In Memoriam: George P. Mitchell -- 1919-2013

In Memoriam: George P. Mitchell -- 1919 to 2013

Philanthropist George P. Mitchell, a major benefactor to the Academies and an ardent supporter of sustainable, environmentally responsible economic growth, died July 26. He was 94. A petroleum engineer and geologist, Mitchell was a prominent U.S. entrepreneur credited with championing the oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that sparked a natural gas boom in the United States. Among many generous gifts to the Academies, Mitchell and his late wife Cynthia donated $20 million in 2002 to establish the Cynthia and George Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science.

National Academy of Sciences Profile: George P. Mitchell—Summer/Fall 2002  

Mitchell Gift to Endow Academies' Efforts in Sustainability Science

The National Academies are pleased to announce a $10 million gift from Houston-based philanthropist George Mitchell and the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation. The gift -- and an additional $10 million in future matching funds -- will underwrite the National Academies' newly created George and Cynthia Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science. A key step in developing the capacity of the National Academies to undertake important new efforts on sustainable growth, the endowment will fund research, studies, and other activities in the emerging field of sustainability science and technology.

George Mitchell has made his mark as a renaissance American businessman and entrepreneur. As a young petroleum geologist and engineer in Texas after World War II, he realized that in the rush to find oil and drill profitable wells, big petroleum companies were often ignoring -- even burning off as waste -- another important energy source: natural gas. He set his sights on exploiting that underutilized resource and built his own industry powerhouse around it -- the Mitchell Energy & Development Corp.

An early admirer of the work of design and ecology visionary Buckminster Fuller, the young CEO Mitchell also realized that there were finite energy resources and raw materials for a world whose population was increasing rapidly. In the 1970s he helped sponsor the work of Dennis Meadows, whose Club of Rome study The Limits to Growth was a global wake-up call on the pressing need for sustainable energy technologies and food sources worldwide. 

"[In the late 1960s,] I first became involved at the Aspen Institute with Buckminster Fuller, a tremendous mind," said Mitchell. "I was intrigued with him and his concept that the Earth could handle only so many people . . . because I realized that his concept was right. Later, with Dennis Meadows and his study The Limits to Growth, we came up with a new concept. We talked about 'alternatives to growth.' Then we finally hit on 'sustainable societies.' What we were really trying to determine was, how could you establish sustainable societies when you have a rapid population growth?"

Mitchell has been equally concerned about unplanned urban sprawl in this country, much of it -- he believes -- fueled by "white flight" to suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s that threatened the very existence of central city cores. After visits to inner-city communities like Watts and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mitchell turned his talents and resources to developing a master-planned city for residents of all incomes. His new town, "The Woodlands," is located just north of downtown Houston. Today it is home to more than 70,000 residents. Its design, which will accommodate a total population of 150,000 and provide jobs for 75,000, has won awards for urban design, energy use, and ecology.

In Houston, Mitchell and his wife Cynthia are major philanthropic supporters of the arts, education, and medical research. In 1982, he founded the Houston Advanced Research Center, an institution dedicated to environmental issues and sustainable growth, with special emphasis on critical regional issues such as clean air and water.

The National Academies have enjoyed a close and productive association with George and Cynthia Mitchell. Together with Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., the Mitchells underwrote the National Academies' landmark Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability, the 1999 report that redefined the role science and technology can play in sustainable development. Our Common Journey helped establish the National Academies' long-term commitment to research for global economic development that maximizes the efficient and wise use of the Earth's resources.

"George Mitchell has long been a vocal advocate for research and planning for a more sustainable world," said National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts. "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. We thank him for his wisdom and dedication to these issues and for his expression of confidence in the National Academies."

One of George Mitchell's major contributions to sustainable development has been his strong conviction that, to be successful, it must enlist the active participation of corporations and business leaders. New products, services, and processes that achieve growth with minimal negative impact on communities, resources, and health, he believes, will be key ingredients in sustainable development.

"What does sustainable growth come down to?" asks Mitchell. "Well, if you can't make the world work with 6 billion people, what are you going to do with 9 and a half billion? How do we finally get enough collective organization and efforts in the next 10 to 40 years to really see how we resolve these issues?" Mitchell said he is counting on the National Academies, and science academies worldwide, to take the initiative.

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