Letter from the Director: April 2018

When Amanda Graham and I first took up the roles of ESI Executive Director and Director, respectively, we launched into a series of meetings with the MIT community. One of the results of our many conversations was the formulation of an agenda for the initiative that cut across our three main activities; research, education, and convening. That agenda has now been updated and I encourage you to take a look. This latest agenda takes what we have learned about our community and matches it with the prospects for real impact in the world.

An important consequence of the continuing evolution of ESI’S scope is the development of four program areas. Inspired by the foundation of ESI’s agenda and motivated through our partnerships, these four program areas are now moving forward. They are;

• Nature based solutions for climate change
• Mining and the environment
• Plastics and the environment
• Future cities

These four program areas are at different stages of development with external partners and internal MIT participation.

The first, Nature based solutions for climate change is in partnership with Conservation International and involves nascent research projects as well as UROP positions. Employing artificial intelligence to assist in the control of illegal trafficking of species across borders and using drones to locate illegal deforestation and mining are two examples of projects that are being developed with our CI partners.

The second, Mining and the environment addresses the complex and inherently contentious nexus between large scale extraction industries and the environment. We have, from time to time, used the phrase “sustainable mining” but are troubled by the simplistic and unsophisticated juxtaposition that the phrase implies. There is very little that is sustainable about mining and yet the need for minerals and metals for a growing global population with an ever more sophisticated industrial economy in an urbanizing world, calls for technological and policy solutions that maximize social benefits while minimizing negative environmental and ecological consequences.

Plastics and the environment is focused on the unique contributions in research that the MIT faculty may be able to deliver to the enormous and growing amount of plastics in our environment and especially in the oceans. Our corporate partners are well aware that we have only begun to witness what may turn out to be the historically largest flow of waste material into the world’s oceans. Half of all plastic ever produced was made during the past 13 years and 76% of this total is now out of service and has been discarded – and production is ramping up especially in Asia. Forecasts suggest we will quadruple the total amount of plastic produced in the next 30 years[1].

The fourth focus area, Future cities, has come about with equal momentum from within and beyond our community. Within our community, we have been motivated by the very real interest to focus on cities as fonts of technology development, innovation, and wealth creation, as well as drivers of the bulk of global material flows and carbon emissions. MIT is already host to widely distributed expertise on many aspects of our contemporary urban world; ESI’s obligation is to focus particular elements of this interest on the resource and environmental consequences of a steadily urbanizing world. There is an intense need, through a new urban science, for guidance that will lead to a low carbon, humane, and prospering urban future. Of particular importance here is how urban work at MIT will contribute to achieving those UN Sustainable Development Goals that directly and indirectly involve human settlements of all sizes. My previous Director’s note (see February 2018 below) highlighted projects in Colombia and Argentina as examples of this kind of work.

These four focus areas will surely be accompanied by others as we serve the interests of the MIT community and link our capacity with critical needs in the world. We welcome your thoughts on these and other areas that have the prospect for engaging MIT faculty, researchers, and students on the most important questions of the environment and climate change.

Special thanks go to Dave Whittleston, PhD, MIT course 1, who spent several months with ESI assisting in the development of our new agenda.

John E. Fernández, Director
April, 2018
Cambridge, Massachusetts

[1] Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R. and K. L. Law. 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782