MIT is a place where if you want to generate more student interest, you make the problems harder. The people at this institution are famous for solving the world’s toughest problems, and our students and faculty are now working to solve the intricate problem of safeguarding our environment.

The challenges of the environment are complex. The climate is changing. There are shortages of energy and water. A noxious cloud of pollution hangs over Mexico City. Food demand is expected to double in the next 30 years. World population continues to grow; by 2050 the world census could hit nine billion — a 50-percent increase beyond what some say is already a worrisome number.

There are deep concerns about transportation, mobility, mega-city development, and regulatory policy. Yet, these are the kinds of problems that intrigue our students and faculty.

MIT already has a remarkable record of environmental achievement. In 1995, Professor Mario Molina shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for proving that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the Earth’s ozone layer. MIT researchers have created a device that drastically cuts car and truck emissions by injecting efficiency-boosting hydrogen into fuels. They have helped explain the mysterious process by which currents flowing far beneath the surface of the sea affect climate patterns.

They have explored how rain levels in one period affect future rainfall, giving farmers a way to roughly predict moisture patterns months in advance. They have devised a method of role-playing in environmental negotiations, which has been used to shape negotiating skills and strategies in venues ranging from other universities to the United Nations.

Perhaps one advantage to having big problems is that we do not have to solve them alone. Solutions to world-class problems require many minds, and our students and faculty are expert at working across disciplinary boundaries.

The Institute includes five schools and 24 departments. Scientists regularly work with engineers, political scientists, economists, and policy experts to find better ways to address environmental challenges.

MIT hydrologists, for example, are now conducting studies that will allow farmers to maximize crop yields without drying up water supplies. Even though such research has major implications for preserving the environment and protecting the Earth’s food supply, it will take skilled policymakers and political strategists to help us change old habits and ways of doing things.

To foster collaboration on environmental challenges, MIT has created several interdisciplinary centers and programs, one of the most outstanding of which is the Joint Center on the Science and Policy of Global Change. The remarkable work of the Center, including how to cut carbon dioxide output from America’s factories, power plants, houses, and cars, has already shaped U.S. policy and earned world recognition for the Center.

MIT also is working on these matters with groups outside the United States. In 1996 the Alliance for Global Sustainability was formed. It is a partnership among MIT, the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, and the University of Tokyo, which is working together with industries, governments, and nongovernmental organizations to develop new knowledge, concepts, and technologies to support an agenda of sustainable development.

These are but two examples of how our faculty and students work together across disciplinary, institutional, and national borders to develop pragmatic polices and practices to address large, seemingly intractable problems.

The goal of MIT ‘s environmental initiatives is sustainability — the simple, profound idea of protecting the natural world while continuing economic progress. For decades, MIT has been a leader in pointing the way to a sustainable future, and for decades to come, MIT faculty and students will be leaders in preserving the life and health of the world.

Charles M. Vest

Charles M. Vest