A Comparison of Green Chemistry to the Environmental Ethics of the Abrahamic Religions
Bennett, George D., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Green chemistry, or environmentally benign chemistry, is in its second decade as a recognized area of research. It is unique within chemistry because of its normative character. It rests on a set of principles, and the principles rest on certain ethical propositions. The ethical tenets that underlie green chemistry are substantially consistent with the environmental ethics of the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The ethical presuppositions of green chemistry bear the greatest similarity to the ethics of the productivity stewardship model of Christian environmentalism and bear the least similarity to the ethics of preservationist stewardship of Islamic environmentalism.
The environmental ethics of the Abrahamic religions all incorporate an anthropocentric concept of stewardship of an intrinsically valuable creation. Within this framework, use of nature is permissible, but abuse of nature through pollution, waste, and depletion is prohibited. The environmental ethics diverge over what characteristics creation shares with humanity. They also diverge over the quality and extent of the relationship between economic and environmental health. The ethical propositions of the productivity stewardship model of religious environmentalism bear the greatest resemblance to the ethical assumptions of green chemistry. The environmental ethics of all the religious perspectives examined in this article support those ethical assumptions of green chemistry that deal with pollution prevention and improved safety. The only point of direct conflict is between the position of certain Islamic environmentalists that the world economic system is a sham and the assumptions of green chemistry that deal with economic goals. With the exception of this latter sub-set, followers of the Abrahamic religions can practice green chemistry in good conscience.
Green chemistry, or environmentally benign chemistry, is now in its second decade as a recognized area of research. Its normative character makes it unique within chemistry. It began as a specific form of implementation of a national policy of the United States that focused on source reduction as a pollution prevention strategy. Because green chemistry sprouted from an enacted law, and because laws result from political compromise and agreement among interested parties in order to garner broad support, the ethical tenets that underlie green chemistry reflect ethical beliefs regarding the environment that large portions of the public share. Although not everyone derives environmental ethics from theology, many people in the U.S. who do so derive their ethics from an Abrahamic religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Hence, the ethical tenets that underlie green chemistry are substantially consistent with the environmental ethics of the Abrahamic religions. Such theologically derived environmental ethics invoke the idea of stewardship, but they differ as to what degree that stewardship should aim to preserve natural resources for future generations or to put natural resources to productive use now. The ethical presuppositions of green chemistry bear the greatest similarity to the ethics of the productivity stewardship model of religious environmentalism and bear the least similarity to the ethics of preservationist stewardship of Islamic environmentalism.
This article begins with an overview of green chemistry, including its development, its definition, its codification in principles of best practice, and its ethical premises. Following this account is a discussion about the circumstances that led to the enshrinement of these ethical premises in policy. The discussion of professionally derived environmental ethics is followed by a brief overview of the rise of modern environmentalism and a discussion of theologically derived environmental ethics on the basis of a comparison between the preservationist stewardship and productivity stewardship models of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The article concludes with an analysis of how the ethical assumptions of green chemistry compare with the preservationist and productivity stewardship models.
Green chemistry rests on a set of principles, and the principles, in turn, rest on certain ethical propositions. In this section, I will first briefly survey the development of green chemistry since 1990, then define green chemistry and its principles, and delineate the ethical assumptions that underlie the principles.
Green chemistry arose in the United States in response to the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. That piece of legislation declared pollution prevention by source reduction (as opposed to waste management and control) to be the national policy of the United States. (1) In 1991, the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated a research grant program in the area of Alternative Synthetic Pathways for Pollution Prevention. (2) The EPA also announced its Industrial Toxics Project, a.k.a. the 33-50 Program, through which companies agreed to voluntarily cut emissions of certain high-volume toxic chemicals. (3) At about the same time, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now known as the American Chemistry Council) launched its Responsible Care initiative that established a set of guiding principles and management practices, including pollution prevention through source reduction. (4) At the basic research level, Barry Trost of Stanford University introduced the concept of atom economy, which is a measure of how much of the reactants in a synthetic process end up in the intended product. (5) Since that watershed year, green chemistry has become a theme of basic and applied research, graduate and undergraduate education, industrial methods, conferences and symposia, and grants and award programs. (6) Green chemistry reached the symbolic pinnacle of science when it figured prominently in the announcement of the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry. (7)
Green chemistry has been defined, among other ways, as "carrying out chemical activities--including chemical design, manufacture, use, and disposal--such that hazardous substances will not be used and generated." (8) The key feature of this definition is the intentionality expressed by the word design. Prior to the emergence of green chemistry, chemists typically designed products and processes for functionality. Within that framework, a decrease in the use or generation of hazardous substances might occur but only as a pleasant coincidence. Green chemistry elevates the goal of hazard reduction through technological innovation to an equal level with the goal of function.
Paul Anastas, who worked at that time at the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics at the EPA, and John Warner, then a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, enumerated twelve principles of green chemistry, (9) which can be summarized as (1) prevention, (2) atom economy, (3) less-hazardous chemical synthesis, (4) design of safer chemicals, (5) safer solvents and auxiliaries, (6) design for energy efficiency, (7) use of renewable feedstocks, (8) fewer derivatives, (9) catalysis, (10) design for degradation, (11) real-time analysis for pollution prevention, and (12) inherently safer chemistry for accident prevention (Table 1). These principles reveal why green chemistry is unique within the field of …
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Publication information: Article title: A Comparison of Green Chemistry to the Environmental Ethics of the Abrahamic Religions. Contributors: Bennett, George D. - Author. Journal title: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Volume: 60. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2008. Page number: 16+. © 2009 American Scientific Affiliation. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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