MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Chart from MIT-Club of Rome
"Project on the Predicament of Mankind," 1972

In her inaugural address on May 6, 2005, MIT President Susan Hockfield announced that the Institute would engage in a new energy initiative to seek solutions to some of the world's pressing energy problems, bringing to bear MIT's expertise in economics, management, political science, urban studies, and architecture, in addition to science and engineering. In furtherance of this effort an Energy Research Council was established, co-chaired by Robert Armstrong, Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics. The initiative, according to Moniz, would be a “pre-eminent opportunity” to address “human needs.” The council’s report was submitted to President Hockfield in May 2006 and the MIT Energy Initiative was launched the following fall.

Fig. 4: Basic Interactions Between Population Growth and Capital Accumulation

MIT faculty members have, over the years and in various ways, been active in movements committed to long-range planning for energy needs and environmental management. Carroll Louis Wilson, for example, while teaching at the Sloan School of Management from 1959 to the late 1970s, spearheaded a number of projects aimed at addressing the complex relationships between the world's energy needs and the effects of human activities on the environment. These included the Study of Man's Impact on Climate (SMIC), the Study of Critical Environmental Problems (SCEP), the Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies (WAES), and the World Coal Study (WOCOL). Wilson was also a member of the Executive Committee of the Club of Rome, an independent organization comprising scientists, economists, business executives, and civil servants from around the world, which was created in the early 1960s to foster a deeper understanding of the interrelated and complex problems facing humankind and to contribute to their solution.

In 1970, at a meeting organized at MIT for the Club of Rome, Jay W. Forrester, founder and director of MIT's System Dynamics Group, presented a global model that showed the interactions among many components of the world's problems and described how computer modelling could analyze the behavior and relationships of the components. The presentation led to the initiation of the Project on the Predicament of Mankind, which was carried out by an international team at MIT, under the direction of Dennis Meadows and sponsored by the Club of Rome. The chart reproduced here is from Meadows's report “Project on the Predicament of Mankind,” one of the papers related to the project. It illustrates the complicated interrelationships among nineteen elements of a world model. Although the model is a “simplification,” the report notes, “most global problems have important roots in this simple set of interactions.” The findings of the project were published in the book Limits to Growth, which used computer simulation to predict what would happen if world population, industrial development, resource exploitation, food production, and environmental degradation continued to grow exponentially. The book concluded that growth itself can cause problems and therefore needs to be limited.

Original materials documenting energy-related studies at MIT include the papers of Carroll Louis Wilson (MC 29), which contain numerous documents relating to the Club of Rome and other matters, and the records of the Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies (MC 180) and the World Coal Study (MC 186). The papers of Jay W. Forrester (MC 439) include materials about the Club of Rome and system dynamics.  From MIT’s  earliest days, research has been conducted on various forms of energy. The work is richly documented throughout the holdings of the Institute Archives and Special Collections in the records of the Institute and the papers of its faculty and students. The collections are available for use in the Institute Archives, 14N-118.

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