply. Because that’s what fossil fuels are—yes, they’re the fossils of dead plants and dinosaurs, but those flora and fauna were just the machines that converted hundreds of millions of years of sunshine into compounds buried in Earth waiting for us to extract them. We burned the fossil fuels on the cheap because we treated the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for the waste products of combustion, primarily CO2.

Credit: Newscom
Credit: Newscom

Eventually, humanity was going to hit a wall. A wall that told us that a system based on endless growth was not sustainable on a finite planet. What seemed obvious was that, at some point, we were going to use up Earth’s reserves of fossil fuels. In the case of petroleum, some experts believe we have already reached or will very soon reach “peak oil,” the point at which we have consumed half of all the petroleum on Earth and at which point production will begin to decline. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not, we’ve certainly reached the peak of oil that’s reasonably easy to extract from Earth. Otherwise, why are we drilling in 5,000 feet of water through another 13,000 feet of rock in the Gulf of Mexico? Why are we contemplating drilling in the Arctic Ocean or in 2 miles of water off the coast of Brazil?

It turns out the availability of fossil fuels wasn’t the wall that put a limit on growth; climate change, global warming, climate disruption—whatever you want to call it—turned out to be the wall. There are enough fossil-fuel resources left on Earth for us to keep the economic engines that have powered 200 years of exponential growth going for another 100 or 200 years or so, but the climate isn’t going to let us do that.

An aside, though. Yes, enough fossil-fuel resources exist for us to continue in a business-as-usual mode for some time, but at what cost, even leaving climate change aside? We have no idea of the long-term environmental damage caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re blasting the tops off of mountains in West Virginia to get at the coal beneath them, in the process destroying hundreds of miles of pristine streams and despoiling hundreds of square miles of landscape, essentially forever. How much of our environment are we willing to degrade to satisfy our addiction to fossil fuels?

The fact is that, eventually, we have to learn to live off the sun in real time. That’s not going to be easy. Fossil fuels aren’t just fossilized sunshine; they’re concentrated fossilized sunshine. As McKibben points out in “Eaarth,” 1 barrel of oil yields as much energy as 25,000 hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses 25 bbl per year (some estimates are quite a bit higher), which, he writes, is like finding 300 years of free labor annually.

To live off the sun in real time, we’re going to have to do two things: We’re going to have to slow down, and we’re going to have to get a lot smarter. Slowing down will involve making the wrenching transition to an economic system that is not predicated on growth. I don’t know what that system looks like. In my mind, I have a notion of something I call a high-tech subsistence economy in which consumption is not the sine qua non of success.

And we’re obviously not going to make the transition to living off the sun in real time in a year or two or even a decade or two. It will require a transition period during which we still burn fossil fuels, but hopefully learn to burn them in a cleaner fashion. During which time we build more nuclear power plants to produce electricity. During which time we adapt to a changing, disrupted climate.

As Holdren pointed out in his talk in Oslo, humanity has three options in the face of climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. “We’re already doing some of each,” he said. What’s up for grabs is the ultimate mix of the three. Mitigation can’t work alone because climate change is already happening and will continue regardless of what changes humans make in their use of energy. We will have to adapt to an altered climate. We’re already adapting, whether we acknowledge it or not. The new flood walls circling New Orleans are an adaptation to climate change. And unless humans are able to limit global warming to no more than 2 °C on average—which at this point is very much in question—the suffering humanity faces is going to be severe.

What role will chemistry and the chemistry enterprise play in this? We don’t call it the “central science” without good reason, and in this world of a changing, disrupted climate and an evolving economic system, chemistry will take on an even more important role than it has in today’s society and economy.

Green chemistry and green engineering will obviously play an important role in creating more sustainable manufacturing practices. They’re already having an impact. Earlier this year, I interviewed Paul T. Anastas, the assistant administrator in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research & Development and one of the fathers of the green chemistry movement. He said to me, “My vision for the future of the Office of Research & Development includes a recognition that the goal of sustainability is our ‘true north,’ that scientific and technological innovation is essential to the success of our mission, that we need to couple our excellence in problem assessment with an equal excellence in solving problems, and that we must act with a sense of urgency.”

In our interview, however, Anastas also referred to a speech EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson had given in early March in which she said, “It’s time to put to rest the notion that economic growth and environmental protection are incompatible. It’s time to finally dismiss this false choice.” That’s a comforting notion, but it is one that is no longer true. Sustainable economic growth is an oxymoron.

Another chemical concept that will be key to our future is “atom economy,” a concept originally developed by Stanford University chemistry professor Barry M. Trost in a seminal paper in Science (1991, 254, 1471). Certainly the atom economy of chemical reactions is key, but I’m talking about atom economy more broadly defined, not just in chemical reactions but in the life-cycle analysis of all products. Where do the atoms that go into a product come from, and where do they go at the end of the life of the product? We’re going to have to get much, much better at accounting for and conserving all of those atoms if we are going to develop truly sustainable manufacturing processes.


Of course, neither green chemistry and engineering nor atom economy directly addresses the energy challenge that is at the heart of the climate-change dilemma. Learning to live off the sun in real time is a challenge that must be addressed by chemistry and the chemical industry. We’re doing it now, but not with nearly the sense of urgency that’s required. We need to develop over the next few decades mechanisms for the large-scale conversion of sunlight into the electricity and liquid fuels needed to power civilization. We need batteries to store massive amounts of electrical energy generated by solar and wind power.

