I am so very pleased to announce that MIT now offers an undergraduate minor in Environment and Sustainability! This is a real milestone for learning about our world in an interdisciplinary minor that is open to all undergraduates in every major beginning this coming academic year.

The Environment and Sustainability minor promotes learning and prompts action on the many challenges and opportunities inherent in a changing environment, ongoing and emerging environmental risks, and new ways of utilizing our natural capital while inventing and innovating new technologies and systems for a better world. Learning through the minor will touch on the roles of government, industry and business, civil society and the academy in a forward-looking and positive perspective of a sustainable and humane future.

The minor is comprised of five subjects; two required core subjects and three electives. The two required subjects are newly developed and bring together a group of professors representing all five schools. The three electives may be taken within one of five tracks: Earth Systems and Climate Science; Environmental Governance; Environmental Histories and Cultures; Engineering for Sustainability; and a Cross-Pillar track. Elective subjects may be selected from a listing of dozens of existing and several new subjects from more than twenty departments and other academic units.

While having this minor approved as part of the regular curriculum is a major development for MIT and the ESI, it is really just crossing a threshold that now leads into an enormous learning opportunity space. That space contains extraordinary expertise and deep commitment to the minor across the Departments of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Urban Studies and Planning, the Terrascope Freshman Learning Community, and many other units and reflects the three main focus domains of the ESI: Climate Science and Earth Systems, Cities and Infrastructure and Sustainable Production and Consumption.

A complex world deserves the kind of integrated content and collaborative teaching that will come from the two core subjects and the many electives. Taking meaningful action on campus and in the world will entail a kaleidoscope of activities alongside and complementary to the learning that will happen in these classes. We look forward to all of the development to launch and grow a minor that addresses the most important questions of our era. We also look forward to the many new ideas and creative actions that will spin out of the work of students in the minor.

For me, the very real pleasure of preparing and submitting the proposal for the minor was in the many conversations that I was privileged to have during the past year and a half. Novel ideas and exciting elements of our vision were spawned from meeting regularly with interested faculty and students from across MIT. We could not have achieved this moment without your contributions. Thanks go out to all who joined us in this effort!

Introducing the first issue of the ESI newsletter!

We hope you will welcome this regular update on the activities of the ESI and important developments on climate change and the environment, human settlements and infrastructure, resources and society, here on campus and in the world. This newsletter will be one of the ways we will connect with you regularly and strategically as we continue to expand our programmatic portfolio and engage with every segment of our community and with our partners far and wide. 

These are trying times; disruptive times. Recent successes to protect our wild lands and natural capital as well as move toward long term stabilization and reduction of global carbon emissions are facing the prospect of rollbacks and wholesale repudiation. The nation’s commitment to climate action is downshifting even while a massive crack in Antarctica’s Larsen ice shelf continues to grow.[i] Only months after its designation, the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah may see expanded mining of oil, gas, potash and uranium threatening a unique American place.[ii] The US commitment to the COP21 climate agreement is uncertain[iii] and many efforts to rescue and archive valuable scientific data from dozens of government agencies are underway.[iv][v] For the foreseeable future we can be most certain of great uncertainty in policy-making despite the constantly mounting evidence of ever more dire consequences of climate change.

Yet, despite the dramatic swing of the federal pendulum away from strong and sustained commitments to steward the environment and tackle climate change head-on, the ESI is doubly motivated. The time is now. In fact, there could not be a better time and we are not alone in this sentiment. Conservative elder statesmen in the US are advocating that the time is right for a carbon tax.[vi] Private investment in clean energy continues to soar.[vii] MIT’s role is unchanged. Serving our country and the world in these trying and disruptive times is needed now more than ever. At the ESI, acknowledging all of this is just the beginning. Massive change means massive opportunity: conditions are ripe for breakthroughs, paradigm shifts, and transformation. In the coming weeks and months, we will do our part by delivering on the ESI mission to advance science, engineering, policy and social science, design, the humanities, and the arts towards a people-centric and planet-positive future.

We look forward to having you join us to mobilize our community, generate opportunities for engagement, and build upon MIT’s deep and unwavering commitment to humane and effective climate action.

