Six steps closer to a sustainable world
Many organizations like the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation have long recognized the urgency of and need to achieve more sustainable management of global society, and have been valuable in advancing the science of sustainability both within and outside government.
History provides an important perspective for understanding why the concept of sustainable development has become so important in the United States (and of course, the world’s other nations).
When I started my teaching career in 1970, many environmental events attracted public attention.
On June 22, 1969, oil slick and debris in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was on fire, drawing national attention to environmental problems over much of the United States. Time magazine wrote on August 1, 1970: "Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows."
Many similar events in the 1970s spurred public attention and political debate on the roles of government and the private sector and ultimately led to the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and shortly afterward, the creation of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A remarkable piece of legislation, NEPA’s signing on New Year’s Day in 1970 established as a national goal creating and maintaining “conditions under which [humans] and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” [emphasis added]. This language in the NEPA charter is remarkably similar to the definition of sustainable development in the UN-sponsored report Our Common Future almost two decades later in 1987.
Since joining the federal government in 1976, I have witnessed impressive benefits from environmental regulations created; today our rivers are no longer in flames, and our air and water quality are well protected. Rather than facing environmental and health problems from single sources of pollution, society today faces far more interconnected environmental, economic, and social challenges. Expanded economic development, population growth, urbanization, and globalization of industry have propelled greater consumption of energy, water, land, and materials, and wide-ranging changes in land use.
The “Ecological Footprint” developed by the Global Footprint Network demonstrates that it is essential that, for economic growth, we become much more sustainable. In 2013, the GFN estimated that if current trends in economic, population, and consumption growth continue, by the 2030 we will need the equivalent of two planet Earths to support the world’s population. Viewers of the 1975 movie “Jaws” might say, “We are going to need a bigger boat.”
Constrained by a finite planet, we’ll always need a better boat—one that more efficiently uses our fixed resources. The challenge is and will be to meet the needs of the growing economy and population that insists on an ever-higher standard of living in ways that restore and maintain our planet’s natural resources.
That is precisely what “sustainable development” is all about.
Addressing the problems of the 21st century will require a combination of strategies, including creative use of existing environmental policies and regulations, innovative application of science and technology, and collaboration among stakeholders. The experiences of seeing the past, living today, and projecting the future have driven many political leaders to think about new models for business, government, and research. In her last speech as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton declared, "We need a new architecture for a new world.”
Today the phrase “New Architecture” is a recognized goal among UN agencies, non-government organizations, and all levels of government around the world. To me there is a common set of principles incorporating sustainability science that drive this new architecture, which can help business, government, and society deal with these highly complex problems and thus move ever closer to a sustainable world. I call these my six ABCDEF for sustainability:
1. Advance and apply science, technology, and innovation.
2. Build smarter business practices that promote sustainable solutions.
3. Coordinate activities across international organizations, nations, regional and local governments, and NGOs.
4. Develop more effective collaboration between business and government.
5. Enhance public understanding and support of sustainability.
6. Foster collaboration between political organizations.
All sectors of American society will need to work together to advance these principles for sustainability. Without them, we cannot be assured of continuing American prosperity and competitiveness.
Dr. Alan Hecht is Director for Sustainable Development, Office of Research and Development at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the EPA.