Wednesday, February 15, 2012

12 Impacts of the 12th Man, George P. Mitchell

An energy tycoon, real estate developer, and philanthropist, George P. Mitchell is also an idealist, a big thinker who gave his time and fortune to the study of sustainability long before it became a household word.

This month Mitchell is featured in Texas A&M University's first installment of the 12 Impacts of the 12th Man series, for his contributions to the oil and gas industry.

Jurgen Schmandt, professor emeritus of public affairs in the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, worked with Mitchell for many years. He was formerly the director of the Mitchell Center for Sustainabl Development.

His book, George P. Mitchell and the Idea of Sustainability (Texas A&M University Press, 2010), focuses on Mitchell's commitment to the idea of sustainability from the early 1960s, when the focus was on population growth, to today, when climate change and global warming dominate the debate.

Texas A&M University Press: George P. Mitchell is known, in part, for his contributions to the oil and gas industry, as well as for his visionary real estate ventures, and his untiring support of scientific endeavors. Your book, however, focuses on his commitment to the idea of sustainability. How do his contributions to sustainability compare in range and scope to his other achievements? Are his efforts in this area as widely known?

Schmandt: George Mitchell excelled in three careers, which he pursued in parallel — energy, real estate and philanthropy. He created one of the largest independent energy companies. He built a community —The Woodlands — that followed the principles of Design with Nature. And he devoted his fortune to public causes — sustainable development and science. He is well known in all three fields, but by different constituencies.

TAMU Press: What influenced you to cast Mitchell as the focus of this book?

Schmandt: George is one of a handful of successful businessmen who saw early on that population growth and ever-increasing consumption were threatening the resource base of our planet. I felt that it was worthwhile to document his commitment to sustainable development.

TAMU Press: What are some of the lasting impacts of Mitchell's contributions to sustainability?

Schmandt: In the '70s and '80s, Mitchell familiarized American decision makers and scholars with sustainability research that had been pioneered in Europe under the heading Limits to Growth. Mitchell, through conferences, prizes and sponsored research broadened the focus of this debate: not no-growth but sustainable growth — improvements in the quality of life that do not endanger the resource base of future generations: food, energy and work. Then he tried to bring these ideals to Washington. He wanted the government to take the first step: keeping track of changing conditions. This did not work. So he turned to the National Academy of Sciences and helped them develop the scientific and engineering underpinnings of sustainable development. Today he supports sustainability projects through the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

TAMU Press: You worked for Mitchell for many years. Why do you think he was so motivated to advance these ideas?

Schmandt: He always searched for answers to urgent questions. Early on he read Rachel Carson, who warned against the overuse of DDT. The breakthrough came when he met Buckminster Fuller. His image of Spaceship Earth — the world can take only so many people — impressed him deeply. He would say: protection of the environment is important. But you have to aim a notch higher: protection of the planet, sustainable development.

TAMU Press: You note in your book that while Mitchell made many strides to advance the idea of sustainability through the creation of conferences and prizes, support of scholars and scientists, and funding of research and publications, he did not take measures to advance sustainability in his own energy company. Through your research were you able to discover why this was the case? What did you discover?

Schmandt: Ray Anderson, a Mitchell Prize winner, rebuilt his carpet business around green principles, and found that he could do so profitably. Mitchell did not follow this path, probably because he did not see how to build a green energy company. Or better: he saw only a partial way to this goal. For twenty years he pioneered the extraction of shale gas. The large companies said it could not be done economically. Mitchell persevered. He argued that gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal and oil and should be used more widely, while work on alternative energy sources — wind, solar, bio fuels—is being up scaled. Today, because of his work, the United States has increased its energy independence and has become a gas exporter. And shale gas is being produced worldwide.

TAMU Press: In the future, will Mitchell be remembered for his commitment to sustainability? Why or why not?

Schmandt: Yes, if the world commits to sustainability. No, if we continue to do business as usual.

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