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Ashford Kicks Off Series on Sustainable Development

By A. S. Wang


Kicking off a five-part lecture series addressing the topic of sustainable growth, Institute Professor Nicholas Ashford spoke Wednesday on the global issue of sustainability.

“Following the Technology and Culture Forum’s 40 year tradition of dealing with interdepartmental issues,” event organizer Amy McCreath described this lecture as, “an overview on the general topic of sustainability.”

Ashford, an MIT professor of technology and policy, addressed the complex issue of sustainable development by first identifying the major problems and the proposed source of those problems. He then discussed the current theories on clearing those obstacles to sustainable growth.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of both the present and future generations,” Ashford said, “addressing the needs and adverse effects within nations an improves the relationship among nations.”

Amongst the five major problems he identified, Ashford said that inequality of access to economic and political power and poor communication between knowledge bases are two key systemic problems.

“The classic driver of economic growth has been technological innovation, but today, trade must also be added as a driver -- it is the exploitation of excess capacity,” Ashford said.

Sustainable growth therefore involves economic growth characterized by innovation and trade participation as well as development in distribution, employment, environment, health/safety, and purchasing power.

Ashford compares America to EU

In the course of his speech, Ashford pointed out interesting patterns in the European Union’s development compared to the development in the United States. “The US is globalizing but the EU is de-globalizing. There are enormous wage disparity differences as well as unionization contrasts,” he said.

Before ending his talk, Ashford presented his view on innovation. “It used to be land that was the most important factor endowment, but today, it is the improvement on information communication systems,” Ashford said. “This innovation can be sustaining as well as disrupting, either can be incremental or radical.”

Faye Duchin, dean of humanities and social sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was the first to respond to Ashford’s overview.

Adding her own views towards the topic of sustainability, she said that “sustaining development has been a concern since WWII. In addition to breaking the problem down to economic, social and environmental aspects, I think there has to be another place for radical change, and that is life style change.

“Economists have been so concentrated on understanding production and later technology,” Duchin said, that “there has not been a lot of attention given to understanding how we live.”

Duchin proposed that “progress can be made in this understanding [of life style] through large scale interdisciplinary projects involving many organizations and specialists from many fields.”

Robert Kaufman of Boston University was interested in the environmental aspect of sustainable development. He shifted the discussion towards the natural and physical limits of development.

“The current Bush policy focusing on technological development is simply looking at making technology better to sustain development,” he said. “But regardless of the degree of technological efficiency we can achieve, can this Earth support six billion people if every single of them lived like the average American? I think the answer is clearly no!”

Ashford agreed with Kaufman’s point, saying that “the increasing rate of energy use is grossly outstripping any chance that we can be supported by the current rate of use in fossil fuels. We either invest in nuclear energy or completely take over the oil fields. This is an undeniable truth.”

Leaving the topic open-ended, the concerns in sustaining development took up the entire two-hour discussion. Future lecturers in the series will address the issues of employment, environment and technology in detail, with the fifth talk reconciling these three topics.

“Today is simply a taste for what is to come,” Ashford said.