MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 5
Summer 2009
A New Commitment to Science and Technology R&D
The Role of Oceans in Climate Change
A New Method for Negotiating
Arms Control Agreements
The Science We Need and the
Needs of Science
System at a Crossroads: Rethinking Infrastructure and Mobility
Energy Transitions and Transformations
Society's Nervous System: A Key to Effective Government, Energy Efficiency, and Public Health
An Alternate Green Initiative
Rotten Apples or a Rotting Barrel: How Not to Understand the Current Financial Crisis
The Way to Sustainability
Making the Web Work for Science
A Note to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Budget of the United States Government (2005-2010): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (2009-2014): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (1962-2010): Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Selected Agencies
Printable Version

The Way to Sustainability

Leon Trilling

No objective is more urgent, more complex, or more encompassing than the passage from a world addicted to material growth to one built on the notion of sustainability over time.

The history of human communities is a set of rides up logistic curves. They start with the limited exploitation of a niche and the creation of an appropriate social and cultural structure. As the carrying capacity of the niche is reached or exceeded due to exhaustion of resources or outside interference, the community either collapses or painfully adapts to seek a higher carrying capacity.

Up to the nineteenth century, these activities caused small repairable perturbations in the natural order. By the end of that century, a few nation-states and entrepreneurs, using new technology and the market system, competed for wealth and power across the entire planet. Their labors led to a much larger population of richer, healthier, and more diverse people; but they also reduced natural redundancies, exhausted some resources and brought about ever more deadly wars and more disruptive economic crises.

While early warnings of danger were ignored, it has been recognized since 1968 (Club of Rome) that the party cannot go on much longer. We are here because our technology used up too many resources and produced more pollution than we knew how to get rid of, in the service of a competition for power by people who believed that continuing material growth was essential to their well being.

To approach sustainability, we must create a leaner technology, invent local and global institutions to control that technology, reduce to a tolerable level the inequities suffered by many peoples as a result of the power competition, and build substantial popular support for a sustainable world.

Many traditional tasks of technology were performed by specialists who viewed their assignment narrowly with limited concern for the possible effects of their work on the environment. Unforeseen consequences were seen as externalities. If necessary, a fix was performed after the fact.

As some of those consequences became more serious and as their victims became more articulate, the way engineering was performed began to change. Devices or processes were seen as operating in a large encompassing system, and it was the performance of that system which had to be optimized over the life span of the devices, including their disposal.

An effort was made to measure the physical, biological, and medical consequences on the entire system so that standards of performance could be set. This new design procedure called for the teamwork of specialists from diverse fields, including the economic, political, and social sciences. And by focusing on the entire system from the start, the designers were able to consider a wide range of options to solve a functional problem.

At the same time, public agencies, gradually and reluctantly at first, undertook to set and enforce performance and environmental impact standards. Enterprises at first resisted this trend because internalizing externalities might increase their costs in a competitive context. Articulate popular support for the new "greener" engineering in the European Union and then in the U.S. seems to have settled the policy of environmental regulation so that the issue now is "how" or "how much." In fact, national governments have invented and are putting in place novel incentives such as "cap and trade."

The effects of industrialization on the environment transcend national boundaries and must be addressed on a worldwide basis.

The resulting political negotiations must account for differences in culture, wealth, political power structure, and level of development. They are therefore very complex and move ahead slowly. They are backed up by an international scientific program that provides generally accepted background data as a basis for establishing standards and building popular support.

Such support is essential in the long run, so it is interesting to speculate on the dynamics that affect it. For example, what can the mutually supportive fields of cognitive science, psycho-economics, game theory, and role-playing experiments tell us about how attitudes toward risk, tension between self-preservation instinct and social empathy, trust in others, and past cultural experience are likely to affect private and public choices between material growth and sustainability.

A better sense of these dynamics may help guide the public discourse on how best to manage the transition. I suspect that the tension between the traditional worldview absorbed at home and the incompatible science-oriented view offered somewhat imperfectly in school must be relieved to facilitate it.

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