Part One of a series on accelerating the transition to sustainability introduces the key questions in assessing U.S. sustainability efforts.
By John C. Dernbach
One of the most important challenges in front of us — perhaps the most important challenge — is accelerating the transition to sustainability. In June, the United Nations met in Rio de Janeiro to review progress since nations of the world first committed to achieving sustainability at the original Earth Summit in 1992 (also in Rio de Janeiro). The final outcome report for the Rio+20 conference stated five times in various ways the critical need to “accelerate” progress toward sustainability.
Similarly, the final outcome documents of the recently concluded Doha, Qatar, conference of the parties to the Climate Change Convention emphasized the importance of “accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.” Indeed, a World Bank report issued to coincide with the conference warned that we must immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid atmospheric concentrations of those gases that would be extremely damaging if not catastrophic.
A Review of U.S. Sustainability Efforts
That is also the focus of my book, Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability (Environmental Law Institute Press 2012), which was published before the Rio+20 conference. The book, and its focus on accelerating the transition, grows out of my experience leading the only nongovernmental project reviewing U.S. sustainability efforts. The project began as a law school seminar project to assess U.S. progress on the political commitments it made (along with other countries) at the original Earth Summit.
For the U.S., sustainability efforts began long before the term was widely used.
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 declares “the continuing policy of the Federal Government” to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” Because of this and other environmental laws, our air and water are much cleaner, pesticides are much safer, and much less hazardous waste is produced, even as our economy has grown over the last four decades.
But sustainability addresses a broader set of challenges concerning a nation’s environmental and greenhouse gas footprint.
With just 4.5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Between 1857 and 2007, the United States emitted more than 28 percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other developed country, and far more than any developing nation. According to a recent calculation by the Global Footprint Network, it would take four earths to provide enough resources for the entire world’s population at the U.S. level of consumption.
As important as our environmental laws are, they are not enough.
Three Assessments Find Two Broad Patterns
In the spring of 1997, I asked students in my sustainability seminar at Widener University Law School to do research on U.S. efforts over the past five years. There was to be a five-year review of national Earth Summit commitments at the United Nations in June of that year, and I converted their papers into an assessment of overall U.S. efforts (later published as an article in their names and my name).
To my surprise, it turned out to be the only nongovernmental assessment of U.S. efforts.
Five years later, I asked experts on particular topics to assess U.S. progress and make recommendations for the next five to ten years. The results were published in Stumbling Toward Sustainability (Environmental Law Institute Press 2002). More than five years later, we did a similar review, Agenda for a Sustainable America (Environmental Law Institute Press 2009).
These three assessments showed two broad patterns. First, U.S. sustainability efforts have been slow in coming, and have been mostly bottom up, with people and organizations in particular sectors finding ways to make progress. Second, my contributing authors and I continued to make the same recommendations over and over because so little was changing.
Four Big Questions on Sustainability
The new book tries to break out of “Groundhog Day” by answering somewhat different questions. The book is based on the knowledge and experience of 51 contributing authors, each an expert in a particular aspect of sustainability, such as green building, sustainability in higher education, corporate sustainability, or industrial ecology. Most of them also contributed to the prior books. Each was asked four questions:
- What progress has the U.S. made on sustainability over the past two decades in your field of expertise?
- What has motivated those efforts?
- What are the obstacles to greater progress?
- How do we overcome obstacles and accelerate progress?
Then, together, we looked for patterns in the answers. The resulting book provides an experience-based explanatory framework for understanding U.S. sustainability efforts and how to accelerate them.
It is not so much about particular sustainability issues (e.g., energy consumption, sustainable agriculture) as it is about the patterns that exist among all. Thus, this framework can be used in any context to accelerate public, private, or individual sustainability efforts. While the book is based on U.S. experience, it provides insights that are likely to be useful elsewhere.
Each of the next four articles in this series will address one of these questions—providing a foundation, and then setting out a framework, for accelerating the transition to sustainability.
Three Reasons Why Americans Should Care About Accelerating Sustainability
This is nice, some will say, but why should Americans care? The economy is weak, Europe and the Middle East appear to be unstable, and other issues are more pressing.
We should be concerned because the basic background conditions for everything that occurs in the world are a growing world population, large-scale poverty, an expanding economy, and increasing environmental degradation. These background conditions, which taken together provide the impetus for sustainability, affect everything we care about.
We should be engaged because the transition to sustainability provides an opportunity to create more jobs, build new businesses, make us more secure, and enhance our wellbeing. We also need to make the economy strong enough and resilient enough to withstand climate change, resource scarcity, and other sustainability challenges.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should care because it is the right thing to do. Environmental degradation, including climate change, harms people in the U.S. and elsewhere through more severe droughts and hurricanes, and also means that people not yet born will be disadvantaged in ways that we are not.
The theologian Thomas Berry said that ecologically sustainable human development is the “Great Work” in front of us—our challenge and opportunity to make a significant contribution to the human venture. The decisions we make about sustainable development are defining decisions for the United States. They are decisions about who we are, what we want, what we value, and how we want to be remembered.