John Warner was chosen as an Utne Reader visionary in 2011. Each year Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries–people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them.
If John Warner had his way, chemical wouldn’t be a dirty word to so many people: He aims to clean up the way we make and use the artificial compounds that course through our world. Warner is one of the founders and chief proponents of green chemistry, a growing discipline that aims not just to create “miracle molecules” in the lab, but also to assess and minimize their impact on the environment and human health.
Since the birth of modern chemistry, scientists have synthesized more than 82,000 chemicals, yet we know very little about their hazards, which are legion. Warner figures that only about 10 percent of the chemicals on the market are truly safe, and the rest should be replaced by benign alternatives. That’s where green chemistry comes in. Beginning right at the design stage, green chemists work to reduce or eliminate hazardous substances that may prove to be unhealthy to humans or destructive to the natural world.
In 1998 Warner and fellow chemist Paul Anastas laid out the principles of green chemistry in a book of the same name. In 2001 Warner founded the first PhD program in green chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, and in 2007 he and Jim Babcock founded the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. The idea is catching on: Warner tells OnEarth magazine that all the big chemical companies are engaging in green chemistry.
He’s excited about the bright future of the field. “What better time in history to be a chemist?” he tells OnEarth. “Why doesn’t every kid want to be a chemist and have such important work to do?”