Sustainability in America – Buzzword or Reality?

Introduction

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered his stirring “we choose to go to the moon in this decade” speech at Rice University. Despite his tragic assassination in 1963 and his critics who wanted government money spent to relieve poverty instead, Kennedy’s outsized vision was realized.

On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, with Michael Collins keeping watch from the Command Module circling above, landed the Lunar Module on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface and proclaimed “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

I remember the lunar landing so well. I was a teenager glued to the television broadcast from the moon that summer night.

The world was changed with the myriad of technological advances both the US and its rival, the USSR made during the Space Race.

The photographs of the Earth taken from space allowed millions of people to see for the first time the beauty and fragility of our life sustaining planet and its thin atmosphere. More people finally began to realize that the earth needs to be taken care of and not just exploited for commercial gain or to satisfy unbridled consumerism.

In 1970, America celebrated Earth Day for the first time. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”). Congress passed the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts soon thereafter.

Today, 53 years after President Kennedy’s speech, we urgently need similar inspirational leadership to create a sustainable society that safeguards our environment and public health not just for ourselves but for future generations.

What is meant by “Sustainability?”

The concept of sustainability does not have a single source or a precise, uniform definition.[1]

Because of this, skeptics and opponents dismiss it as just another passing fad or buzzword.

Generally, sustainability means not wasting and depleting resources and destroying the environment in the present to the detriment of the future. It means understanding that there are limits to what our environment can provide for humans and other species. It deals with preserving natural areas and allowing the earth to recuperate and not be exhausted by the demands of human activity.

Medieval farmers who practiced crop rotation were early adopters of sustainable practices as were 20th century conservationists like the two Roosevelt presidents who set aside millions upon millions of acres for national parks and wildlife refuges in the United States.

Our 18th century founders were also futurists – after all, in the Preamble to The Constitution of the United States, they specifically stated that one of the purposes of the new Constitution was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

In today’s world, sustainability involves many things: the reduction of greenhouse gases and other pollution, renewable energy, the efficient use of energy and other material resources, agricultural advances like vertical farms, recycling, “green” products and “green” chemistry, the protection of nature and other species, urban greenbelts, electric cars, and public transportation innovations.

Achieving a sustainable economic system is particularly critical on a global scale as we face declining fisheries, deforestation and desertification, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and the rapid decline of so many species.

American Consumers

Let’s discuss consumers first since in most cases they created the demand for products and services which companies supply. (Of course, some would point to Madison Avenue advertisers and companies like Apple and argue it is the other way around.)

Many people contend that the best way to bring about sustainable consumption patterns is for consumers to simply consume far less industrially produced goods and services. Go off the grid! Recycle! Bring back the Victory Gardens! Ride the bus! Meatless Mondays!

It is clear that today’s Americans, taken as a whole, are wasteful consumers. We have far too many “throw-away” products and single-use packaging. This was not always the case – Americans pulled together to drastically reduce their personal consumption during WWII so that valuable resources like gasoline, nylon and food could be sent to support the troops overseas.

However, increasing numbers of environmentally conscious consumers do their best to conserve resources – they faithfully recycle, turn off the tap when brushing their teeth, program their home thermostats, and purchase organic foods, non-toxic cleaning and personal care products, energy efficient appliances, and hybrid vehicles.

Unfortunately, millions of other consumers cannot afford to purchase the more expensive “eco-products” and organic foods.

Then there are those people, without financial constraints, who apparently do not care about doing their part to assure a more sustainable environment. These include people who can well afford eco-products but will not spend more to buy them and people who litter our highways, constantly exceed speed limits in their vehicles unconcerned about wasted fuel, or whose recreational pursuits create excessive noise and other pollution.

Further, it is not just the talk show hosts who make cynical jokes about Al Gore’s predictions of global warming while showing video clips of blizzards in Buffalo and harp on the fact that some scientists in the 1970s were predicting a coming ice age.

Many people argue that environmental regulation kills jobs, especially politicians from fossil fuel producing states. No matter that environmentally conscious California leads the nation in the creation of high paying jobs.

Even the most ecologically minded consumer, one who religiously recycles and never ever uses plastic grocery bags, can feel totally hopeless when seeing news reports about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the melting of the Arctic, sharks and dolphins destroyed to satisfy the appetites of Asian consumers, people in Beijing choking on air pollution, Florida manatees killed by power boaters speeding through their protected areas, mountain top removal for coal in West Virginia, the destruction of bee colonies from pesticides, the mass slaughter of elephants for “trinkets” as Prince William recently put it, and millions of refugees fleeing from wars, terrorists, and man-made desertification.

