Molecular Psychology: Good Chemistry with Nature's Green Chemistry


"You ever ask yourself why do we have hazardous materials? Who in their right mind would in- synthesize a red dye that caused cancer? Who in their right mind would develop a plasticizer that causes birth defects? Why are we in the situation that we’re in?"

Master green chemists and educators John Warner and Amy Cannon say all that is changing -- by necessity and by design. The radical growth of green chemistry is showing we can have good chemistry with the Earth by emulating nature’s green chemistry and do good business at the same time.


  Bioneers Series XI - Program 13-11


Molecular Psychology: Good Chemistry with Nature’s Green Chemistry



00:00               Underwriting narration (00:22)


The following program is made possible in part by Organic Valley Family of Farms. Organic and family-owned since 1988. Learn more at Also by Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. As well as by the generous support of listeners like you.


00:22               Welcome (00:05)


00:25               Warner Teaser (00:17)


You ever ask yourself why do we have hazardous materials? Who in their right mind would in- synthesize a red dye that caused cancer? Who in their right mind would develop a plasticizer that causes birth defects? Why are we in the situation that we’re in?


00:43               Macy (00:09)


00:52               Bioneers Teaser (00:28)


We stand at the threshold of a historic opportunity in the human experiment: to re-imagine how to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations.


It's a revolution from the heart of nature - and the human heart.


In this series - The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature - we celebrate social and scientific innovators with breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet - creating a future environment of hope.


01:20               Theme music fade out (00:08)


01:31     NARRATION 1 (01:36)


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a mammoth vortex of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean. It’s estimated to be twice the size of the entire continental United States.

The Patch is a giant clot of plastics, chemical sludge, and assorted debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. Since plastics disintegrate to ever smaller polymers, particles are entering the bodies of fish, sea mammals, birds and ultimately us.  An ad by the National Plastics Council proudly called plastics “the 6th food group.” The Council probably didn’t mean it quite like this.


Did you ever ask yourself who in their right mind would invent a product to keep food fresh or tote it home, that would one day litter the landscape, wash up on every beach around the world and release toxic substances into the web of life and our bodies long after its short disposable life?


Today all that is changing by necessity and by design.


The principles of the scientific revolution of green chemistry are prompting inventors to consider first and foremost whether a product will be safe.


The radical growth of green chemistry is showing we can invent our way out of the toxic vortex. We can have good chemistry with the Earth by emulating nature’s green chemistry.


Join us for Molecular Psychology: Good Chemistry with Nature’s Green Chemistry with green chemists John Warner and Amy Cannon.


My name is Neil Harvey. I'll be your host. Welcome to the Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.


03:07     Music fade (00:14)


03:21     NARRATION 2 (01:07)


Chemists take natural materials from the Earth and synthesize them into molecules in the lab. From those molecules, they make materials. And from those materials, they make products. 


So why make toxic products?  Good question. It’s not a question John Warner was asking himself at the pinnacle of his career as one of the most prolific and successful chemists on the planet.


As an undergraduate, Warner published half a dozen research papers in peer-reviewed journals. At age 19, he presented his research at the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in Washington. While studying at Princeton University, he helped invent the most successful anti-cancer drug in the history of pharmaceutical sciences. He was on his way to becoming a star medical chemistry professor when the Polaroid company offered him a high-paying job as head of exploratory research. John Warner jumped at the opportunity.


It took a heart-rending personal tragedy to raise the question in his mind: Why don’t chemists focus on inventing non-toxic products?


John Warner spoke at a recent Bioneers conference.


04:28               Warner 1 plen (03:19)


I’m at Polaroid, I’m an industrial chemist, I’m intellectually looking at this concept of making molecules safe and keeping it, you know, appropriate as far as economics and things like that. So, I’m approaching this from a very intellectual perspective when, all of a sudden, the worst thing imaginable happens. My two-year-old son dies of a birth defect. He was born with a disease called Biliary Atresia in which his liver was completely detached from his intestines so he couldn’t survive metabolizing, you know, certain nutrients. He got a surgery to keep him alive for a couple years, and by the time organ transplants, things like that happened, it was too late and we lost him.


