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Sustainability Pioneer, Mentor, Renaissance Scientist: Honoring R. Stephen Berry, 1931-2020

R. Stephen Berry

One of the sustainability community’s seminal thinkers and great mentors, R. Stephen Berry, died on July 26 at age 89. The personable and influential “Renaissance Scientist” helped define the concept of life cycle analysis/assessment, advocated powerfully for scientific literacy and the use of science to inform public policy on energy and other topics, and helped educate a cadre of sustainability professionals.
Berry’s training and research were based in chemistry, but his work transcended entrenched disciplines. He broke new ground in thermodynamics and the fundamental structure and properties of molecules, as well as sustainability. He conducted one of the first life cycle analysis/assessment studies in the mid-1960s, published analyses of the social costs of energy in the 1970s, and was recognized with a 1983 MacArthur Fellowship for his work towards development of national and international science policy.
Berry taught and conducted research for over five decades at the University of Chicago, where he was James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and spearheaded the early addition of courses on environmental management and energy policy to the curriculum. Among the many students he mentored are Caroline Taylor, EarthShift Global’s director of research and development and senior sustainability analyst, and our colleague and collaborator, Tom Etheridge, recently retired from HP, both of whom earned their doctorates in the department.
“Steve was special, a kind, generous, very collaborative person who could turn his hand to almost anything,” recalls Taylor. “The doors were always open in the institute, and around the time I graduated he and I started having long conversations, first about thermodynamics and then about sustainability and policy, which continued until very recently. He was so articulate about the importance of having pragmatic science inform public policy and was an activist in the very best sense of the word. Steve felt we all have an obligation to use our knowledge, our skills, and our privilege to make the world better. He will be deeply missed.”
Berry was impelled into sustainability-oriented research after he moved to Chicago in 1964 and was shocked and angered by the city’s polluted air and water. He sought action from city leaders, and conducted, with colleague Margaret F. Fels, one of the first life cycle analysis/assessment (LCA) studies, which subsequently prompted the creation of an ongoing LCA program at Argonne National Laboratory, where Berry served as Special Advisor for National Security to the Director.
In a 2017 interview, Berry recalled the origins of that initial LCA:
“About that time, I realized if you wanted to address the [air pollution] problem, you needed to do more than put precipitators on power plants. You had to somehow use energy more efficiently. So we began by looking at how energy was used. The first thing we did was a study of the energy used to produce the automobile, starting with the ore in the ground and ending with the final disposal. We weren’t looking at the transportation aspect; we were looking at the manufacture and the disposal. We looked at each step and compared the actual energy and free energy with the ideal thermodynamic limit with the idea that where the difference was greatest, you had the greatest leverage for technological change. So that was the first study of what became life cycle analysis. And we went from looking at the automobile to looking at all sorts of things, comparing plastic and paper bags, for example, and people moved to Argonne and began doing it regularly there. 
We published quite a number of papers on these analyses—actually the very first one we did, the automobile, I submitted to Science, and they wouldn’t publish it, so it came out in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.” 
Berry, a native of Colorado, was an active skier, fisherman, mushroom hunter, and musician with an avid interest in early music. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Carla Friedman Berry, and by two daughters, a son, and eight grandchildren, and a bevy of students and colleagues whose worlds have been immeasurably enriched by knowing him.
Goodbye, Steve. We’ll miss you!
Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee, used courtesy of University of Chicago Office of Communications.


About the Author:  

Pete Dunn is EarthShift Globals marketing consultant and a freelance strategist and writer.

Pete Dunn, EarthShift Global’s marketing consultant is an entrepreneurial marketing and communications strategist and writer, serving clients in academia, technology and B-to-B marketing. His journalism background includes eight years as founder, editor and publisher of WaferNews, the leading news publication for the international semiconductor manufacturing community. He specializes in creative collaboration and translating complex subjects into clear messages that inform and inspire.