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EPA Science Advisor Paul Anastas is silhouetted against the ICOSSE website projection during his Jan. 12 speech to conference delegates. (Photo: Pete Brown)

EPA Science Advisor on Sustainability: Civilization is on a Tragic Trajectory

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EPA Science Advisor on Sustainability: Civilization is on a Tragic Trajectory

Jan. 28, 2011
"Father of green chemistry" warns international conference about unsustainable methods and potential for ecological collapse.

Speaking at the recent ICOSSE-11 conference on sustainability, EPA science advisor Paul Anastas said civilization is on a "tragic trajectory."

EPA Science Advisor Paul Anastas addresses ICOSSE conference delegates Jan. 12 at the JW Marriott Star Pass Resort in Tucson, Ariz.

Anastas, who is known as the "father of green chemistry," was speaking at the conference banquet Jan. 12 at the Second International Congress on Sustainability Science and Engineering, hosted by the UA College of Engineering Jan. 9-13 at the JW Marriott Star Pass Resort in Tucson, Ariz.

Addressing the assembled conference delegates over dinner, Anastas said: "Everyone in this room has dedicated their professional lives and their personal lives to ensuring that things do not continue on the tragic trajectory that we are on as a civilization."

He was referring to unsustainable methods of energy and materials usage, and to the potential for ecological collapse. Getting off this unsustainable trajectory, Anastas said, is all about leadership in recognizing the "absurdity" of our current reality.

"Make no mistake about it," Anastas said. "If we are dedicated to sustainability ... the status quo cannot be maintained."

Everything Must Be Sustainable

The main thrust of Anastas' talk was that sustainability should be integrated into every aspect of "whatever your widget is ... whatever your production process is." Otherwise, he said, efforts to achieve true sustainability would be "tweaking around the edges to make something slightly less bad."

Anastas told ICOSSE delegates that the EPA is approaching sustainability from a systems perspective, by conducting integrated transdisciplinary research. In short, Anastas said, this means "bringing together the vast swath of disciplines, quite frankly before we even know what they're bringing to the challenge that we're facing."

He explained that bringing together multiple disciplines is essential right from the very beginning, even before the sustainability problem is fully defined. Answers would not come from a chemist working with an engineer, Anastas said, or an ecologist working with an epidemiologist. Instead, he suggested, we need to involve social and behavioral scientists, communication specialists, economists, and attorneys.

Nevertheless, as the conference title indicates, Anastas said he had "confidence in the power and potential of science and technology to meet some of the great challenges we're facing in terms of sustainability."

"Science and technological innovation are absolutely crucial, essential and indispensable to a sustainable path that doesn't involve ecological collapse," Anastas said. "That's a heavy charge to our generation."

ICOSSE-11 In Review

Who was there?

  • 325 Attendees
  • 19 Countries
  • 15 Government agencies
  • 70 Commercial companies
  • 59 Academic institutions
  • 94 Speakers
  • 19 Sponsors