Rachel Carson and Green Chemistry

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I’m off today for a short trip to Pittsburgh to speak at a workshop on green chemistry and other topics related to green design. The event is organized and co-sponsored by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association. It’s that connection that made this an attractive invitation. Created in 1975,

The mission of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association is to preserve, restore, and interpret Rachel Carson’s birthplace and childhood home; and to design and implement education programs and resources in keeping with her environmental ethic:
  • Live in harmony with nature
  • Preserve and learn from natural places
  • Minimize the effect of man-made chemicals on the natural systems of the world, and
  • Consider the implications of human actions of the global web of life.

Often considered to be the force that started modern environmentalism with her book, Silent Spring, Carson made her impact not only with the power of her message, but also with the power of her words. She was an extremely gifted writer having published other books, including Under the Sea-Wind, which was one of my favorites. I read this one while in high school and remember it as a significant contributor to my eventual career in science and technology.

This visit is a bit ironic as I frequently chide folks for using the word “green” or “sustainable” carelessly. Carson would never have been so imprecise. What the participants at this meeting mean by sustainable or green is some form of eco-efficiency, delivering more value with less impact. Economic balancing is always lurking in the background. Carson knew that some goods were simply wrong. While it is critical that we drastically reduce our impact on the environment, it is just as critical that we understand what we are doing and what we are not doing. Green chemistry or green soap or green anything are better choices than old processes or products made with little or no concern for nature, both human and worldly. But until people are educated as to their limits and to the fact that sustainability is more than the absence of unsustainability, they will leave the store thinking all is well or at least getting better. Carson recognized that the power of education is even more important that the intrinsic properties of technology itself.

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1 Comments

Sarah Ash Evens said:

Hi John. I am an MBA in Sustainability student at Duquesne University and I attended the roundtable this morning. I very much enjoyed your presentation and as the discussion continued, a reoccurring thought surfaced:

Since my program began last August, I have participated in engaging dialogue with experienced leaders in the field like yourself. Everytime I am both inspired but also perplexed, because while the repeating themes continue to permeate and stimulate my thoughts, I think there is a missing piece to the conversation: that is, the input from the skeptics.
How do we get them to participate in a thoughtful discussion like the one we had today? Clearly the approach would have to change because we would be starting from a different point and level of awareness. So is the greater challenge getting them in the room or simply getting them to respond and reconsider their mentalities?
How would their input inform on our progress and outlook? How can we get them to be a part of this change from a proactive perspective?

I am interested to hear your thoughts. Thank you.