A Tale of Two Responsibilities

Living sustainably while researching climate change
MAY 2018
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

“So all my office plants died from how high the heat’s turned up.”
“Wait. You mean your succulents?”
“Yeah. The ones I specifically got for their drought and heat resistance.”

Such occurrences might seem unexpected in the MIT Green Building, where I and many others study humanity’s impact on our natural world every day, but I’ve found them to be all too representative of not just my department, but of the Institute as a whole. Despite the thousands of research hours and generous budgets poured into charting anthropogenic climate change and discovering tomorrow’s clean tech solutions, in the day-to-day MIT’s sustainability options seem woefully lacking.

Perhaps one of the barriers to widespread student enthusiasm and pressure for such initiatives is the undercurrent that sustainability is seen as a bit passé. It was one of the flings we had 10 years ago and now we’re mildly embarrassed by the fervor with which we pushed our families to buy LED bulbs and hybrid cars. We’ve grown into cool, rational tech disruptors after all, not hysterical tree-huggers. We know how minuscule the carbon savings from recycling a single coffee cup is compared with the new EPA regulations would have, and the vast gulf in impact between individual actions and systemic change.


Except we are climate scientists and green tech engineers.

Except we know the gravity of the issue.

We know that every additional degree our planet warms comes with increased human cost. We’ve seen the devastation caused by higher seas and more severe storms, most recently this winter when repeated storm surges flooded parts of downtown Boston area with icy floes. I recently returned home to the Bay Area to see the homes three blocks from my sister’s house burnt to the ground from the most destructive wildfire in California history. I have multiple colleagues whose relatives in Florida were without power for days after Hurricane Irma, or for months in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

In the face of this human suffering, the cavalier attitude that one more coffee pod machine is a drop in the bucket of emissions feels shameful. Yes, even the vast amount of caffeine MIT requires to function is minuscule beside the 10 billion or so pods Keurig alone sells each year, but an institution with MIT’s resources is also able to make investments in low-carbon, low-waste alternatives that other institutions and individual households cannot. We should be leading the push for personal sustainability in more than just periodic newsletters, first by making it accessible and affordable for all MIT students, postdocs, staff, researchers, and faculty.

There is a lot of low-hanging fruit that MIT could easily reach. For example, when walking to the library I pass multiple communal printers which have a trash bin next to them, but no recycling bin. That’s right — no recycling, next to a machine that produces nothing but recyclable paper. Plenty of departments have regular lunches and lecture series with food, but I’ve yet to see compostable plates at an event. For that matter, bins for compostables could be in every lecture hall and dining room, at the minimum, yet this is far from the case right now. MIT events are known for having a wide range of catered options, from over a dozen different varieties of sandwiches to table-spanning trays of petit fours. Allocating part of food budgets toward reusable or compostable dining-ware options, or giving student groups discounts for buying such, seems like a no-brainer, yet in three years at MIT I’ve only seen a few patchwork attempts at such things, rarely sustained due to the hectic lives that grad students lead.

This brings me to my final point, which is perhaps the crux of the matter for my own field of study. Graduate work is mentally and sometimes physically demanding, with midnight trips for emergency coffee common and a pervading mentality that any energy spent on something other than your study is energy wasted. This mindset, however, is not only mentally unsustainable for any semblance of work-life balance, it can become an active excuse to not care about the impact of one’s actions outside of research. And it takes energy to care. It takes energy to proactively make a thousand small decisions throughout the day to have a lower carbon impact, which is why institutional support and policies to remove the onus of action from students could make such a difference. In the process, tangible symbols of investment in a future with less waste, less CO2, and less environmental degradation could help to create a more positive culture at MIT, one where the Institute feels like impersonal and uncaring, and jokes about graduate student disposability no longer cut so close to the quick.

When I’ve spoken to other students researching climate change, we all uncomfortably admit to justifying personal inaction by saying we’re already working on the problem. But researching this problem should drive us scientists and engineers to have a higher personal standard, not a lower one. We know the carbon we’ve already emitted, and the likely warming that commits us to. And we do not actually live in an untouchable ivory tower, as monolithic as some of MIT’s buildings loom. Many of our families and home communities are at risk for devastation from increased storm surges and drought in the coming years, and we know that both structural and personal changes are needed to mitigate this. Due to the world’s failure to steeply cut emissions in the past decades, we are past the point where we can rely on uncertain policy changes alone.

We, as scientists and engineers, because of our understanding of the problem, should be at the forefront of cutting our carbon footprints wherever we can. And MIT, as an institute whose mission statement includes the phrase “we seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind,” should be helping us make those personal changes, as well as supporting our academic research.