A New Era of Protection

April 11, 2011

EPA Administrator Paul Anastas endorses a new way of thinking in order to contribute to a sustainable future.

By Anna Miller

It's easy for Paul Anastas, assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to focus on his organization's progress over the past few decades.

After all, he does call himself “the most optimistic person in just about any room.”

“But the fact of the matter is, we are in a context,” Dr. Anastas said at a discussion last week presented by George Washington University, the University Seminar Series, GW Institute for Sustainability and Children’s National Medical Center. “And we need to ask ourselves: with all of our successes over the years, can we do better?”

The optimist in Dr. Anastas says yes.

Challenges like climate change, endocrine disruption and ecosystem deprivation “are often more subtle, more complex and more difficult to explain” than tangible problems like clean air and water, he said.

“But they are no less egregious, no less threatening and no less important to address,” he said.

During his talk called “Taking Environmental and Human Health Protection to the Next Level,” Dr. Anastas promoted systems-level thinking, as opposed to reductionist thinking, in order to create a more sustainable environment. Many of the issues we face today, he said, are unintended consequences of a fragmented approach to problem solving.

“We know how to do the right things, but do we know how to do them sustainably?” he asked.

Dr. Anastas also stressed the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration for integrative research, as well as the importance of addressing problems in a way that is “catalytic.” Further, he cited organizational transparency as a key component of a sustainable future.

Dr. Anastas called for a move away from “what we need to reduce, what we need to eliminate, what we need to minimize, what we need to ban" and toward "what you can invent, what you can create, what you can design." Innovation, he said, is the ticket to sustainability.

“I think that many things can be addressed by science and technology, but I don't think that science and technology alone is the path,” he concluded. “Do I think that we will meet this challenge? Yes, I do. I think we will because we can, and I think we will because we must.”

Dr. Anastas’ talk was followed by a panel of GW experts, who discussed the various ways the university is contributing to advances in sustainability.

“Across the university, we have students and faculty who are involved in research on sustainability including alternative energy, solar power, public health, urban planning, law and business, but we are also committed to practicing what we teach,” GW President Steven Knapp said during his introductory remarks, noting the university's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings and campus-wide sustainability initiatives like the Urban Food Task Force.

The first panelist, Lynn Goldman, dean of the GW School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), reminded the crowd that environmental issues are also human health issues.

“All that is green isn't necessarily healthy,” she said. “We need to make sure we are putting that health lens on as we think about greening the economy and greening the world.”

Students and faculty at SPHHS are contributing to this understanding by researching an array of environmental health issues, including the health of waste management workers and the sustainability of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon, said Dr. Goldman.

Mark Starik, department chair, professor of strategic management and public policy and director of the GW Institute for Corporate Responsibility's (ICR) Environmental Sustainability program, highlighted the many ways ICR fosters discussions and creates new knowledge around organizational and urban sustainability. From hosting numerous seminars and receptions to conducting research on air pollutants in cardiovascular disease and sustainable water reuse, “GW has a significant output, interest and hopefully influence in moving sustainability in multiple directions and various aspects of our lives,” he said.

Finally, John Carruthers, director of the new sustainable urban planning program at GW’s College of Professional Studies, presented his vision for the program, saying that it must be globally oriented and analytically based.

“This is a program that has been designed to meet the needs of 21st-century urban planners,” he said. “It is going to be the job of the students in the program, not just the faculty, to hang meaning on the concept of sustainability. I anticipate that they will become leaders in the field.”

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