These are all challenges that fall under the category of mitigation of climate change. They are mechanisms to head off the worst-case scenarios we can imagine. Chemistry and related disciplines will also be called on to contribute to the inevitable adaptations humans will have to adopt in the face of a changing climate. We will need crops that tolerate higher temperatures and can survive on less water. We will need new herbicides and insecticides to deal with pests that migrate with the changing climate. We will need new pharmaceuticals. Chemistry, in fact, is the fundamental science that will be called on to preserve any semblance of the quality of life to which we have become accustomed if the worst-case climate-change scenarios come to pass.

Are we up to the task? Certainly, chemists around the world are making important contributions on all of these fronts, as C&EN reports each week. When I visit chemistry departments, I am continually impressed with the vigor and enthusiasm on display. I saw it today in numerous posters on work being done here at Stanford. I have talked for many years about chemistry both as a core discipline and as an enabling science. Both aspects of our science are important. It is as an enabling science, however, that chemistry will address many of the challenges posed by climate change. I see chemists increasingly working in multidisciplinary teams with biologists, physicists, materials scientists, physicians, engineers, and others in focused research that is leading to new drugs, new materials, new catalysts, and new processes to meet the ultimate goal of a sustainable economy.

On the other hand, climate scientists such as James E. Hansen of Columbia University and Stephen H. Schneider of Stanford have been warning us about the growing threat of global warming for at least 25 years, and we’ve done almost nothing to change the disastrous course we are on. Chemical scientists are optimistic about what they can invent and create to help with the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change as well as the creation of a sustainable economic system, but not nearly enough is being done. There is no political will to solve this problem because solving it requires sacrifice, and almost no one, especially here in the U.S., is willing to ask humans to sacrifice.

Credit: NASA
Image of Arctic ice conditions at the end of the melt season in 2007 shows large areas of open water and an ice-free opening through the Northwest Passage that lasted for several weeks.
Credit: NASA
Image of Arctic ice conditions at the end of the melt season in 2007 shows large areas of open water and an ice-free opening through the Northwest Passage that lasted for several weeks.

In the Sept. 13 issue of C&EN, there were two News of the Week stories on one spread. On one page, there was a story with the headline “Reducing Carbon from Coal,” which discusses two initiatives in Germany for capturing CO2 from coal-fired power plants and using it as a chemical feedstock. On the opposite page was a story with the headline “A Bleak View for Curbing CO2 ,” which reports on a study in Science magazine that shows that it will be next to impossible to reduce CO2 emissions in a meaningful way over the next 50 years. So it’s actually pretty likely that humans are going to create a world in which CO2 concentrations double from the preindustrial level of about 280 ppm to 500 to 600 ppm, resulting in an average increase in global temperature of at least 4 °C. In that case, it will be nature that imposes the transition to an economy that is not based on growth. It will not be humans making a conscious choice to develop such an economy. It will be a difficult transition.

“World Made by Hand” is a novel by James Howard Kunstler that I learned of from reading McKibben’s “Eaarth.” It’s a dystopian fable of the world some number of years from now, a world with a drastically changed climate and a complete breakdown in the social order. It is a world in which the machine age has ended, and the major forms of energy are human and animal muscle power. It is, literally, a world made by hand. Is this a likely scenario for our future? Probably not. But it’s also not outside of the realm of the possible. James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, is far more pessimistic about the impact of global warming on humanity’s future than Kunstler is. And Jared M. Diamond’s book “Collapse” shows clearly how complex societies can implode quite rapidly, especially in the face of rapid environmental changes.

I’m not as pessimistic about humanity’s future as Kunstler is. Humans are amazingly adaptable and amazingly creative. But cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels burned without any concern for their impact on climate has allowed humans to be stupid in the way we’ve developed our civilization. It’s as simple as that. We have no choice but to get smarter. And we have to do it very quickly. I think it is up to scientists to lead this charge, and lead it in two ways. One is through research to mitigate the worst aspects of climate change and help humans adapt to the change that is inevitable. But at least as important, we must also be vocal advocates for changing the course we are on. Why? Because not enough people with the credibility of scientists have taken up this cause with the passion it deserves. We’re talking about the future of Earth. Because scientists know that this problem is real and serious and can explain that the arguments of those who deny that it is real and serious are specious.

You know, we haven’t always been known as scientists. I learned one day driving home from work listening to National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” that “scientist” is a word with a definite origin. It was coined in 1834 by Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell. The older term for people pursuing scientific activities, “natural philosopher,” was in Whewell’s view “too wide and too lofty.”

Perhaps natural philosopher is too wide and too lofty a term to describe people who do science. However, I think we may have given something up when we abandoned natural philosopher for scientist. It isolated us, allowed us retreat into pursuing scientific discovery for its own sake, and in doing so, cut science off from the humanities and scientists off from their responsibilities as citizens. I don’t know whether anything we do can change the course we’re on, but I know we have to try. If scientists are the ones who know that global climate disruption will be a human tragedy of as yet undefined proportions and we do nothing about it, what does that say about us? Why should society support us? What is our role as scientist citizens?

I am not saying that we should go back to calling ourselves natural philosophers. I am saying that scientists, especially chemists, who are among the most practical of scientists, must become far more involved in this most important policy debate of our time.

Views expressed on these pages are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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