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Lesson One: The Essentials of Green Chemistry

Module Two: Green Chemistry and Sustainability


Video Lecture

L1M2 Human Determinant Wheel

Click the Video Lecture window to explore the details necessary to understanding this module's key ideas.

Learning Objectives

At the end of this module, students will be able to:

  • Explain the difference between human and natural determinants.
  • State how these determinants shape the future.
  • List examples of both kinds of determinants and the impact they can have.

Sus·taina·bili·ty (noun)

"Of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged [sustainable techniques] [sustainable agriculture] b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods [sustainable society]."
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

To sustain something, anything, means to preserve it; to keep it safe and viable. We never want to lose the things we value. Yet today we are in danger of losing nothing less than our civilization. Ironically, in the process of building the complex technology that makes our civilization possible, we have also simultaneously damaged the natural systems that support it.

Over the past 150 years, many industrial chemicals have been infiltrating the planet's natural systems on an unprecedented scale, and modern technologies have been distributing hazardous chemicals far and wide that can disrupt the very processes that make life possible.

It's not that chemists and chemical industries have set out deliberately to create these problems. Mostly their motives have been to develop new technologies on which to build businesses that make our lives safer, healthier, more interesting, comfortable and convenient. But while the chemistry we have been practicing may perform superbly and profitably, it also sometimes undermines the places we live in, exhausts the resources we depend upon, and harms our health.

So how can we reverse our unsustainable ways and improve our civilization at the same time?

This module explores why we find ourselves in the situation we do, outlines forces that broadly shape the future, and illustrates how green chemistry can help create a more sustainable future.

Determinants Broad forces—which are sometimes called "determinants"—have shaped the present, and they will continue to shape the future. These can critically affect whether our future will be a sustainable one, or not.

There are two kinds of determinants—natural and human. Natural determinants include forces, processes and resources that operated long before advanced technologies of any kind emerged. Feedstocks, natural chemistry (the world's chemistry absent human influence), and climate are examples of natural determinants.

Human determinants are forces we control that are part of the fiber of our civilization. These include education and research, the economy (business, innovation and investment), government and politics, laws, and the international dynamics of a global economy (see diagram). When human determinants operate destructively and unfavorably shift the course of natural determinants, they can move a civilization away from a sustainable future. As we will see in this module's lecture, history has shown us that this has happened again and again. (See Related News for additional examples.)

But it doesn't have to be this way. For example, we can invest in both the research and rapid commercialization of solar or wind technologies, and begin to reverse the unsustainable trajectories of natural determinants like feedstocks (natural resources), climate, natural chemistry, water and others.

Green chemistry represents a new and practical model in the field of sustainability science. If we can learn how to practice a more sustainable form of chemistry, it can also become a new kind of human determinant capable of interacting with natural determinants in a more sustainable way. Or put another way, the challenges we face can be turned into opportunities. We will explore how as we move more deeply into this course.

To explore this module's material in depth, view the lecture.

Key Points

  • The concept of sustainability implies that if we fail to interact with natural determinants in a sustainable way, our civilization will collapse.
  • Historically key "human determinants" have influenced "natural determinants" in ways that often move us away from a sustainable future.
  • Examples of natural determinants include climate, natural chemical processes and resources (feedstocks).
  • Examples of human determinants are education, research, business, innovation, investment, and legal systems and politics - they are the activities that determine how our civilization interacts with natural determinants.
  • Green chemistry is an example of the way human determinants like education and research can help create a more sustainable society.
  • Other human determinants like investment and governance can also collaborate to create positive change, as we shall see.