Harry Kroto

August 15, 2003

Creating a culture of sustainability should be at the top of the agenda if we are going to win the war for human survival

I am a champion of science, engineering and technology (Set) and how much they have done for the benefit of society. But I am also acutely aware that our "progress" has catalysed a mindless mass-production driven plundering of the planet's resources that has sent us hurtling towards disaster. We don't need a collision with an asteroid - unrecyclable effluent is doing the trick just fine.

Long ago I concluded that it would be touch and go as to whether we would survive this century and recently Sir Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, wrote a whole book detailing his assessment of this grim prospect. I am still optimistic, but only if all of us - industrialists, politicians, engineers, scientists, farmers and fishermen - put sustainability at the top of our agendas. Sustainability is now the watchword of survival and we must make our children aware of this.

Before implementing any policy decision, government and industry must determine whether it will result in a positive or negative contribution to sustainability. I have invented two new terms - the positive sustainability quotient and the negative sustainability quotient (PSQ or NSQ) - that indicate on a scale from 10 to - 10 what the net impact in each case might be. Consumer guides could publish such grades alongside products and the public exert pressure by favouring those goods with a high PSQ.

The Set community must espouse the ethos of sustainability as a key motor of action. Chemistry, in particular, having contributed so much in the past has even more to offer in the future. It promises to be the principal science for sustainability in the 21st century.

Indeed, it may be our only hope as fundamental advances will be needed if we are to develop the powerful new technologies that will be truly sustainable and concomitantly improve or maintain the standard of living some of us in the West enjoy. I highlight the term fundamental as strategically improving existing technologies may not be good enough - we may have to precariously pin our hopes on blue-skies advances. Also, I am aware that we cannot - or should I say will not - be able to phase out endemic NSQ technologies overnight. We can, however, develop a pro-sustainability culture aimed at replacing the numerous NSQ technologies with new, strategic PSQ ones. Massive responsive-mode funding should be ring-fenced to support research that promises PSQ advances. There are so many exciting areas. Here are my top three projects:

* Water: from the provision of cheap, pure supplies worldwide to splitting molecules to develop a hydrogen/oxygen-fuelled economy
* New, cheap and efficient materials that can convert the colossal amounts of sunlight that fall each day on the Earth's surface into useful forms of energy such as electricity
* The development, perhaps by genetic modification, of strains of wheat and rice capable of fixing nitrogen by a pathway similar to the symbiotic bacterial mechanism that certain root crops have developed. This breakthrough alone would obviate the need for inorganic fertilisers and save 10 to 20 per cent of the world's fossil-fuel supply.

By making sustainability the driving philosophy behind the next era of innovation, those sensitive kids who are disillusioned with the global capitalist infrastructure will turn their enormous creative potential to solving the problems that confront us in creating a PSQ sociosphere. If we do not do this soon, this potential will be channelled into destructive activities and we shall have only ourselves to blame.

The Bush administration's vetoing of the Kyoto Protocol - which, let's face it, is a peanut initiative to withstand a sledgehammer - is another clear indication of the social irresponsibility that pervades the leadership of the most technologically powerful nation on Earth. Responsible organisations such as the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, Third World Academy of Science, the United Nations and Unesco must exert as much pressure as possible to ensure that sustainability is the main issue.

I have recently been haunted by a well-known iconic image from the first world war. In it, a man is staring out from a poster as a little boy plays with toy soldiers on the floor and the little girl on his knee asks:

"Daddy, what did you do in the great war?" The power of this simple but brilliant image is a tribute to the illustrator's skill in invoking real guilt. I cannot help but feel that it is an apposite metaphor for these disturbing times in which our future children, who may never get a chance to live, are asking us to feel guilty about what we are doing in the truly great war - that of survival of the human race. Would your answer be "I bought an SUV"?

Harry Kroto is professor of chemistry at Sussex University and chairman of the Vega Science Trust. He won the 1996 Nobel prize for chemistry.

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