I talk like this about, oh, aren’t I so cool. I’m on Celebrity magazine. Oh, look at all my patents. Look at all my papers, aren’t I cool. At this point in my life, I suspect I was one of the most prolific synthetic organic chemists on the planet, probably synthesized over 2,000 molecules that had never existed before, won as many awards as you can imagine, published as many papers as you can imagine, at the top of the game, imagine the night of my son’s funeral, staring at the ceiling, asking myself, what if something I touched caused my son’s disease. What if something that I got an award for caused his birth defect?


And that’s when the second epiphany happened. And this is probably the most important thing I’m gonna try to get you to understand. I went to four years of undergraduate, three-and-a-half years of graduate school, I never had a course in toxicology. I never had a course in environmental mechanisms. How is it possible that I can be such a successful chemist and never having had any course to teach me what makes a molecule toxic, what makes a molecule hazardous? If I come to think of it, imagine you want to be a chemist, think of any university you can imagine. Go online and find the courses that you have to take to get a job to work in industry to be an industrial chemist. You will find not one university will have you take a course in toxicology. Not one university will have you take a course in mechanisms… Why do we have dyes that cause cancer? Why do we have plasticizers that cause birth defects? Yes, there’s corporate greed. There’s things like that, but at the end of the day, the fundamental thing is we’re not training scientists not to. And that should outrage you. My father was an electrician. He couldn’t come into your house and change a light bulb unless he had a document that said he could do it safely. Teachers, architects’, lawyers’, you can think of all the professions that require some kind of accreditation, some kind of documentation that they can do things safe, and are  aware of the state of the art. How is it possible that the only humans on the planet given the gift of making a new molecule that have never existed before. They can assemble atoms in unique geometries and have absolutely no responsibility to anticipate of they’re about to make the most potent neurotoxin in history, the most potent carcinogen in history. Till we address that, we’ve got some serious issues.



07:47     NARRATION 3 (00:38)


John Warner experienced a world-changing epiphany in the agonizing wake of his son’s death. He began to imagine and invent a responsible form of chemistry. It would be dedicated to creating non-toxic products to meet the business bottom line – and placing a premium on the health and safety needs of the public.


Warner was among the first handful of green chemists in the United States in the early to mid-‘90’s. He was named 2002 Distinguished Chemist of the Year by the American Institute of Chemistry. In 2008, John Warner was named one of the most influential people impacting the global chemical industries.


08:26             Warner 2 plen (01:08)


You know, in 150 years of industry in chemistry, we have learned to make the most complex and complicated molecules imaginable, but we use high temperature, high pressure, and nasty re-agents, whereas, nature constantly outperforms us hands down, and yet uses room temperature, ambient pressure, and water as a solvent. And, so, non-covalent derivatization is the scientific interpretation of what’s going on. And the idea is that we, for 150 years in chemistry, have been ego driven to make molecules do what we want them to do. And yet in nature, if you think about it, molecules do what they want to do because they evolved to do what they want to do. And if we can learn that, and we can understand how molecules interact – and I tongue and cheek say play the role of a molecular psychologist; instead of making a molecule do what we want, put it on the couch and say, what would you like? (laughter) And then (applause) design the product to be what it wants to be. Don’t have the toxicity, don’t have the hazards. It just seemed to make sense.


09:34     NARRATION 4 (00:14)


What Warner jokingly calls molecular psychology is actually biomimicry at the molecular level – imitating how nature does chemistry.  After all, nature wrote the recipe book and is the master chemist.


09:48               Warner 3 int (01:18)


All the materials that we depend on in society, all of them are chemicals. Everything is a chemical – water is a chemical; air is a chemical. Chemical-free is a concept that is used, but inappropriately because everything is a chemical.


So, getting over that, if we imagine all the materials that we interact with in society, I would argue maybe ten-percent we would consider sustainable, we would consider benign. Ninety- percent of them have some issue. Maybe they have a lot of energy in the manufacturing process. Maybe they use solvents in the manufacturing process. Maybe they’re toxic. Maybe they’re from non-renewable feed stock, so they persist in the environment. There’s something wrong with 90-percent of them.


Now, if we do an alternative assessment and look around and just desperately try to find existing technologies that could replace some of these less perfect technologies, we might be able to get another 20-percent. But at this moment in time, 65-70-percent of the materials that we interact with need to be reinvented, not resourced, not found in , but we actually need to invent new technologies to replace them, and that’s the role of green chemistry.


