A Look at the Green Labs NL Project

Last week I raised a few questions about the kind of futures are envisaged for the planet from a rather argumentative standpoint: what will the political implication be if we take the technological fix approach to defending the climate?

Today I want to cast some light on a project that is asking another related question: what are the environmental consequences of actually carrying out scientific research?

This question moves beyond the idea that science and technological development might be able to help in reaching predetermined environmental standards (think about the Paris accord) or aims (UN Sustainable Development Goals) as it questions the research practices that might lead to this.

How can scientists make their research greener?

A small group of scientists in the Netherlands aim to investigate this question. They call themselves Green Labs NL.

From the website:

Green labs NL was started in 2021 by a few members of the Dutch Scientific Community who realized they shared a passion for making their science more sustainable.

The group aim to build a wider community in The Netherlands to help encourage individual scientists, lab groups and whole institutes to go greener when it comes to how we use our lab spaces, and the way we do science. The platform can aid by sharing resources and information, but also by bringing other like-minded scientists together.

It is run by scientists, and is fully non-profit. There is no CEO, CSO, … It is kept alive by the scientific community! 

This small team of scientists (4 people) have launched a really interesting blog and just held their first online Green Labs NL network meeting (in English).  The website also hosts a forum and a useful links section, one of which leads to Harvard University’s Green Labs website, so they are not alone in this movement.

This is an exciting development and I will certainly follow their work, and hope that some of our Technology Bloggers readers might do the same.

Green, Environmentally Friendly Economic Growth

Green Growth Through Technology

I have been following the European Biotechnology Seminar series 2021, an online University run series of 20 minute presentations that take in lots of different aspects of technology.

It’s the second series (here for a review of the first) and really interesting.

Yesterday we got into a discussion about the problems of what we might like to think of as intelligent sustainable growth, the use of technology to reduce emissions and help to improve the health of the planet while also producing economic growth.

The talk was about evaluating sustainability. This is not an easy thing to do in reality, as there are lots of factors that we might like to include, an endless number of factors are really possible, depending on your point of view.

CO2 output, water use, pollution of the land, use of space, just to think about environmental issues. But sustainability also involves social sustainability, and economic. If we close all the factories down then half of the problem will be resolved. But is that socially or economically sustainable?

So we find ourselves having to make decisions about what we are going to address, weight the various aspects of interest and then try to compare one approach with another.

This brought in a discussion about framing the future. Any presentation that we see about addressing climate change today makes proposals, the world will be intelligent, connected and electric. If we frame the future as this, we should understand that we are not only making a proposal, but also excluding other paths. Once electric transport is promoted as the future for transport, others fall by the wayside and what we get is a future of electric transport.

The green growth model (technological solutions) also brings other things into play that are not so broadly discussed: the manufacturing of all of this technology requires raw materials, and a large percentage of those that we use today lie in developing nations.

Lithium Mining

Namibia and Zimbabwe are two of the world’s largest lithium producers today. Chile, China and Australia are the biggest by far in terms of production, the USA for deposits, while the largest mining companies are multinationals, with extraction processes spread across the world. And thanks to its use in batteries this is a growth industry, with current production expected to double by 2024!

The largest project in Zimbabwe appears to be Chinese owned and run (Sinomine), While the largest in Namibia is Canadian.

All of which brings back thoughts of my sociology studies and the start of the mining exploitation by the Belgians and French in Africa. They called in colonialism in those days, taking raw materials from a third country to feed the ruling nation’s economy. The reality also includes polluting other people’s back yards, cheap life and labour.

Any Suggestions?

I am not suggesting that the battery/electric transport future should not go ahead, far from it. Regular readers will have seen lots of my posts about environmentally friendly, energy saving and producing technology, but there are more complications to the model that we like to think about.

Sitting in Europe it is easy to take the technological path without fully working through the consequences for other peoples and global politics. Fed the narrative of doing the right thing for the Earth, always trying to do what is best, but without a full picture of the implications, we (I too) fall into line within the narrative, we drive it and make both the positive and the negative sides real.

Luck in Scientific Investigation

A lucky discovery

I have just read a Special Issue of the Journal of Responsible Innovation all about the role of luck in science that raises some interesting and entertaining questions about responsibility. One of the events that is often discussed in the field of ‘science and luck’ (oh yes, there is a field), is that of Alexander Flemming’s discovery of penicillin.

Fleming was lucky enough to be able to take a holiday from his work in St Mary’s Hospital in 1928, and rushed out of the lab leaving some of his dishes unwashed that he had been using to do some experiments with a bacteria that causes boils, sore throats and abscesses.

When he returned, refreshed, and started to tidy up, he noticed that one of the dishes had some mold growing on it, and around the mold was clear. No bacteria! Maybe the mold was producing something that was able to kill the bacteria!

Fleming called it mold juice, and he discovered that it worked against lots of bacteria, but it was unstable and difficult to work with. It was only really of interest because it could be used to isolate different forms of bacteria, so those that were sensitive to the mold juice substance (something that we call penicillin) from those that were not.

It could have all stopped there, but a team in Oxford discovered that if they gave the substance to mice it seemed to work against streptococci, so they tried it on a person, a police officer with a badly infected cut. It seemed to work, but they did not have enough material to continue the treatment, and unfortunately the patient died after they had to stop treatment.

Unlucky for him.

11 years had passed by this point, but times had changed with the Second World War well underway. The Brits were busy with the war effort, so the researchers contacted their colleagues in the USA to see if they would be interested in continuing the work. They took it on and started to look for more efficient production methods, and more productive strains to develop.

Well, what would you know, they found a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria fruit market that seemed to work fantastically.

As the US joined the war there was a push to scale up production, and within 3 years the pharmaceutical companies had produced enough (and tried it out enough on injured soldiers) to supply the allied armies with enough to treat all the seriously wounded troops from D-Day.

A Lucky Boy

Fleming was given the Nobel Prize, and today we all know his name. But we might say that he was a lucky boy. His discovery was at least partially beyond his control after all. If he had cleaned up properly before his holiday the world might be a very different place today.