John E. Fernández, Director
February 2017
Cambridge, Massachusetts

We hope you will be interested in this regular update on the activities of the ESI and important developments on climate change and the environment, human settlements and infrastructure, resources and society, here on campus and in the world. The newsletter is one of the ways we can connect with you regularly and strategically as we continue to expand our programmatic portfolio and engage with every segment of our community and with our partners far and wide.  To receive ESI newsletters, sign up at http://mitesi.wpengine.com/contact-us/.

 Each issue of the ESI newsletter will highlight our recent and ongoing activities and those of our partners and friends here at MIT and beyond.  The February 2017 edition features our recent, second annual IAP Hackathon for Climate (the first activity in a new partnership with Conservation International), upcoming deadlines for ESI’s research seed grant and curriculum development calls, Martin Fellows for Sustainability nominations, the People and the Planet lecture series, and more…

Listen to me.
Do this one thing:
Lay your hand over your heart, and feel.
Feel your heart pump, pump, pump.
Feel how warm you are.
That is my light, alive inside of you.

Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, 2009.
Living Sunlight, How Plants Bring the Earth to Life. The Blue Sky Press.

Solutions. What are the problems for which we want to provide solutions? In scientific terms there are no problems, only phenomena that arise in accordance with physical laws. The chemistry and physics of the atmosphere is not problematic in and of itself. It has been noted in various ways and by diverse voices that the earth itself does not care one way or the other whether or not oceans are becoming acidic, glaciers are retreating, and average global temperatures are rising. The problems are in relation to living organisms and the biosphere. Consequences of carbon emissions do matter as fish stocks are threatened, fresh water runoffs are reduced, and extreme weather becomes prevalent. Furthermore, extinctions and reduced biodiversity are certainly important not only in direct relation to the health of our species but as a matter of ethics as we continue to dominate the planet.

Evidence of the extraordinary resilience and ingenuity of humans is exemplified by the extent of our settlement of the earth. We occupy every continent, including Antarctica. In doing so, we have become exquisitely attuned to our environment. This observation, made by Prof. Kerry Emanuel at a climate symposium at MIT, also reveals our weakness. Our settlements and infrastructure are critically dependent on the environmental conditions that led to our civilization, economy, and culture. Our buildings, water systems, agriculture, have been designed on the basis of a climate that has been dependably stable over the emergence of human civilization.

Today, we know the climate is changing before our eyes. The knowledge we have gained from one of the largest scientific enterprises our species has ever undertaken tells us that we can no longer depend on the constancy of our environment. The variability that is emerging poses grave risks to the systems and infrastructure that provide energy, food, water, and critical materials to populations around the world.

Today, we also know that the global economy is changing and enormous demographic and cultural shifts are steadily ushering in a new world. In the coming decades the urban population will increase by 3 billion. China’s population is aging and Africa’s will double by 2050. The Internet connects us in extraordinary ways and yet one in five people do not have reliable access to electricity.

Our goals for mitigating carbon emissions and moving forward to invest in adaptation cannot be decoupled from our responsibilities to address the needs of people to live under humane conditions and flourish. The challenges to be found in the developing regions of this world are sobering and so is the fact that more than 20% of US children live in families with incomes below the poverty line.

The success of COP21 should be coupled to the mandates of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  Our critical need to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change should align with our renewed efforts to address environmental justice, urban health, access to education and many other critical needs of people around the world. The Environmental Solutions Initiative operates through this vision by advancing science, engineering, policy, design, the humanities, and the arts toward a people-centric and planet-positive future.

It is commonly suggested that no other species has ever affected the earth and its systems as dramatically as humans. This is not true. Our oxygen-rich atmosphere is a direct consequence of eons of microbial respiration. Those ancient microbes produced the life-sustaining atmosphere that then enabled the forces of evolution and led to the explosion of biodiversity, including us.

Our species has the opportunity to learn from this deep history and through our own activities recreate this life-giving function. If countless ancient microbes generated an atmosphere that has led to our living world, we can certainly take on the challenge of regenerating a life-sustaining world that is humane and uniquely human. The sun’s energy is the light inside of you and me. Solutions begin with understanding our inextricable relation to the environment and our fundamental responsibility to improve human lives and steward all living things.

John E. Fernández, Director
May 2016
Cambridge, Massachusetts