Energy in a Global Context

author: Susan Hockfield, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: May 23, 2013,   recorded: June 2007,   views: 2295

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As Susan Hockfield recounts, MIT presentations on disruptive energy research at the most recent World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, provided the single glimmer of optimism for a Time Magazine correspondent. Paraphrasing him, she says, “What MIT is good for: a dose of reality-based hope that we can address in a real way the most serious of the world’s great challenges.”

MIT has committed body and soul to helping solve the problem of sustainable energy. Hockfield describes an “overwhelming call” from staff, students and alumni to pursue this issue in the coming decades. Reaching across all schools, demanding new forms of collaboration and interdisciplinary effort, MIT has launched an Energy Initiative to address three main themes: new technology for a cleaner future; improving today’s energy systems for changes in the near term; and addressing challenges posed by emerging economies.

Hockfield says researchers seek no silver bullet but that MIT is committed to a “portfolio of solutions.” She sees this vast academic enterprise providing the “same kind of catalytic inspirational effect that the Apollo program had on my generation” and triggering a cycle of innovation that will help strengthen the nation’s economy.

Nazli Choucri situates the current energy crisis in global reality. She describes how the legacies of the 20th century frame expectations and politics in the 21st century around energy supply, demand and distribution.

A rising world population (in general) and mass migration create pressure, as does a rapidly rising quality of life in developing nations. World trade has led to a “shifting structure of economies and societies,” including the somewhat hopeful evolution of economies involving knowledge creation and internet based interactions.

Choucri sees as well the emergence of a “dark side” in the 20th century: unstable or hostile nations controlling energy resources; more countries in conflict or under threat due to climate issues, as dependence on fossil fuels expands; and environmental dangers (such as big storms) multiplying. Also, new players sit at the table -- more multinational corporations, more sovereign states, NGOs -- with unpredictable or competing agendas.

Choucri believes we also gained some useful advantages during the last century, including a better understanding of the connections among energy, environment and the economy. But the world has yet to figure out a new politics for managing these issues. She says that global volatility means greater difficulty achieving “a politics of consensus” around global energy strategies, and we “now must push the envelope on collaboration,” finding “new strategies for negotiation,” assuming we can first find a national consensus.

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