Sunday, June 29, 2008

Environmentalism: chemistry edition

There is no question that environmentalism is important. But there is little consensus as to what it means to be environmentally conscious, what the impacts of our actions are, and where the ethical boundaries lie. There is even less consensus as to a definition of "reasonable lengths" one should go to in order to be "green".

These are big questions--I could probably blog for the rest of my life answering them (giving my version of the answers). However, having learned that it's better to be able to digest what you've chewed off, I've arbitrarily decided to focus on chemistry and environmentalism instead.

I say "arbitrarily" but my decision was based mostly on National Geographic's latest edition of the Green Guide. I love the National Geographic Society--that they can make the public aware of issues in countries like Myanmar (recently Burma) speaks to the immense power of photographs, and the prowess of the photographers they hire. I'll be frank and say that their articles are somewhat lacking for completeness, in that many of them do not cover the topics in the detail that I would like, but that's excusable, because nobody does, and it's a magazine, not a book.

But what irks me the most about the Green Guide is not the incompleteness, the logical fallacies, or their not thinking through the ramifications of their actions (or doing so in such a limited fashion that they fail to see the bigger picture--systems biolgoy, anyone?). It is, rather, that the language used assigns a moral standard for things that are "morally neutral" (a wonderful turn of phrase by J.K. Rowling). They imply that chemicals are bad for the environment, which is most likely true. But they also assume that natural products are good, which is most assuredly NOT the case.

This week I will be expounding on this dichotomy, in the hope that I might get some of you to think about the Green movement differently. I wholeheartedly encourage embracing the Green movement (in part because I no longer have to feel like the only twenty-six year-old in the Western World without a car*). But the messages that some of the groups tout are...not exactly doing the Green movement any favors.

To be discussed this week:

1) Chemicals are morally neutral
2) The extent to which we rely on chemistry
3) Natural as better--or not
4) Unintended consequences of greenery (strictly involving chemicals)
5) What it means to be green, the chemistry edition.

*Yes, that was meant in jest.

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