Systems Leadership

Almost every human activity requires external sources of energy. Affluent societies are increasingly dependent upon energy to maintain their lifestyles while developing countries require more energy to improve their standards of living. As both population and GDP have grown across the globe, so has energy use: at present people use about ten times as much energy as in the early 1900s, and this amount is projected to double by 2050 and at least triple by 2100. Most of our energy today — about 85 percent globally — comes from fossil fuels. These fossil fuels pose a danger to our society for two primary reasons: there is increasing evidence that their greenhouse gas emissions are closely linked to serious climate changes, and the sources for this energy pose a dangerous threat to our national security. In the face of increasing energy demand, can we face the daunting task of reducing fossil fuel consumption through alternative fuels and conservation?

Almost forty years ago, Professor Emeritus Jay W. Forrester '45 and others explored the limits to global growth, developing a system dynamics model of the world that linked available resources with the anticipated growth in population and economies. Based on the trends at the time, their results indicated that humanity would likely reach and overshoot some global capacity limits around the middle of the 21st century, precipitating a sudden large decline in industrial capacity, food production, and population. These predictions were re-asserted in 1992 when the model was updated and multiple scenarios explored. The warnings of this complex futuristic model seemed unreal at the time, but many of the predictions of the 1972 model have already been borne out in terms of year 2000 statistics regarding population, agricultural/industrial productivity, and waste production. So the model's conclusions about the more distant future may not be totally off-target after all.

Although the Forrester's "Limits to Growth" model paints a grim picture, there is hope. According to the updated model, if we adopt strategies for curtailing population and industrial growth starting around 2015, we can make the upcoming crash much less severe. We may not completely avoid a major mid-century disruption, but the endstate in 2100 could be considerably better than if no action were taken.

Unfortunately, elected officials and businesses operate on short time horizons, with competitive profit and GDP growth as their major criteria for evaluating strategies. Although President Bush has acknowledged that America is "addicted to oil," he and other politicians benefit from the unconstrained economic growth fueled by our energy addiction. Without careful analysis, cooperation, and especially courageous leadership, change is very unlikely.

Since climate change is a global problem, it will need a global solution of some sort. Individual nations operate through economic, political, and military competition that makes it hard for them to agree on common solutions to global issues. Although nations can come together in the wake of a disaster, climate change is a problem too serious to be remedied by post-disaster fixes. International initiatives — which tend to move at a snail's pace as individual nations worry more about competitiveness and security issues than the primary issue at hand — cannot be relied upon to deal promptly with this kind of problem.

This situation presents a challenge and an opportunity to MIT. MIT has great strengths in technology and systems analysis, and advises global industry leaders on management and strategy issues. Our researchers and alumni have been integral in creating today's multinational, multicultural supply chains that have helped to grow the global economy and with it the need for long-distance transportation of materials and goods, predicated on past availability of inexpensive fossil fuels. MIT now has the opportunity to play an integral role in creating solutions to problems like increased transportation requirements.

MIT has gathered together academic, business, and governmental leaders for important initiatives in the past, and should take a leadership role again. Many global businesses are already concerned about the impacts of climate change and security on energy prices. With academic research as a source for technological input and systems analysis, visionary leaders of global commerce and communications conglomerates might be willing to come together to develop a strategy to reduce both their future financial risk as well as greenhouse gas emissions. One such strategy might be to phase in new rules constraining future transportation growth through shadow pricing of environmental impacts.

Global industry leadership can change the status quo much faster than the politicians can — and they may benefit from having general agreements on transitional paths that also will reduce their vulnerability to supply and price fluctuations. MIT also has the potential to play a significant role in this endeavor.

Many people within MIT are already thinking about the energy challenge, but now is the time for systems thinkers to catalyze a broader and bolder coalition of leaders — one that considers a new vision and a global plan of action so that we might achieve a more sustainable future that protects both our environment and core social values.