Issue Date: July 16, 2012
Chemistry Should Benefit Humans
I enjoyed Rudy Baum’s editorial “Earth and Its People” (C&EN, April 23, page 3). I wish more people and politicians agreed with him and the ACS leaders who wrote the vision statement about using chemistry for the benefit of Earth and its people. Fulfillment of that wish seems unlikely to me now.
In the current electoral climate, “benefit for the Earth” is not a high priority for some politicians. Indeed, the effort to benefit Earth by enforcement of environmental regulations is considered by some an impediment to growth and prosperity. In the recent presidential primaries, many of the candidates talked about eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency entirely.
The conflict between economic growth/prosperity and Earth’s benefit will play out dramatically over the next generation or two. As the pressure to grow the economy continues in order to get people jobs and paychecks, I believe politicians will weaken environmental laws. This will cause accelerated degradation of the environment and exacerbate the problems of resource depletion, climate change, overpopulation, inadequate food supply, and the like. That course is a downward spiral that humans are unlikely to avoid.
Chemistry has played a large role in this downward spiral. In fact, I believe it started with chemistry, about 5,000 years ago when humans first learned to make bronze by smelting copper and tin. Humans learned how to manipulate chemical bonds to create wonderful new things. Many brilliant chemical discoveries followed. The list of good things that have come out of chemistry is long: modern medicines, electricity, water and sanitation systems, large-scale food production and preservation, and many more too numerous to list.
Life is certainly easier and one would think more pleasurable than before the Bronze Age. However, the stresses that modern life has put on Earth through chemical discoveries may eventually be its downfall. Burning fossil fuel causes air pollution and climate change. Modern agriculture relies heavily on toxic pesticides and nutrients that contaminate soil and water and work their way into the food chain. Modern medicine extends life span significantly, causing strain on health care resources. For every plus there are significant minuses.
I hope solutions to these problems can be found and a sustainable world economy can be developed. This economy would not be dependent on digging, drilling, sawing, chopping, burning, and extracting Earth’s natural resources to the point of total exhaustion. The measure of success or failure for this new economy would not be based on growth of gross domestic product. The metric for a sustainable economy should be based on how it sustains and preserves Earth. There must be a way to assign value to human activity (jobs) that is not related to the production and sale of large amounts of material goods.
We chemists let the genie of natural resource transformation/destruction out of the bottle. Now we have to figure out a way to manage and contain it. Let us hope future generations of scientists, engineers, and politicians are smart enough to figure this out before it’s too late. I am not optimistic, but it is good to see the leadership of ACS pulling together to advocate using chemistry to benefit Earth and its people.
By Joe Jablonski
Palos Hills, Ill
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society