• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

According to a release from the Center for Biological Diversity and associated groups, Dow has applied to test sulfuryl fluoride to see how well it sterilizes agricultural soil.

July 13, 2009
 
 

According to a release from the Center for Biological Diversity and associated groups, Dow has applied to test sulfuryl fluoride to see how well it sterilizes agricultural soil. More than just another soil treatment (while happens to be highly toxic, even by agricultural chemical standards), sulfuryl fluoride is a greenhouse gas almost 5,000 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. As a result, the 16 tons of gas planned for the test would have about the same climate disruption impact as a fuel-efficient car driven around the equator more than 900 times.

Usually, the worst thing that can happen when a new technology is developed is that it won't work. In this case, a far worse outcome would be if it did. After all, the test involves only about 65 acres. If successful, Dow would want to sell the chemical for treatment of thousands -- probably millions -- of times that much land.

I have no idea whether the proposed test is a result of research which involves a university or not. Sulfuryl fluoride has been used, in relatively small quantities, to fumigate wood against boring insects since the 1960's. Its climate disruption effect has only recently been recognized, so it's not among the six "Kyoto gases" addressed by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and reported on by signatories to the Presidents Climate Commitment.

But if it proves useful as an agricultural fumigant, "useful" application opportunities would increase dramatically. The main utility, of course, would be to Dow's bottom line, but the question lingers whether any university is also poised to benefit if the test goes forward and succeeds (or has already benefited).

We can all hope that the EPA will refuse to issue the necessary permit. If that happens, of course, Dow may just go forward and run a similar test in a country with less stringent enforcement.

Still, up to now, my main concern with academic research and sustainability has been to try to get Greenback to do more of it -- "it" being research aimed at developing more sustainable technologies. Maybe I need to shift focus, and first make sure we're not involved in research likely to develop technologies which are profoundly unsustainable.

If anyone's school has a policy in place which discourages use of research results in unsustainable (or other dramatically undesirable) ways, I'd be glad to learn of it [email g(dot)rendell(at)insidehighered(dot)com]. To be honest, I can see the need for such a policy, but I have difficulty thinking how it could be written, and my mind boggles at the difficulties inherent in enforcement.

Still, we've got ourselves in quite a climate hole, and the smartest first step might be to stop digging.

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