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Friday, August 16, 2013

George P. Mitchell and Sustainability

Founder, George Mitchell

President Jim Lester reflects on George Mitchell and Sustainability

George Mitchell spent a big part of his life using his philanthropy and powers of persuasion to put the US and the world on a more sustainable path in the face of an uncertain future. Several family members have called the concept and pursuit of sustainability Mr. Mitchell’s “dream” or “passion.” I hope to capture his contribution to the pursuit of sustainable development in this short presentation, but there is a book on George P. Mitchell and the Idea of Sustainability by Jurgen Schmandt.

George Mitchell has been recognized as a “big picture thinker.” He liked to think about big challenges at scales that most of us seldom consider. Sustainability is an example of a big question, “How should the world work when it has billions more people?” Mr. Mitchell came to an appreciation of what he called “the most important question for mankind” by exposure to visionary thinkers like Buckminster Fuller at the Aspen Institute in the late 60’s. When Fuller talked about Spaceship Earth and how the Earth is finite, but human demands are not, George Mitchell got it. He started using his famous challenge- “If you can’t make the world work with 4 billion people, how are you going to make it work with 9 billion?” Over the years, 4 billion has changed to 7 billion as the problem has become more urgent.

Sustainability must be balanced on a three-legged stool: economy, environment, and social well being. Mr. Mitchell knew that balance would be difficult. He knew it because he experienced it first hand as a leader of the energy exploration and production industry. As time went on he became more outspoken about balancing economic and environmental concerns. In recent years, he urged his industry to “do it right” when using hydraulic fracturing and to use the precautionary principle with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. Last year he co-authored an editorial in which he recognized natural gas as a bridge fuel for the transition to a low carbon economy. He was urging balance and caution as we try to find paths to sustainability.

Mr. Mitchell’s concern about sustainability crystallized after the 1972 publication of “Limits to Growth” a report that modeled the conflict between human population growth and global natural resource availability. He thought the book had problems, but should be the spark for a worthwhile debate. He worked with a group of leaders to organize The Woodlands Conference Series on topics central to the challenge of sustainability. There were seven conferences, the first in 1975 and the last in 2001. At the Woodlands Conferences, the George and Cynthia Mitchell Prizes for the best ideas on sustainability were awarded. Over the years there were 38 prize winners from the US and abroad.

In 1974, George Mitchell created a research center named the Center for Growth Studies. In 1985 CGS became a center at HARC, the Houston Advanced Research Center here in The Woodlands. HARC had been founded in 1982 as a consortium of Texas research universities to coordinate large high tech projects, such as the super conducting supercollider. By 2001 CGS had become the Mitchell Center for Sustainable Development and its dedication to economic, social and environmental well being became the foundation of the sustainability mission of HARC.

Mr. Mitchell tried very hard to influence national policy on sustainable development. He talked to presidential advisors. He testified before Congress. He said, “We have to get politicians to think this way.” But the number who did was very small. He decided that the National Academy of Sciences could help with addressing the problem and changing the thinking of leaders. In 1994 he made a donation to support the NAS Board on Sustainable Development, which produced a report named “Our Common Journey” in 1999. It proposed a transition to sustainable practices that would be informed by a new type of science called sustainability science, which would integrate all fields of science, social science, and engineering. Later Mr. Mitchell endowed the sustainability science program at the National Academies.

In recognition of the Mitchell endowment, the President of NAS said "George Mitchell has long been a vocal advocate for research and planning for a more sustainable world. He is a corporate leader who clearly understands that we now have a window of opportunity in which to address the challenges that the Earth's rapidly growing population poses for our finite resources."

In 2005 George Mitchell created the Endowment for Regional Sustainability Science, which will support HARC as it continues to pursue his vision of a world in which we are able to balance the economy, the environment, and the well being of all people.

George Mitchell was a pragmatic visionary, a rare breed indeed. He was a strong believer in the power of science and technology, so he endowed science-based organizations to pursue the challenge. Our progress toward sustainability solutions has been greatly enhanced by his efforts. In the field of sustainability his legacy is huge and unique.

So let me leave you with a slight variation of his challenge- What are you going to do so that the world will work better with 9 billion people than it does today? Whatever it is, do it in memory of George Mitchell.