11:07     NARRATION 5 (00:29)


John Warner has outlined the 12 principles of green chemistry in a book he co-authored with Paul Anastas. The two grew up together in Boston and today they’re known as the “fathers of green chemistry.” Their landmark book “Green Chemistry Theory in Practice,” has been translated into over a dozen languages.


John Warner is at the forefront of transforming the global toxic chemical industry into one that is not just less harmful. It can actually be benign, and it’s also a whole lot smarter.


11:36               Warner 4 int (01:29)


The average synthesis of a pharmaceutical, a life-saving drug, the average manufacturing process generates on average, 200 to 300 times the mass in waste of the product itself. So, every one gram of a drug may be 200, 300, sometimes up to a thousand grams of waste are generated.


So, what green chemistry says is that if you have a hazardous material and you’re depending on humans to take it and always treat it appropriately, package it appropriately, that’s not good enough. In green chemistry, we don’t anticipate always good behavior, we anticipate the unfortunate – when the tanker truck tips over; when an explosion happens. If the chemist does their job well, people are still safe. And, so, the idea is to get away from this exposure-control mentality that, you know, through engineering, through special packaging we can use hazardous materials and mitigate danger through exposure. Well, that’s what we’ve been doing for 150 years. We’ve taken as a fait accomplis that chemistry has to be dangerous, and as long as we engineer mechanisms to protect exposure, we’ll be okay, whereas, what green chemistry says is anticipate reality and the tanker truck tipping over or something spilling. Make it safe intrinsically as opposed to phenomenologically.


13:05    Narration 6 - Lead to Mid Break (00:21)


John Warner believes that, in the not too distant future, all chemistry will be green chemistry. It may surprise you to learn that the chemical industry itself is helping lead the way. More when we return. This is Molecular Psychology: Good Chemistry with Nature’s Green Chemistry.


I'm Neil Harvey. You are listening to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.


13:27     MID BREAK (00:38)


14:06               Underwriter   (00:10)


Bioneers radio is made possible in part by John Masters Organics.  Feel good about looking good. Learn more at


14:17     NARRATION 7 (00:36)


To explore more Bioneers radio shows and conference videos, for free, visit


John Warner will tell you that green chemistry is not just the trend du jour. Or hype. He’s banking on the fact that science literacy is at the heart of our ability to live on Earth in ways that last and without a Plastic Vortex.

Warner is operating in a green chemistry vortex that’s demonstrating the benevolent synergies among science, industry, government and education to detoxify our world.


Again John Warner.


14:53              Warner 6 int (01:17)


Industry, this is gonna surprise you, but industry is leading. Alright? Because when you add up all the impacts of working with a hazardous material, okay, you’ve got hazardous material on one side, you’ve got a safe material on the other side. When you consider the storage costs of a hazardous material, the liability costs of it, the training of the workers and all the other hidden costs associated with using a hazardous materials, that absolutely a no-brainer that you would rather have a safe material.


Dupont in 2004, I may have the year wrong, but I think it was 2004, their R&D budget was a billion dollars. Their environmental compliance budget was a billion dollars. So they were spending the same amount of money to invent the next generation of materials as they were to be compliant with regulations. So the CEO says from now on I want my scientists to only invent non-regulated safe materials. Well, none of those scientists have had courses in toxicology. None of those scientists have had courses in environmental mechanisms, so it’s okay to want, but if you don’t have the ability, you can’t. So, I find that almost every chemical company you can think of has a green chemistry program and is passionate about trying to get their scientists to understand green chemistry.




16:11     NARRATION 8 (00:22)


Historically no chemistry department anywhere in the United States taught toxicology. But that’s changing because of industry’s pressing need for scientists grounded in the principles of green chemistry. John Warner estimates that by about 2006, 50- percent of colleges and universities supported green chemists and their education and research.


16:33                Warner 7 int (00:30)


Now, I would say the majority of universities have one or two individuals in the department that are doing something in green chemistry, and now some of the departments are actually systematically starting to put it into their actual curriculum. When every college and university in the country says that we see it’s a moral and ethical responsibility to train scientists in toxicology and environmental impact as a part of the education process, then we’ve gone 100-percent.


