Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry – Richard P. Feynman
Molecular Ecology, a unifying and systematic ideology, explores the details of life on our majestic planet. In my book, The Alienated Planet, I refer to Molecular Ecology’s unique perspective of considering key biological themes based on various levels of organizations as “Science Wise”. This novel approach presents a platform that can allow us to better understand and readily apply these themes to our lives. Moreover, it helps us address and implement transformational proposals that can guide us toward sustenance.
G.E. Hutchinson aptly describes “populations” as “the ecological theater and the evolutionary play.”
According to the principles of Molecular Ecology, all biotic levels of organization are vibrant tapestries of structure and function where various aspects of life can be observed and analyzed. Biodiversity, for instance, can only be understood when applied to multiple organizational levels. Biotherapy, another significant feature of life on our planet, refers to the preventative strategies that promote the well-being of organisms.
Living entities adhere to the laws of thermodynamics as they assess the challenges of life by attempting to face or avoid them. This acquired characteristic must be practiced by us: modern human beings. To meet the anthropogenic crises, we must replace our vicious destructive actions with virtuous cycles of sustenance, initiated by placing exponentially increasing price tags on items, processes, and practices that are damaging to the life-support system of our planet.
International policies must positively reinforce constructive actions while holding individual consumers, institutions, and governments accountable for their ecological footprint contributions.
Green Chemistry, tabled decades ago by Anastas and Warner, has aimed to place regulatory checkpoints on the environmentally-destructive practices of the chemical industry.
Unfortunately, the initiative did not achieve its intention of curbing the devastating impact of this industry since many of the suggested parameters were not properly and quantitatively defined within a comprehensive biochemical framework. The misinterpreted or deliberately manipulated principles have ultimately allowed megacorporations to green-wash these progressive proposals.
In contrast, Molecular Ecology views these principles as thematic and hence applicable to multiple levels of an organization, even outside the realm of industrial chemistry.
Below is an analysis of how a consistent, overarching ideology proceeds to apply Science Wise and Biotherapy to help implement such transformative proposals to various levels of our lives:
Synthetic methods should try to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in a process into the final product. That means less waste will be generated as a result. Molecular Ecology holds that resourcefulness at all levels ensures sustenance. The wise use of renewable/recyclable resources must be encouraged and preferred to non-renewable ones. Energy sources and raw materials obtained from the boundaries of the biosphere must be renewable/recyclable and deemed tax-free compared tomined ones.
Safer and Milder Chemicals for Accident Prevention
Whenever possible, the substances in a process, and the forms of those substances, should be chosen to minimize risks such as explosions, fires, and accidental releases.
Molecular Ecology confirms that most biochemical processes tend to be reversible and mildly exothermic/exergonic. Biotherapy promotes the elimination of (industrial) processes that generate waste rather than treating or cleaning up after its generation. Synthetic methods should avoid using resources that cannot be recycled/reused as most of these resources come from outside of the biosphere. Science Wise declares that substances toxic to humans are also toxic to other living things and the environment. A great majority of natural processes are readily reversible! (Industrial) processes with small changes in free energy are more feasible and safe and hence must be deemed more accessible.
Designing Safer Chemicals
Structure-function correlation is a significant theme of life on our planet and must be applied to the chemical industry. Chemical products should be structurally designed to achieve their desired function while leaving a minimal environmental footprint. Designed biodegradable chemicals must be most accessible to consumers. Educated citizens will demand these products. Atoms or groups of atoms that render a compound non-biodegradable generally include halogens, aromatics, synthetic functional groups, or organometallics and must be avoided. Chemical products should not be designed to pollute the environment. When their function is complete, they should decompose.
Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries
Auxiliary substances should be avoided and replaced by non-hazardous ones. Polar (water-based) solvents must replace non-polar ones.
Molecular Ecology declares that most non-polar solutes are derived from petroleum and require non-polar solvents. Petrochemicals must be synthesized at very low quantities and be regarded as very expensive commodities required for assembling essential, non-biodegradable structures.
Design for Energy Efficiency
Highly endothermic processes demand a tremendous amount of energy and should be avoided. Highly exothermic processes, on the other hand, release large amounts of energy which are damaging to ecosystems. All processes should ultimately be designed to be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure whenever possible. Humans, as individuals and as a species, must learn to slow down as life processes on our planet tend to happen at a much slower pace.
The unnecessary generation of derivatives, such as protecting groups, should be deemed expensive and hence, minimized or avoided. Future innovators will design reactions that emulate cellular metabolic processes, which mainly occur as multi-stepped chains or cycles to reduce the production of wasteful derivatives, allow regulation at multiple points, and show versatility.
Used in small quantities, catalysts and enzymes are superior to stoichiometric reagents (those ones consumed in a reaction). If catalysts are obtained through mining and extensive processing steps, with a substantial ecological footprint, they must be avoided or deemed expensive.
Molecular Ecology observes the progressive tenets of Green Chemistry as transformative and thematic. The principles of Biotherapy and Science Wise provide the biochemical framework to better appreciate the proposals above and apply them to multiple levels, including various human institutions. A sustainable circular economy of the future depends on cyclic processes based on renewable energy sources and biodegradable raw materials, all obtained from within the razor-thin biosphere. “Molecular ecoliterate” citizens will be demanding and investing in such commodities and working collectively to paralyze the malignant corporations of destruction.
Ultimately, regulating our (industrial) processes on the sacred planet must constitute the Bioethics that can guide us toward sustainability. Real-time pollution prevention strategies involve sophisticated and innovative analytical methodologies that allow their implementation at multiple levels, by individuals and global institutions.
Farid Pourkhatai has been an IB Chemistry/Biology Teacher at Victoria Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Canada for the past few decades. His passion for teaching environmental sciences has prompted him to write the book The Alienated Planet, published in September 2021, and to present “Molecular Ecoliteracy” at the Moving Forward Together symposium of the Science Teacher Association of Ontario in November 2021. His presentation slides and other material can be accessed here.
Farid’s novel ideas and approaches to teaching ecology and promoting Sustainable Development Goals have been recognized by the Global Compact Network of Canada in November 2020.