One can legitimately ask oneself – do my individual consumer choices really make any difference in this world?

Businesses

Besides having to comply with existing environmental laws and regulations, much of the recent sustainability focus in business has centered upon energy efficiency in operations (for example, conversion of factories and retail stores to LED lighting and solar power) or reducing the amount of packaging for consumer products (for example, beverage bottles using less plastic) or reformulating products to remove toxic substances (for example, removing lead and other heavy metals from children’s products).

It is harder to identify businesses which may have gone even further and re-evaluated whether or not their existing product or service lines should be discontinued voluntarily if these lines are not sustainable in and of themselves, even if safer materials, chemicals or ingredients could be used.

One of the barriers to businesses fully embracing sustainable products and operations are the state laws which govern business corporations and require the management and directors to focus their attention on making profits for the shareholders. We all know that the stock markets measure this performance on a short term basis.

Nevertheless, numerous academic and industry studies, widely available on the internet, have shown that businesses which can successfully integrate sustainable and socially responsible practices into their products, services and operations outperform those that do not.

Smart business people know that implementing pro-active sustainability measures assure they will endure over time. Certainly, we have seen many companies and occupations disappear in the wake of technological changes or unforeseen and unplanned for resource limitations.

The Way Forward

Members of the “deep green” movement[2] do not believe that advances in technology or the adoption of sustainable businesses practices and consumer behaviors will save our planet from imminent environmental catastrophe. Their solutions to avoid catastrophe involve radical population reduction, de-industrialization and a return to a hunter-gatherer primitive society. This would require the imposition of a global totalitarian government – a horror indeed.

I see another way forward. Here is what is needed.

Political Leadership and Citizen Engagement

In my view, the most critical components needed to achieve a sustainable society come down to political leadership and citizen engagement. We see this occurring in states like California and Vermont, which have been leaders in enacting state laws protecting the environment and reducing toxic chemicals. Florida has citizen engagement only.[3]

Currently, there is a huge fight continuing in Washington D.C. over whether or not to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Advocates claim that “American competitiveness” and jobs trump the concerns about greenhouse gases created by the extraction of oil from the Alberta tar sands and the risks of oil spills from the pipeline which could pollute aquifers in Nebraska and other places. President Obama at the time of this writing has opposed the pipeline while the newly elected Republican Congress is pushing it as one of their top legislative priorities.

In 2016 and beyond, we need to elect Presidents who will not only oppose environmentally destructive projects but will be able to successfully educate American citizens and the business community as a whole (not just the socially responsible segment) to understand that American competitiveness and jobs flow from and are dependent on environmental sustainability. They should be viewed as opposites.

In the current crop of media-identified contenders for 2016, a sustainability candidate is not yet visible. Will it take another Hurricane Katrina or Sandy or another BP oil spill or a 1918-style flu epidemic for one to emerge? Will the millions of readers of John Grisham’s new book “Gray Mountain”, which exposes the environmental destruction caused by mountain top removal to obtain coal, organize using social media to demand such a candidate?

After all, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” published in 1962 inspired the emergence of the environmental movement in the first instance.[4]

Enhanced Education Builds Citizen Engagement

Many of today’s “millennials” seem to take for granted the huge environmental improvements achieved since the first Earth Day in 1970. This is because unlike the Baby Boomers, they did not grow up seeing the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland literally catch on fire or millions of dead fish littering the shores of the Great Lakes. They were not raised breathing filthy air containing lead-filled auto emissions and other unregulated toxic particulates.

All of our schools and colleges need to adopt for the first time and/or increase the scope and intensity of  their existing educational programs in the area of sustainability,  environmental protection and public health, including a look back at what things were like a mere four decades ago. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” should be on every school and university’s required reading list.

For students living in urban and suburban paved-over environments totally disconnected from our farms, drinking water sources, and national and state parks and undeveloped areas; more field trips must be organized to educate and inspire them about our natural world and our total dependence on our environment for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

These programs need to actively engage students in hands-on activities to protect our environment and assure clean air, water and food security. They should encourage students to generate ideas and invent new technologies and green products.

Instead of wasting billions of educational dollars on testing and more testing; our educational establishment needs to re-focus its resources to educate children, teenagers and adults on why maintaining a healthy planet is not a choice but a necessity.

Engaged students grow up to be engaged citizens.

Laws and Regulations

Many vocal advocates for free markets detest government regulation (unless it subsidizes or otherwise benefits their specific business interests). Of course, I am not advocating government control of the economy which has failed everywhere it has been tried.

