Paul Anastas, father of green chemistry, says world on an unsustainable course

Yale professor, a Brandeis PhD, gives third annual Saul G. Cohen Memorial Lecture

Photo/Mike Lovett

Calling the world’s current approach to the environment somewhere “between absurdity and obscenity,” Yale University Professor Paul Anastas, PhD’89 urged businesses, scientists, environmentalists, policy-makers and consumers to adopt the principles of green chemistry to ensure a sustainable future.

Anastas is known as the “father of green chemistry,” a field that advocates for the design of safer products and manufacturing processes. He spoke to a crowd of about 125 people in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on April 4 at Brandeis University’s third annual Saul G. Cohen Memorial Lecture.

“We, as a society, are on an unsustainable trajectory,” the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment told attendees. “The status quo is between absurdity and obscenity.”

During his talk, “Designing a Sustainable Tomorrow,” Anastas pointed out that some progress has been made in designing products and processes that are more environmentally friendly. However, well-meaning people often “do the right things but do them wrong,” which leads to unintended consequences. Examples include using lethal substances to clean dirty waterways, employing persistent pesticides to increase crop yield and manufacturing solar panels with methods that produce toxins.

“We must design products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances,” Anastas said. “We’re all in the same boat – and we have only one boat.”

Anastas said the emerging science of biomimicry – solving human problems with approaches that mimic nature – has great potential to alleviate the stress on the environment. For instance, scientists have developed environmentally sound adhesives that use synthetic materials which mimic the skin and tendons of geckos, the little lizards that can scurry up walls with ease.

Anastas has high hopes for transformative innovations that could ease the pressure on the environment. Promising work is being done to develop a decaffeinated coffee bean, which would make irrelevant the chemical-intensive decaffeination process. Scientists are also working on self-cleaning clothes that would not need detergents.

“We have enough consciousness and humanity to ensure a sustainable tomorrow,” Anastas concluded.

Before his talk, Anastas spoke about Cohen, a chemistry professor who was on the Brandeis faculty during his days as a student.

“Saul Cohen shared with me that excellence in chemistry and excellence in science is essential, but not enough,” Anastas said. “The human side of the equation is what we need to think about.”

Among the attendees at the lecture was 86-year-old Robert Stevenson, a professor of chemistry emeritus who was Anastas’ adviser and mentor during his days as a doctoral student at Brandeis. The two have remained close through the years.

Anastas was last on campus in June, when he received the Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor Brandeis bestows exclusively on alumni, at Reunion 2012.

The Cohen Lecture, which was established by the longtime Brandeis science professor’s family and friends, brings renowned figures to campus to discuss important topics of the day.  The first two speakers were U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist Ken Langone.

Cohen was an instant-film pioneer who achieved a number of firsts in his 36 years on the Brandeis faculty. Denied teaching jobs at other institutions because of anti-Semitism, Cohen joined the Brandeis faculty in 1950. He later became the first chair of the chemistry department and the science school, the first dean of faculty and the first university professor. He was instrumental in establishing Brandeis as a first-rate college and a research university with thriving graduate programs. He died in 2010 at the age of 93.

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