Pathway to Sustainability Leadership by MIT

Incubation, Transformation, and Mobilization

Section 1: The Challenge of Sustainability

Building a sustainable world is an immense challenge, but a necessary and, we strongly believe, realizable one. We draw on the classic definition of sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN WCED 1987). Institutions of higher education are perfectly positioned to explore the questions that emerge from this call to action via research and teaching and to seek solutions.

The Challenge, The Opportunity

The world economy has been growing at an average real rate of about 3.5% per year, with a doubling time of only 20 years.1 Growth is far faster in emerging economies, where billions of people still live in poverty, without the food, housing, clean air and water, healthcare, education, opportunity, and freedom from fear that all people deserve. However, humanity has already exceeded the Earth’s capacity to sustain our societies indefinitely at our current rate of use and consumption of resources (Running 2012).

From forests and fish to water and fossil fuels, we harvest and degrade our renewable resources faster than they can regenerate; we create pollution, waste, and greenhouse gases more quickly than they can be rendered harmless or sequestered; and we are overwhelmingly dependent on nonrenewable resources. Human society has exceeded sustainable limits for greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, and other critical resources and ecosystems upon which our health, prosperity, and lives depend. At the same time, the United Nations projects world population will grow by more than two billion by the year 2050 and four billion by 2100, while consumption per capita continues to grow exponentially (UN DESA 2015).

This is where the opportunity lies. Promoting health and wellbeing for a growing world population while reducing our global footprint to within Earth’s capacity to sustain us is a defining challenge for the world’s citizens in the 21st century, and for MIT. To address this challenge, we need to invent sustainable means to meet our needs for food, energy, materials, health, and access to these resources. To succeed—and to avoid unintended harmful consequences—new technologies must be grounded in rigorous scientific research. But the invention of promising new technologies alone is not sufficient. These inventions must move affordably and appropriately from the lab to the world. Their implementation requires support for entrepreneurship and commercialization, for learning and change in existing enterprises, and for public policies to speed regulatory change and support the adoption of sustainable technologies.

Finally, we need transformation. Innovation and implementation are essential but by themselves are insufficient. As long as everyone wants more—a higher income, more consumption, a larger gross domestic product, more than last year, more than others—innovations that ease scarcity or environmental degradation will simply enable more growth until new problems and limits arise. New technologies alone cannot create a sustainable economy and society. This raises uncomfortable questions. The world must make the transition to sustainability, yet it is unclear how to accomplish this with fairness and equity so that we can build a society in which all will thrive. We must move from this emerging vision of sustainability to rigorous research, innovations, and processes that help us understand the complex interconnectedness of systems, design better policies, facilitate individual and organizational learning, and catalyze the technical, economic, social, political, and personal changes we need to create a sustainable society.

What MIT Can Do

MIT can and should be a global leader in addressing these challenges. MIT is perhaps uniquely positioned to move beyond technological solutions because it is also endowed with strengths in the humanities, architecture, social sciences, economics, and management, and has a track record of interdisciplinary cooperation. MIT’s multidisciplinary approach makes it a leader both in the technical innovation and in the research, teaching, and learning that must take place to ensure success. MIT’s capabilities at the operational level with regard to design and construction, energy, transportation, food services, procurement, land management, and waste complement our academic and research endeavors, creating a mutual feedback loop.

MIT’s campus can be used as a test bed for science and technology and for policy and decision making. Through the broad participation of faculty, staff, and students, the Institute can realize its potential as a sustainability incubator. Indeed, the Institute recently launched a multiyear fundraising campaign to develop resources for engaging MIT’s community on these challenges. The MIT Campaign for a Better World prioritizes human health, the health of the planet, innovation and entrepreneurship, and education.

1 See World Bank, International Comparison Program database, GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (current international $), 2009–2015.