Origins of risk thinking in environmental health

02017-02-17 ▸ Where does the concept of environmental “risk” come from? Ask an environmental health scientist and you might get an answer like: risk = hazard × exposure; or perhaps: risk is a complex function of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. Beyond just a formula and a four-step process outlined in textbooks, risk thinking is a deeply established set of approaches and techniques. But it’s not the only possible way to understand environmental problems, and it hasn’t always been the mainstream. Here I present a brief and visual summary of one source that traces the conceptual roots of risk in US environmental policy and regulation. ▸▸

Alternatives assessment frameworks

02016-03-08 ▸ A big part of implementing green chemistry in industry is the task of identifying and selecting product or process chemistries that are safer, less resource-intensive, and also functionally better than those we currently use. That involves complex judgments and comparisons with many dimensions. Figuring out how to make multifaceted comparisons to support scientifically informed judgments is the domain of alternatives assessment (AA). Anyone involved in green chemistry should be familiar with this idea. ▸▸

Sustaining what? How we frame sustainability and envision the future

02015-10-08 ▸ We’re immersed in talk of sustainability: to ensure the long-term viability of systems that support human life. But ‘sustainability’ is not a clearly defined or self-evident concept. Instead, it’s a complex collection of notions that are being used and continually redefined in different ways. As a result, there are many sustainabilities. What we consider to be sustainable—and by extension, ‘green’, ‘benign’, ‘just’, and so on—reflects a range of visions about what society should be like, how people should relate to nature, and what functions and effects technology should have. In this post I’d like to bring to attention how we frame this seemingly all-encompassing concept. ▸▸

Information infrastructure and democracy

02015-07-15 ▸ As the ‘open’ movement builds momentum, information practices are being tied to a range of aspirations: reproducible science, sustainable development, and accountable government, to name a few. Many advocacy and technical efforts across open [knowledge, data, science] focus on revealing, unlocking, and ‘openly’ digitally publishing information that currently circulates—or sits—in restricted, enclosed, or encumbered systems. But the movement is multi-stranded, and there are undercurrents of aspiring to even deeper change—perhaps radical changes in the relationship of knowledge and society. This is what excites me the most. ▸▸

The design hierarchy

02015-07-08 ▸ The problem of toxic substances has roots that can be traced back through the organizational levels of industrial systems: from the design and manufacture of products to the design and manufacture of the materials from which products are fashioned, and ultimately to the level of chemical production and molecular design. The results of design and engineering decisions at each level are taken up as finished products for use in ‘higher’ levels of design and engineering. Product design rarely involves creating new materials or synthesizing new chemicals; rather, it most commonly involves selecting among available existing materials. Those materials, in turn, are made of chemical ingredients selected from already-available options. To a large extent, the entire chemistry-based system of production is shaped by the available transformations of mineral and petrochemical resources. ▸▸

Exploring research subject areas

02014-05-29 ▸ Many academic journals describe the articles they publish using topical keywords, which authors can specify ad-lib, or select from a controlled vocabulary provided by the publisher. PLOS stands out in the sophistication of its approach: articles are associated with subject areas from a thesaurus of over 10000 terms, with specific associations established by machine-aided indexing. Probably to avoid overwhelming readers, the PLOS website’s subject area list only shows the first two tiers of a taxonomy that goes up to ten tiers deep. Now, you can explore the PLOS subject areas in all their depth and beauty… ▸▸