MIT and a Green New Deal for CambridgeQuinton Zondervan
MIT was founded in 1861, at the start of the war over slavery, to catalyze the Industrial Revolution in America. In that regard it has been spectacularly successful. Industrialization itself was critical to breaking the stranglehold of slavery on America’s economy at the time. Unfortunately, our reliance on fossil fuel combustion has created a new crisis, and MIT has the opportunity to play a leading role in helping us break free from that dependency.
In Cambridge, about 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions are generated by buildings, and just 6% of the building stock is responsible for about two-thirds of the City’s total emissions. Many of these buildings are owned by MIT, including through the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo), its real estate investment arm. Kendall Square’s innovation economy is driven by companies founded on technological and scientific breakthroughs often happening at MIT. Rising rents from these high-paying jobs leads to gentrification and displacement, while largely excluding low-income and minority community members from the economic opportunity generated. According to the Cambridge Community Foundation report, less than 5% of Black Cambridge residents work in the innovation economy.
To be fair, MIT and many of these companies do groundbreaking research and technology development that generate considerable benefits to people all over the world. But their reliance on freely polluting the atmosphere and exacerbating social injustice is unsustainable, and is actively contributing to the destruction of our world.
Sadly, each generation of students at MIT has to learn about this tragic dynamic on their own, while swimming against the tides of propaganda. I know, because I was one of them.
In the 1980s, as an immigrant high school student in Florida, my dream was to study at MIT. Unable to afford it, I attended a local liberal arts school where I learned about the destructive powers of global warming, and became a climate activist. It took me years after completing a Master’s degree at MIT in 1995, to figure out how to combine my interests in technology and preventing climate destruction.
Working with Sunrise Cambridge, local community activists, and colleagues on the City Council, I’ve proposed a Green New Deal for Cambridge (cambridgegnd.org) that would charge large commercial buildings for their climate destroying emissions, and create economic opportunity for low-income and minority communities in Cambridge through green jobs, to ensure a just transition.
I hope that MIT, Harvard, and the other corporate interests driving the innovation economy in Cambridge are ready to account fully for the social and ecological damage they do, and will become more active partners in doing justice alongside innovation.
Here are three areas where MIT can demonstrate clear leadership and join us in creating a Green New Deal for Cambridge.
1) Focus on eliminating emissions from its own buildings. MIT and others argue that the electrical grid is not ready in Cambridge to withstand full electrification of every building and vehicle in the city, and that therefore they should be allowed to offset local greenhouse gas pollution with global carbon credits. While certain offsets make sense as a temporary measure, such as MIT’s investment in a North Carolina solar array, more far-fetched carbon offsets like paying for tree plantings elsewhere in the world are highly problematic. Ultimately, we cannot offset our way out of this crisis and will need to focus on permanently eliminating these emissions from the buildings that generate them right here in Cambridge.
2) Account for embodied emissions. A lot of pollution is generated by the mining, manufacturing, and transportation of the materials that go into a new building. It is beyond time for MIT and other commercial property developers to fully account for this pollution and pay for the harm it does. Pollution kills, both immediately through asthma and other health impacts, and long into the future through ongoing climate disaster. Leaders acknowledge when harm is being done and work hard to eliminate and mitigate that harm.
3) Share the wealth by creating green jobs in Cambridge. Almost all the wealth generated in Kendall Square flows to the already wealthy and privileged. Black kids growing up in poverty across the street from MIT’s Technology Square are almost completely excluded from that economic activity due to centuries of racism, discrimination, and legislated economic injustice. MIT could lead the way in repairing this harm by adding green jobs training and recruiting to their job connector program.
Now, as at the time of its founding, MIT has the opportunity to be a beacon of hope and optimism during dark times. But it will take more than sheer scientific and technical excellence to complete this mission. It will require a commitment to inventing the future while repairing the damage done by the past and the present. Supporting the Green New Deal for Cambridge represents an excellent opportunity to do just that.
Quinton Zondervan, MIT EECS SM ‘95, is a Climate Activist, Social, Software and Biotech entrepreneur, and is currently serving a third term as Cambridge City Councillor. To support the Green New Deal for Cambridge, visit cambridgegnd.org.