There is an appropriate balance between markets and protecting the environment and public health. Before 1970, there was no balance. In the past four decades there has been enormous progress but it is not sufficient because of ever increasing population and the impacts of climate change (correctly predicted by Al Gore). This is where a national commitment to create a sustainable society comes in – assuring the appropriate balance by rewarding socially responsible businesses and responsible consumers and deterring their opposites.

There are many well known legal mechanisms to accomplish this and they are essential. Voluntary efforts are not sufficient even with their good intentions. These mechanisms include tax policies, smart regulations, construction of sustainable public infrastructure programs and subsidies for new technology and innovation.

In the 19th century, Americans established the land grant colleges to educate farmers, mechanics, soldiers and children of the working classes. In the 20th century, under the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, we created the interstate highway system.

What are we doing in the new 21st century on a national level in terms of building sustainable public infrastructure? Nothing. European and Asian countries have successful bullet trains and we are just getting started in a handful of states.

Instead of subsiding well established agricultural industries, many of which are big polluters and don’t need any more federal government handouts, why not direct those same dollars towards innovative indoor farms which reduce the time and distance to market? These farms are already being created near Chicago and in other places. We need more of them.

It was not rocket science when during the 1970s, several states passed “bottle bills” to reduce roadside litter nor was it difficult for high taxes to be placed on tobacco products to reduce the number of Americans who use them.

Of course, there is opposition to these types of actions, just like when opponents of taxes on sugary soft drinks raise a hue and a cry about the creation of a “nanny state.” This is where leadership, education and socially responsible business can work hand in hand. The national drug store chain, CVS recently made a business decision to stop selling tobacco products because it realized that this is contrary to its business model of becoming a health care company. Kudos to CVS!

There is one big danger in any sustainability program and that is an inadequate scientific assessment of trade-offs. For example, wind and solar power can help reduce our consumption of domestic and foreign fossil fuels but if these installations are killing millions of birds (which fly into the turbines or burn up when landing on the panel arrays) or are making nearby livestock herds sick and unable to reproduce (because of the noise of the huge wind turbines), then they need to be re-engineered or re-positioned to reduce or eliminate the adverse side effects.

A recent example of an inadequate analysis of tradeoffs was Congress acting to ban incandescent light bulbs to save energy. The promoted substitute was CFL bulbs which contain mercury and Congress failed to establish a national disposal program for the used bulbs.     

Conclusion

Americans have changed the world for the better several times in our short history.[5]

We inspired a worldwide movement for freedom, democracy and human rights. We have welcomed millions of refugees and immigrants. With our valiant allies, we saved the world from militarism and fascism twice in the 20th century. We are often the first to send generous aid to other countries hit by disasters.

Now it is our chance to serve as a model for the world when it comes to sustainability. The truth is that there are some European countries which are well ahead of us at this point in time. With the right leadership, we can catch up and surpass them.

However, at the moment, the leadership in sustainability is not originating in a Washington D.C., corrupted by campaign contributions and rabid partisanship.

Until the void in our nation’s capital is filled, the leadership must continue to be found and be rapidly accelerated at the state, city, university, socially responsible business and individual consumer levels.

Which state will be the first to be known as the “Sustainability State” and proudly display this new name on its vehicle license plates?  Will it be California, Vermont, or one of the others?

Which city will be ranked as the most sustainable city in America? Will it continue to be Portland, Oregon?[6]

Which universities will become the leaders in educating students and developing and licensing new sustainable technologies?

Which businesses will totally embrace sustainability in a holistic manner? Which businesses engaging in greenwashing will be shunned by consumers?

How many consumers will act like citizens and do their best to live in a sustainable manner?

Sustainability is not a buzzword. It must become reality – otherwise, the deep greens’ Malthusian vision will prevail.

 

Copyright © 2015 Susie L. Hoeller. All Rights Reserved.

Date: January 8, 2015.

 

[1] Per the U.S. EPA: “Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” http://www.epa.gov/basicinfo.html last accessed on January 8, 2015.

[2] Also known as the “deep ecology” movement which draws its inspiration from the writings of Arne Naess and George Sessions.

[3] In the November 2014 general election, nearly 75% of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to use one-third of taxes collected on real estate transactions for land conservation and water protection programs.

[4] “Silent Spring” documented how the unregulated overuse of chemicals like DDT was destroying life on earth. Her book was a major catalyst for the creation of the EPA.

[5] This is not to say that we have not had the stains of slavery, Jim Crow and the near genocide of Native Americans as part of our history.

[6] “12 Cities Leading the Way in Sustainability”, Moyer & Company, January 4, 2013. http://billmoyers.com/content/12-cities-leading-the-way-in-sustainability/