The chemical element: chemistry's contribution to our global future

The chemical element: chemistry’s contribution to our global future

Javier Garcia-Martinez and Elena Serrano-Torregrosa (Eds)

Weinheim, Germany: Wiley-VCH 2011 | 377pp | ?22.50 (HB)

ISBN 9783527328802

Reviewed by Philip Ball

Image - The Chemical Element

This book is aimed at all who are interested in a more sustainable future

The justification for chemical research - a case often made during this International Year of Chemistry - is usually utilitarian. Of the ’basic’ sciences, chemistry is arguably the most applied and potentially useful for ’relieving mankind’s estate’, as Francis Bacon put it. But this aspect also leaves chemistry uniquely vulnerable to charges of despoliation: it puts plastics in the oceans, endocrine disruptors in the water, ozone destroyers and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

At a simplistic level, both claims are true. Perhaps the hardest task for the public image of chemistry is to convince that, if economic and industrial development are desirable, many chemical problems must have a chemical solution. Not only were the hazards of chlorofluorocarbons revealed largely by atmospheric chemists, but their safe replacements are the fruits of academic and industrial chemical research. Should anyone question that desirability of development in the first place, the chemist’s answer is clear: as Stephen Matlin and Berhanu Abegaz explain in their introduction to this volume, most variation in life expectancy between countries is explained by differences in their technological development. 

Chemistry is central to several of the Millennium goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000: to eradicate severe hunger, reduce child and maternal mortality, combat disease and achieve environmental sustainability. It’s not just the positives, like new medicines, that count: better chemistry can reduce pollution and, one hopes, greenhouse gas emissions. This useful book explores all of these ways in which chemistry might benefit our global future. 

That case can risk looking like whitewash or propaganda. It’s not an accusation that can be levelled at this sober, responsible book; but one can’t help noticing that behind the impressive goals and achievements lie political and social questions - how are resources allocated and priorities set, how can ethics coexist with market imperatives - that in the end might determine chemistry’s real potential to help or hinder. 

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