Monday, January 30, 2017

Fertilizing Green Chemistry: How an Occupation Renews Itself

Green chemistry is a set of principles to make chemistry healthier, safer, and more environmental. It has made significant changes in how chemistry is done, and in a way that is very different from how we usually think of reforms in organizations. Usually we think of a powerful outside actor starting reform, like the state, not individuals in an occupation. Usually we think of reforms as a series of prescribed practices, not as principles that each actor translates into practices. With no powerful actor to prescribe and no practice to prescribe, it seems like a puzzle that green chemistry could even become important. How did it happen?

The answer is connected to a set of mechanisms that describe how occupations can change themselves, and is described in a paper by Howard-Grenville, Nelson, Earle, Haack, and Young in Administrative Science Quarterly. The method behind the mechanisms is based on two ideas: change is voluntary, and the people in the occupations are highly diverse. As a result, many people with different views and professional practices need to be persuaded. This is a common problem for social movements that seek to reform occupations from inside, so it is broader than the specific case of green chemistry. And, it is a complicated problem too, as green chemistry showed.

The advocates of green chemistry used three methods: 1) portraying it as normal, 2) explaining how it was morally right, and 3) saying it was a pragmatic approach. Each of these three methods had limited success because they were tailored to specific chemist roles, but in total they were effective because they covered key roles in the occupation. Normal portrayals matched the chemistry professionals as being innovators. Moralizing worked through the teaching role that many of them had. Pragmatic matches their role is industrial problem solvers.  Any chemistry professional might spend some time in each of these roles, and some were heavily dedicated to one of them, making them open to influence through these different methods.

But using three methods has one disadvantage: they are inconsistent, and this is easy to recognize. The inconsistency of the methods also led to inconsistency in the principles – imagine how much stricter the moral approach was – and lack of clarity in how one could do green chemistry. However, the inconsistency was not enough to make green chemistry fail. Because many chemistry professionals accepted these principles, as a result of any of the three methods of persuasion, they instead turned their focus on how to make them consistent – either by finding ways to integrate them, or by finding ways of switching focus depending on circumstances.

This is interesting because it suggests that internal reform does not work the same way as a political movement. Political movements thrive on apparent consistency in messaging and principles, and will typically try to solve (or deny) inconsistency before turning to advocacy. Occupational movements do not need consistent messages, but rather that each individual occupation member is convinced. They will later find ways to solve the inconsistency, because occupational members – unlike political movements – encounter inconsistency in their daily work and are used to finding solutions. Green chemistry has succeeded through a combination of persuasion methods followed by problem solving.