17:04     NARRATION 9 (01:14)


And he sees an awakening even in government. In the US, each year since 1996, one academic researcher has been awarded The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge prize for innovations in “cleaner, cheaper, smarter chemistry”.


In addition to a researcher, annual awards are given to small businesses and chemical industry leaders. The list of winners includes less wasteful products and applications, and more benign manufacturing processes for everything from common industrial chemicals to life-saving drugs.


Green chemists have invented gentler ingredients for cosmetics, faster ways to analyze the protein content of food, and less toxic household paint. Incremental, yes. But the trajectory away from toxics is clear.  


The EPA-sponsored competition has so far awarded 70 new technologies that have collectively eliminated 1.3 billion pounds of hazardous chemicals and solvents, saved over 42 billion gallons of water and eliminated 46 million pounds of CO2 emissions.


Green chemistry is growing rapidly outside the United States. It’s being driven by business needs. And academia is responding.


18:18                Warner 9   plen   (00:45)


China has 14 national research labs dedicated to green chemistry technologies. (applause) India is piloting a mandated program in Delhi to require all chemistry students to take a one-year course in green chemistry. And you know why they’re getting it? Because it’s about competitive advantage. The world has changed that ten years ago people would laugh and talk about, oh, sustainability… you know, that’s not true anymore. So, if you have a material that has superior performance, superior cost, and is safe, you’ve got a profitable business. And other countries are figuring that out.


19:03     NARRATION 10 (01:24)


Business sees the advantages of going green, government is beginning to wake up to the value of getting toxic materials out of our lives and universities are responding. Brother, can you spare a paradigm?


John Warner says we have to accelerate the pace of green chemistry invention. Then companies will find it easy to make choices based on competitive advantage and consumer demand.


But until then, companies will continue to clog the courts defending their toxic products as the cost of doing business.


Today John Warner is again at the top of the game, but it’s a different game. He’s President and Chief Technology Officer of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry north of Boston. Here scientists invent sustainable, safe alternatives to conventional products. In the Institute’s first 28 months Warner and his team filed a breathtaking 147 patents and brought 5 products to market, with many more on the way. One is an inexpensive solar technology based on the chemistry of how plants photosynthesize and make energy from light.


At the center of the institute is a large teaching facility with full-length glass windows looking out into the research labs. It’s the home of its sister nonprofit Beyond Benign Foundation that develops K-12 science curriculum and brings in students, teachers and community groups to watch green chemists at work.


20:28                Warner 10 int (00:33)


Someone can try to invent something for years and fail. And so we have to be patient and allow the innovative and inventive process to take its time. What we can do is increase the odds by getting more ideas and more people in the inventive process that weren’t normally in it. We need to bring people who never would have considered science as a viable career and let them know, that well, that maybe this is. And at this point, society needs them, desperately. Not the people that have typically gone into chemistry but people who maybe not typically would have gone into chemistry.




21:02     NARRATION 11 (00:14)


John Warner and his partner and wife Amy Cannon, who runs the Beyond Benign Foundation, are making science sexy again. Green chemistry promises a new Golden Age of scientific discovery that also brings social good.


21:17                Cannon 1 int  (00:13)


We definitely need more scientists to come in and help us invent these much-needed alternatives. We also need society as a whole to have a better understanding of science and its impact on society. 


21:31     NARRATION 12 (00:25)


Amy Cannon was the first person in the world to earn a PhD in Green Chemistry. As Executive Director of the Beyond Benign Foundation, her mission is to promote science driven by the principles of green chemistry in order to create an environmentally, socially, and economically prosperous world. And attract lots of passionate new students and entrepreneurs who want to become green chemists and contribute to a world brimming with good chemistry.


21:57                Cannon 2 int (02:02)


So, at Beyond Benign, we do quite a bit of work in the K-12 arena. We think it’s really important, especially here in the US where we have such a disconnect with science, and we’re pretty science illiterate. All the statistics say that if by 8th grade students don’t have a general positive view of science, they’re not gonna study it in college. So, we really focus on K-12, on getting them early.


