The Energy and Environment Equation
Two decades ago, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Later, in the 1990s, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development took this a step further, recognizing that sustainable development requires a balance of three dimensions — economic growth, social development and environmental protection.
Today we must find a way to incorporate that third dimension of environmental protection seamlessly and intrinsically into our research and curricula. But we should also update the definition based on our evolving concept of the natural world. The word “protection” implies that the consideration of environment is an inhibitor to progress, when in reality, the environment is a source of sustainable solutions that require our proper “stewardship.”
MIT has played a significant role in global economic growth and social development. Many designs and innovative technologies emerging from the MIT community have improved the lives of countless individuals. A recent report titled “MIT: The Impact of Innovation,” states that MIT-related companies together would rank as the 24th-largest world economy. At the time, those 4,000 companies founded by MIT graduates employed one out of every 170 employees in the United States.
It’s time now to apply our intellectual and financial prowess toward environmental stewardship as an enabling component of sustained economic growth and social progress. In engineering terms, the environment offers the design space that allows us to approach a problem in significantly new ways. For instance, we can look at technology in the classical narrow way or we can take the more contemporary perspective of taking inspiration from nature’s design.
The supply of energy remains a major driver for all we do. The heavy reliance on fossil fuels continues to release large amounts of carbon dioxide. The rate of change of the Earth climate today far outpaces variations that have occurred in the past due to major orbital and solar shifts. How we deal with the harmful consequences of burning fossil fuels, supply the needed energy, and become responsive stewards of the environment form our primary challenge.
More expensive energy will not solve the problem. Just as creating more fuel efficient vehicles alone cannot solve the problem. We must look to the natural world as a source of sustainable solutions. Energy derived from ocean waves and tides, wind, sun, and the biosphere add to design space for our future.
Talking about energy without discussing the environment is like playing an electric guitar without an amplifier. There is sound, but not nearly as much as is possible, because the real power behind the concept is absent. Indeed it’s not whining about the environment that will protect it, it’s the discovery of nature’s design and power as driving forces.
Many of the R&D projects of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) — though drastically different in appearance — all converge on this point: involving the environment as an integral part of engineering design. A cross-section of civil and environmental engineering problems illustrates this.
¶ Concrete is the second most widely “consumed” material on Earth (after water — also a major topic of study among CEE hydrologists). Its primary component, cement, requires very high temperatures for manufacturing, which release up to 10 percent of the added CO2 into the atmosphere annually. Faculty and students are looking at cement from the inside out, trying to understand its nanostructure in order to find a way to tweak this indispensable material into something new that won’t release so much CO2, but will meet humanity’s legitimate needs for adequate housing, health care, education and mobility.
¶ CEE faculty and students are designing mechanisms to capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and to sequester the CO2. This means that it may be possible to design a clean power plant supplying the electricity and hydrogen for next generation cars.
¶ Microbiologists in CEE are using genomic tools to probe the diversity and abundance of microbes in all sorts of environments. These small life forms are the primary processors of matter and energy in the Earth system. Yet their diversity and much of their metabolisms are puzzles that have enormous consequences for our basic understanding of how the Earth system works.
How do we translate such R & D into education? This may prove more difficult. Our 20th-century mindset is geared toward production and acquisition: of ideas, technology, space, and goods. But the 21st-century mindset needs to change. Some soul-searching may point us in the right direction.
CEE began its own version of soul-searching several years ago, leading to the decision to redirect our curricula in such a way that all our undergraduate majors — civil engineering, environmental engineering science, or the combination — take the same set of core courses, which by design incorporate consideration of environmental stewardship.
Whether we are looking at the design of building materials at the macro- or nanoscales, transportation systems, gathering genomic information about marine microbes or atmospheric data about the water and carbon cycle, we are working on things that matter.
MIT’s mission is to “advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.”
Maybe it’s now time to rewrite the MIT mission statement to incorporate the third dimension of environmental stewardship, along with sustainable economic growth and social progress.
Franz-Josef Ulm is the co-chair of the Undergraduate Committee in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Dara Entekhabi is the director of the Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering. Patrick Jaillet is the head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Denise Brehm is the senior communications officer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.