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Humility and Courage

Missing Elements in MIT’s Tackling of Global Energy Problems

I read with great interest and hope about the Energy Research Council just established by President Hockfield, to study how MIT can contribute to “solving the world’s energy problems” [The Tech, June 10, 2005; Tech Talk, June 8, 2005]. The Council will be co-chaired by Chevron Professor Robert C. Armstrong, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Professor Ernest J. Moniz of physics and engineering systems and director of energy studies at the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. Its task is to develop an outline for an Institute-wide response to the global energy crisis by next February.

I commend the impulse to focus MIT’s resources on practical applications of immediate global relevance. In particular, I am heartened by the official acknowledgment of climate change as an urgent problem intimately tied to excessive fossil fuel consumption. This echoes President Hockfield’s recent inaugural speech, in which energy issues and environmental concerns were linked and seen as one of the great challenges facing the world today.

I am concerned, however, that the charge of this newly-appointed Council suffers from a common malady of modern science that will preclude it from effectively dealing with these issues: namely, a disregard for humanist, non-technological parameters, blindness to our own doings, and a little too much dancing with the devil of the economic bottom line.

My basic problem here is in defining what the “world energy problem” is. The Council’s view is plainly put by co-chair Moniz, who states, “The confluence of problems we see today — climate change and the energy demands of the emerging economies — are going to require longer-lasting responses.” He elaborates on this elsewhere: “Fossil fuels make up 85 percent of the world’s present energy use, and developing economies will greatly increase their use of fossil fuels to meet their economic and social goals.”

There are two things that trouble me about these statements. First, the energy “problem” is presented as a fundamentally economic problem (demand will soon exceed supply), whose “solution” then follows trivially i.e., increase the energy supply. There are complications, of course: care must be taken not to cook the planet while we do so, but Moniz takes solace in the modern science mantra that technology will save the day (“Technology is ultimately the solution,” he professes faithfully). Somehow, we will come up with clever ways of meeting that goal in time, as long as we get started on it soon.

What is conspicuously lacking, though, is any consideration of the other possibility of dealing with this economic energy problem, i.e., that of reducing demand. Not once is the word “conservation” mentioned in either article. This approach would require political courage, however; for to question the very level of current and future global energy consumption is a dangerous exercise (perhaps even unpatriotic!) that might bring us uncomfortably close with our personal responsibility towards it.

Which brings me to my second concern with the Council’s stated assumptions: that the anticipated increase in global energy demands derives from the growing needs of developing economies alone. The fact that the U.S. has by far the largest energy needs in the world, though, presently accounting for one quarter of total fossil fuel consumption, seems unworthy of mention to the Council members. The silent omission of this fact presumably portrays an untouchability of this statistic, an assumption that there is nothing to correct or modify in it. We ourselves could not possibly be doing something wrong right now, could we?

No room is left to consider whether long-term, global sustainability may require everyone (and especially us in the U.S.) to limit, or even reduce, energy consumption patterns. No room is left to consider the ethical significance of US consumers who annually buy millions of vehicles with the lowest aggregate fuel efficiency in over 20 years; or the more than 1.5 million new US homes, of ever-increasing size, built yearly over the past decade, seldom with energy efficiency in mind. No room is left to consider the lack of a coherent national policy to deal with these issues, let alone our disregard of major international efforts to address them.

I am not opposed to technology. I am a physical chemist with 20 years of experience in academic research, and I love and value the scientific trade. However, I have a mounting conviction that science and technology alone will not be enough to address the growing complexity of world problems, such as the looming energy crisis. Human factors need to play a larger role, politically as well as individually, spiritually as well as materially. The lack of these elements, I find, is the greatest weakness of MIT’s Energy Research Council initiative. The Council is nominally interdisciplinary, and may at first glance be perceived to have a holistic perspective. However, upon closer examination this diversity seems superficial and self-serving. Quoting Moniz, “Technology is ultimately the solution, but we don’t have time to wait decades for it to make its way into the marketplace. Policy is important to help deploy the technologies more quickly.” Inclusion of political science, management and urban planning experts in the Council can thus be understood as collecting specialists to lubricate and push through a pre-determined agenda (i.e., new energy production technologies) through the policy/political system.

I do not presume to have alternative magic bullet answers. I would be glad to start by redefining the world energy “problem,” to begin consideration of demand as well as supply issues, and to bring attention to the personal responsibility we each carry in effecting change towards true sustainability, as voting citizens and consumers. In the current political and economic climate, this will require great courage.

As scientists, I agree we must pursue the best sustainable energy technologies, and we must educate and advise policy-makers and laymen alike, just as President Hockfield proposed. But we must also liberate ourselves from the timid muteness and neutrality which our political and economic allegiances so often press upon us. As John F. Kennedy put it (inspired by Dante), “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” There is so much at stake here, well beyond an economic bottom line: the growing possibility of widespread environmental and ecological disruption, extinction of species, geopolitical instability.

I close with a living anecdote that embodies my basic recommendations to the MIT Energy Research Council: to (re)consider our individual and social responsibility as energy consumers, scientist and layman alike, and to balance working with energy corporations with meaningful pressure on their institutional inertia to change. Large corporations have historically resisted change, often to the detriment of public health e.g., the U.S. lead, chlorine and tobacco industries. Currently, the fossil fuel industry is under great public and scientific pressure to accept its role in global climate change. So far, however, it has predictably and successfully hindered legislative efforts (both national and international) to call it to accountability, primarily through lobbying and PR organizations such as the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which strongly opposed adherence to the Kyoto Protocol and undermined the conclusions of the international scientific community on climate change. In 1999, though, during a shareholders’ meeting of the Chevron oil corporation (a member of the GCC), 28 percent of shareholders voted against management on a resolution demanding the company document its emissions that cause global warming, and assess the resulting financial liabilities. Later, in 2003, another shareholder resolution requesting that ChevronTexaco adopt a plan to invest in renewable energy received a record 32 percent of the vote. These historical voting campaigns were coordinated by a broad-based group of interfaith religious organizations, pension funds and environmental groups, and demonstrate a growing mainstream support for climate change mitigation and responsible energy use.

It is my hope that MIT will show not just its celebrated brains in working towards a sustainable energy future, but that it will also add a good measure of humility and integrity to the endeavor; to remain open to all wisdoms, technical as well as non-technical, and to serve as a haven and epicenter for the unabashed truth.

So mote it be.

Martin Hunter, PhD, is a research scientist in the Spectroscopy Laboratory at MIT.