So, we do that through curriculum development work. We train teachers on our green chemistry and sustainable science curriculum. We post all of our curriculum online on our website, freely downloadable, free of charge. So, we believe in open access materials, as well. And we also do this through outreach, just communications. For example, we have a college student ambassador program where we have undergraduate students who we train on green chemistry and they become ambassadors in K-12 classrooms. And they’re great role models for students. And, you know, they look at them, they don’t look too different. They don’t look like the traditional crazy scientist and you know, the K-12 student can look at them and say, you know, maybe if they can do it, maybe I can too. So, that’s another program that we work on quite a bit.


Our middle school curriculum is super fun, we put them in the role of a materials scientist and a formulator, and they invent a shampoo. They form companies. They design the packaging. They come up with a company name. They research all the ingredients and what each of the ingredients are doing, and they formulate their shampoo. And at the end of it they have a competition to see which one….They have a number of criteria that they’re trying to develop this shampoo against. It has to have an environmental benefit. It also has to be economical. And it has to have a social equity piece. So, it’s gotta work pretty well.


It’s gotta have all those three pieces, which is a core piece to what green chemistry is all about. And that’s what our name comes from. It’s gotta be beyond just benign. It has to be economical and it’s gotta work, otherwise, it’s not gonna be successful in the marketplace.


23:59     NARRATION 13 (00:45)


Amy Cannon.


Green chemistry, by definition, protects human health and the environment. It also creates green jobs and grows a sustainable economy.


The new generation of qualified molecular psychologists is helping molecules be all that nature wants them to be.


The tide is turning. San Francisco, Mumbai, Mexico City and the entire country of Rwanda have completely banned petroleum plastic bags. Already many biodegradable plastics are made from corn, potatoes or tapioca - using 60-70% less oil than conventional plastics. These kinds of plastics would make a far better “6th food group,” if that’s your bag.


John Warner.


24:44                  Warner 11 plen (01:18)


We’re all in this together. We need to think about things in a different way. If we keep doing it the way we are, we’re gonna keep having the same molecules. And, so, we’ve got to recognize that everyone has a role to play in this. You don’t have to become chemists, but we gotta- you have a right, in fact, you have a responsibility to step up to the plate and understand a little bit more about what’s going on, okay? ‘Cause right now someone comes and says something is dangerous, and someone else says something is safe, do you feel capable of knowing who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? And don’t you deserve to know that? And that’s what we really need here. (applause) Okay, so?


I’m convinced we’re gonna succeed. It’s gonna take a little bit of time, but it’s gonna happen because society’s demanding safe materials. Next generation of students want to learn how. They don’t have all the tools yet. And I think the Bioneer community is just the one to step up, help the next generation of scientists appreciate the universe for what it is and understand their impact. And altogether, let’s save the world. Thank you. (applause)   


26:02     NARRATION 14 (00:12)


John Warner and Amy Cannon.


Molecular Psychology: Good Chemistry with Nature’s Green Chemistry


26:15     Music fade (00:13)


26:27     Bioneers BXI - Program Close/Credits   (1:42)                            

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The Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature is a production of Collective Heritage Institute.
Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
Written by Catherine Stifter and Kenny Ausubel
Senior Producer: Neil Harvey
Managing Producer: Stephanie Welch
Production Management: Aaron Leventman and Chuck Castleberry
Station Relations by Creative PR
Distribution is by WFMT Radio Network
Original Recordings provided by Focus Audio Visual
Interview recording engineer:  Jeff Wessman.
Our theme music is taken from the album "Journey Between" by Baka Beyond and used by permission of Hannibal Records, a Rykodisc label.

Additional music was made available by Acoustic Music Records at For more music information, please visit
The opinions expressed in The Bioneers Revolution from the Heart of Nature radio series are those of the presenters and are not necessarily those of Collective Heritage Institute, the underwriters, or this radio station.
My name is Neil Harvey. Thank you for listening. I invite you to join the Bioneers in inspiring a shift to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations.
This is program number 13-11.

28:09   Closing underwriting narration: (00:21)


This program was made possible in part by Organic Valley Family of Farms. Organic and family-owned since 1988. Learn more at Also by Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. As well as by the generous support of listeners like you.


28:30               END

Molecular Psychology: Good Chemistry with Nature's Green Chemistry | JOHN WARNER and AMY CANNON

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Molecular Psychology: Good Chemistry with Nature's Green Chemistry


Posted by Bioneers on Mar 30 2013 in category 2011 Bioneers Radio Series

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