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A chemical engineer and sustainability advocate seeks cultural solutions, not technological ones, to the environmental crisis.

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Our environmental crisis is typically framed as an engineering problem, even a political one. Invent new ways to prevent pollution, we are told, or get Congress behind windmills, and we'll be halfway home.

John R. Ehrenfeld says the challenge goes deeper. What's desperately needed, he says, is cultural change.

Ehrenfeld spoke at the Jan. 13 installment of the Rachel Carson Green Chemistry Roundtable. The program, organized by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association and Champions for Sustainability, was titled "Preventing Pollution by Design," but Ehrenfeld's talk went much further. The chemical engineer and former director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and the Environment has spent years exploring why industry, in particular, still wreaks environmental havoc -- even though we know how to do better.

"The answer led me really far away from my roots in technology," says Ehrenfeld, now 78 and a senior research scholar at Yale. "I've become more and more a sociologist."

Ehrenfeld's critique questions several building blocks of Western civilization. One is a scientific mindset he traced to 17th-century philosopher René Descartes, which he calls "methodological reductionism": "We cut up the world into increasingly smaller pieces, and we believe we understand the world if we put the pieces back together."

Thus, we understand things like individual chemical reactions -- not the whole ecological systems they affect. The result is often disastrous -- like the carcinogenic PCBs found in human flesh thousands of miles from where they were manufactured. Or like climate change.

That, plus our "blind reliance on science and technology," Ehrenfeld says, creates an endless loop of technology-induced problems followed by technological quick fixes, which simply sweep those problems under the rug. Example: the vogue for "geoengineering" schemes against global warming, like salting the ocean with iron oxide to absorb carbon dioxide. (No chance of unintended consequences there.) 

"Always using technology to solve problems defocuses us from the possibility of finding something that really works," said Ehrenfeld. "Shifting the burden becomes an addiction."

Ehrenfeld argues that conventional notions of "sustainable development" share these fatal flaws; deploying technology to reduce environmental damage merely ensures the damage will continue. To truly create "the possibility that all life will flourish on the planet forever" (his definition of sustainability), we need "new basic cultural beliefs and values."

We must understand, for example, that the natural world is complex. And so we must adopt the "precautionary principle" -- making sure change won't cause harm, rather than trying to fix damage already done.

Moreover, "economics is about people, not things." Locally based economies, Ehrenfeld says, value bottom-up knowledge and create relationships better than a faceless globo-economy does. And because most technology (from refrigerators to Predator drones) removes its users' sense of responsibility for negative effects, we must pursue designs that instill caring. Ehrenfeld's examples include a space-heater with movable "shields" that a user aligns to warm each person in a room, rather than carelessly heating the whole space.

Heady stuff for a Wednesday morning at the North Side's riverfront Alcoa Corporate Center, in a program co-sponsored by the Alcoa Foundation and Bayer Corp. No wonder Ehrenfeld's 2008 book Sustainability by Design is subtitled "A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture."

During the roundtable discussion, Terrence J. Collins, the Carnegie Mellon professor and "green chemistry" pioneer, seconded Ehrenfeld's concerns about cultural values. "As long as we run a money-first civilization, we're going to keep getting it wrong," said Collins. 

Business representatives, meanwhile, argued that critiques of technological quick fixes and short-term gain didn't account for the real world.

Yes, said eLoop president Ned Eldridge, cell phones have an environmentally unfriendly design. But the job of his Pittsburgh-based electronics-recycling company is to reduce such damage, not design it away. "At the end of the day, someone has to solve the problem at hand," he said. 

Robert Bear, Alcoa's corporate environmental director, said the trouble is human nature. "Frankly, we are wired for the quick fix," he said. "Shareholders expect returns in a quarter, not in 10 years' time."

Ehrenfeld did not dispute such criticisms. "I have a lot of questions," he said. "I don't have a lot of answers."

"More and more a sociologist": John R. Ehrenfeld
  • "More and more a sociologist": John R. Ehrenfeld

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