The fifth and final post in our series on accelerating the shift to sustainability outlines four key components of effective change.
In an exclusive series for CSRwire, John Dernbach, coauthor of Acting as If Tomorrow Matters, the third in a trilogy of books on sustainability in the U.S., summarizes the key findings of the book and offers a crash course in how to make a greater variety of sustainable decisions more attractive and how public opinion and leadership can be more effectively engaged to support sustainability. This is the final part.
How do we build on the progress made to date, overcome obstacles, and thus accelerate the U.S. transition to sustainability?
A four-part approach is needed. This framework should help you -- wherever you are, whatever your skills and whatever you do -- identify and organize what needs to be done in your particular situation to help accelerate the transition.
This framework, moreover, isn’t just my opinion. It is based on the collective thinking of 51 sustainability experts and practitioners in a wide variety of fields, who contributed to my recent book. It is thus an experienced-based working theory of how to accelerate the transition.
The four approaches:
1. More, Better Sustainability Options
Where there are no sustainable options right now, government and the private sector need to foster and create more choices. These options need to include not just more sustainable consumer products; they also, and perhaps more importantly, must include alternative ways of transportation (walking, biking, buses) and energy production (renewable energy).
Where options exist, they need to be made more attractive than business as usual — less expensive, longer lasting, and more effective.
Alternatives also need to more closely approach authentic sustainability. Buildings certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, for example, often use one quarter to one third less energy than conventional buildings, but they are not “net zero energy” buildings. The latter structures combine renewable energy with aggressive energy conservation and efficiency measures to ensure that they have no net energy use.
More and better alternatives won’t ultimately make a difference, moreover, unless they also become the default choice.
We will really know we are getting to sustainability, says Jake Reynolds, Director of the Business and Policy Leaders Groups at the Cambridge Program for Sustainability Leadership, when the sustainable alternative is the one that people ordinarily choose.
The creation and use of more and better options, and more sustainable defaults, will provide people, organizations, and businesses more opportunities to move in a sustainable direction. Better options and choices will also help defuse political opposition, which is based to a great degree on the claimed absence of attractive alternatives.
2. Sustainability-Friendly Laws
The United States needs to move away from an almost exclusive reliance on regulation to protect the environment. Environmental regulation needs to be supplemented with changes in tax law, business organization law, land use law, economic development law, and the like.
This shift is already happening: many recent laws (for example, laws supporting renewable energy and organic food) are actually, in a basic way, economic development laws. Fossil fuel subsidies and other laws and supporting unsustainable development need to be repealed or modified.
We also need federal legislation that addresses climate change with the seriousness it deserves. The failure of cap-and-trade legislation to pass Congress in 2009 and 2010 has led many to argue that we should adopt a carbon tax instead, perhaps partly to offset the budget deficit.
But even the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House was more than cap-and-trade. It would have required the formulation of new national mandatory building energy codes, specific increases in the amount of electricity produced by renewable sources, significant improvements in the efficiency with which electricity is generated, and increased financial support for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and carbon-sequestration technologies.
Sustainability can help reframe the bitter climate change debate by focusing on improvements to national security, human well-being, and job creation from the use of properly designed legal and policy tools, whether passed one-by-one or as part of a larger package.
Because sustainability is based on the reality that the fate of humans and their environment is inseparably linked, sustainability also can help people of all ethical and faith perspectives understand that we have a moral responsibility to address climate change. And because the political divide over the environment is really a divide over regulation, the use of nonregulatory tools for sustainability, including economic development tools, should command greater bipartisan support.
3. Visionary, Pragmatic Governance
Visionary and pragmatic governance — at all levels of government, and in the private sector. At the national level, this kind of governance requires a bipartisan national strategy that can guide the nation’s sustainability efforts over a long period, an equally strong commitment to research and development of innovative technology, an intensified focus on public education, and greater public participation in decision making for sustainability.
The challenge of achieving these things, at least at the national level, can be summarized simply. While scientists say we need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to avoid very serious and even civilization-challenging problems, there will be nine presidential elections between now and then.
Visionary governance needs to plan and act beyond the next election cycle.
Pragmatic governance is also needed, because the sustainability journey requires us to go where no technologically advanced civilization has gone before, and there is no yellow brick (or other) road to mark the way. That means there will need to be some political tolerance for the inevitable mistakes and corrections, and an openness to adaptive learning.
4. Bigger, More Effective Movement For Change
A greatly expanded and more effective American sustainability movement.
The U.S. already has an emerging sustainability movement, made up of the many individuals and organizations who are already working toward sustainability in virtually every economic sector and part of the country.
This movement includes not only environmental groups but also corporations, labor unions, farmers, lawyers, colleges and universities, local governments, architectural firms, religious organizations, and engineers. They have each worked out specific and practical things that can be done to move in a more sustainable direction.
They understand that sustainability will lead to higher quality of life, that it provides economic opportunities, and that it is the right thing to do. For those discouraged by the rancorous state of national politics, this movement — which appears to be growing — provides reason to believe that partisan divisions can be overcome.
Reinforcing Each Other
These four approaches — more and better options and choices, law for sustainability, visionary and pragmatic governance, and an American sustainability movement — reinforce each other. A sustainability movement makes it more likely that the needed legal and governance changes will happen, and encourages the availability of more-sustainable options and greater use of those options.
Public satisfaction with more sustainable options would, in turn, lead to even more choices and greater support for changes in law and governance that would further contribute to sustainability. Taken together, these four approaches provide a way to build on our progress to date, overcome obstacles, and thus accelerate the transition to a sustainable America.
And key to all of this is the contribution that each of us makes to the sustainability movement — wherever we are and whatever we do.
Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Mapping the Obstacles to Sustainability
What Motivates Sustainability Efforts in the U.S.?
As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating Progress Toward Sustainability