Thoughts on Sustainability

Is sustainability possible? In theory, perhaps, but it won’t happen in our lifetimes. And in my opinion it won’t happen without a sea change in the way we view the planet and our place on it.

Sustainability has been defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It’s certainly concise. However, “sustainability” means different things to different people. We can agree that “development” always means change, but we really don’t know the “needs” of future generations. Might one need simply be clean air? Or an unpolluted water source, or a healthy ocean?

One problem is that the planet is now inhabited by 7 billion people, with more to come, never mind that the earth’s ability to provide resources to sustain such a population is now stretched toward the limit. It’s all about “carrying capacity,” or the ability of an ecosystem to sustain life. As someone put it, it’s like a house with 500 cats. How are they all to be fed and how do we gather and dispose of all the cat feces?

In my opinion, the political scene does not provide a framework in which rational thought and forward-thinking are accepted as keys to solving the problems facing our planet. Oil companies lobbied successfully to relax offshore drilling regulations. In the mountains of Appalachia, coal companies lobbied to limit federal regulations on both deep mining and strip-mining of coal. Sometimes I think that if one has enough money and political clout, a way around regulations can be managed.

Efforts are underway to undermine the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in protecting us from ourselves. EPA scientists complain that they are feeling political pressure to skew their findings in favor of economic rather than public health interests. There’s political pressure to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling that greenhouse gas emissions endanger human health and public welfare, in essence favoring economic gain over human health effects.

When I was young, I worked for my strip-mining uncle, and we began our operation in Virginia by using a railroad car load of dynamite to blast off the entire side of a mountain. It was legal at the time and I didn’t know any better. As a result of the blast, a Volkswagon-sized boulder roared down what was left of the mountain and smashed through the living room of a house down in the valley. No one was killed, and work went on after the mountain family was paid off. By the way, as a result of our activities, a pristine stream at the foot of the mountain became polluted. And we made a lot of money – all in the name of helping to meet America’s energy needs.

According to the Dow-Jones own Sustainability Index, a major strategy of corporations should be to “integrate long-term economic, environmental, and social aspects in business strategies while maintaining global competitiveness and brand recognition.” There seems to be no room for conservation or stewardship of the planet in this strategy. I was impressed with the role of conservation in our society in the 7th grade, and I still remember getting an A+ on my conservation report. If a conservative is someone who wishes to conserve natural resources, then count me in, but Jonah Goldberg, of the National Review, notes that: “To say a conservative is someone who wishes to conserve is technically correct but practically useless.” This may also mean that sustainability is worthy but, in reality, it is a useless goal.

Regardless, I suspect that someday, perhaps later rather than sooner, most Americans, especially political leaders, will become environmentally conservative and accept sustainability as the key to the earth’s well-being. In my opinion, one of the clearest thinkers on environmental sustainability is Dr. David Suzuki, a Canadian citizen known for his television series, The Nature of Things, and for many other television and radio programs dealing with science and nature. A publication from his David Suzuki Foundation argues that environmental stability in Canada might be possible within a generation. The initiative proposed by Suzuki and others requires considerable involvement by the federal government in providing the leadership required for sustainability. Some examples to ensure the economic and environmental viability of Canadian citizens include:

1. Shift gasoline tax revenues to public transit.

2. Support investment in green infrastructure for municipalities.

3. Expand funding for renewable energy.

The likelihood of these kinds of proposals being supported by the majority of our political leaders is practically zero. Suzuki and many conservationists believe that “involvement by the federal government” is essential to sustainability. In the U.S., however, many politicians are conditioning people to believe that socialism is inherently evil and that government has no place in our lives. As long as we are willing to put economic (= capitalistic) interests over public health and environmental interests, and as long as we are willing to put up with a highly polarized government without fact-driven compromise, then collective sustainability will remain a dream.

A final word from David Suzuki. “Sustainability means living within Earth’s limits so that [people] don’t have to think twice before drinking tap water or breathing the air in our cities. We need to understand that a healthy economy is inextricably liked to a healthy environment, it’s not one or the other.”