Energy Initiative Blogs

Materials, Sustainability, Society

by Elizabeth Kocs | Apr 21, 2015

What do those three words really mean and what can we do, as individuals, groups, institutions, and global societies to bring true meaning to those words?

I attended the MRS (Materials Research Society – I have been a member for the last three years) Spring 2015 Meeting held in San Francisco, CA.  I did not attend the multitude of symposia across the 5 days.  Instead, like every meeting, whether the spring or fall, I participate in meetings and committees that are targeted to certain portions of the MRS population – Energy and Sustainability (or Sustainable Development.)

In San Francisco at the MRS meeting, you have this sense for a few days that you belong to a world within a world.  Everyone (estimated to be around 5,500 MRS attendees at MRS Spring 2015 Meeting) wearing MRS badges as if it were a part of every day life.  And for all those who attend, it is.  That is, materials are a part of every day life, whether through research, writing, product development, or some other avenue.  Each year and each meeting, I am astounded that among those thousands of scientists and engineers, that as an environmental psychologist or environmental behavior scientist, I feel like an integral part of the “materials” world.

There are a few (probably less than a few hundred MRS members) that want to reach out beyond the scientific and technical world of materials.  Those are the people I have been getting to know and have an ever-growing appreciation for their enthusiasm about melding the world of science and technology with every day life. 

Materials, Sustainability, Society.

Those three words bring a depth of meaning to what surrounds us as humans living in a physical environment.  Without materials, we would not have a chair to sit on, a computer to type on, a smartphone to communicate with others.  As each decade passes, materials become more intrinsic to our daily lives, and all without the majority of people ever realizing it. 

So where to go from here?  Awareness, education, outreach are the three words that will help bridge materials, sustainability and society.  In order for society to be sustainable, the materials we use also need to be sustainable, whereby developing and using sustainable materials in and for society undergirds future research and innovation.

During my undergraduate education in Architecture, in order to understand if what you designed would be able to be built and withstand time, you needed to understand materials.  Very few undergraduate curricula include even a basic or introductory understanding of materials. 

Why is this?  Do we leave it up to the scientists and engineers to figure it all out? 

Not the best approach in my opinion.  One needs to see all angles, including the societal one. 

Imagine this – a scientist, an engineer, a social scientist, an economist and a public health professional – coming together to work on sustainable materials for sustainable societies.  What would our world look like?

We can only imagine. So let’s not only imagine it, let’s make it happen.