Trey McKinney, Staff Writer

“With regard to the subject of sustainable development, there is not a single problem, but several; not one notable challenge, but many; and not one viable perspective, but alternative ones.”

Change is the only constant.

    Institutions are built, laws are established, but inevitably change will occur; and for a given society or culture this can be a very positive thing. We need progress, to constantly reexamine ourselves and our flaws, and to assess that which we are in order to determine what we must become. Change is so natural to us that it has become an assumption of our everyday lives. All hope is born of the intrinsic notion that tomorrow can—and may be—both different and better than today. 

    Building a better tomorrow is in part predicated on the acknowledgement of our current faults, and there are many. However, certain issues are of such significance that they cannot be relegated or dismissed. This is determined in part by the position and trajectory of society—and the notion of society has an inertia all its own. We are more connected than ever. We are more aware than ever.  As such our sense of community must extend and begin to embrace a global context. Particularly in nations like ours, with such vast influence, there is responsibility to lead in a way that is conducive to collective prosperity. Nowhere is this more evident than in our discussions of sustainable development.

“…It is time to move past symbolic politics and focus our limited time and attention on meaningful change.”

Looking Forward

    When we speak of foresight, we are speaking of the quality that allows us to see things as they are and to understand things as they could be.  But while progress is a fundamental human endeavor, it is never a given. It requires both effort and risk. When undertaken and pursued earnestly, the rewards can be tremendous. Steven Cohen, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, gives a historical reference for this assessment, noting how the United States’ investment in old infrastructure—railroads, highways, ports, and bridges—laid the groundwork for what would become the world’s strongest and most vibrant economy.  Remaining beholden to the industrial status quo could rob us of the opportunity to once again invest in the future and reap tremendous returns.

    When done correctly sustainable development will require cooperation between three primary stakeholders: the scientific community, business and industry, and federal/local governments. Nazli Choucri, Professor of Political Science at MIT, wrote of this relationship, remarking that “Business and industry engage in the commercialization of new ideas, in the bankability of innovations, and in the enhancement of effective market responses. Governments provide the social rules and legal context within which the enterprise of science and technology operates.” Technology has provided us with the necessary tools. We now need government to provide a thorough legal framework and for the private sector to help create hospitable market for sustainable industries.

    If properly implemented, sustainable models can have substantial benefits on a variety of fronts. Increased energy efficiency, lower taxes, increased investment in urban development, better quality housing, better public transit and on a larger scale, growing energy independence and mitigated impact of climate change are just some of the positive outcomes wrought from well-executed sustainable development.

Real Steps Toward Change

We couch our discussion of sustainability in terms that are familiar and general. Global warming. Climate change. Greenhouse gases. But in truth the topic deserves a much more thorough treatment in public discourse.  Oversimplifying the issue does little justice to the threats we confront and ignores the potential opportunities.  Granted, promoting awareness and dialogue does hold value, but it is even more important to establish a viable course of action, and to hold ourselves accountable in bringing it to pass. The challenge before us involves more than emissions regulations and decreased levels of pollution, though they are undeniably an important part.  

    Cohen has noted the importance of moving beyond superficial efforts and assessing the real measures that must be taken to provide a more sustainable future.  He writes

“Symbols have meaning and can influence perceptions and values. But they should not be confused with real, operational change on the ground. They are means, not ends, and the day after you stop a pipeline or you manage to convince the Board of Trustees of your college to divest from fossil fuel investments, you are still pulling to the gas pump and filling up the tank.”

As Dr. Cohen articulates, bold action is important, but only holds value insofar as it supports widespread tangible change at the ground level.

    In November the United Nations Climate Change talks drew tremendous notoriety.  The ability to negotiate an international agreement with common standards represents a solid step forward in efforts to promote accountability in nations the world over.  Yet while the talks clearly demonstrate a willingness to confront issues with pollution and climate change on a global scale, there is correspondingly little talk of how to build more efficient industries and investment in green infrastructure.  These are the kinds of discussions that are likely to be fruitful in developing long term, sustainable solutions we should all ultimately hope for. Couple this with the lack of a formal mechanism for enforcement, and we are left with a well-intentioned effort that is unlikely to produce real results.

    Arguments against new standards, regulations, and development abound, often asserting that such measures are likely to stunt economic growth and would be ineffective for solving environmental issues. These arguments tend to overlook the future payoffs from such investments and reflect an interest in the welfare of established industries benefiting from relaxed environmental standards. The preoccupation with longstanding industrial practices and ignorance as to the potential benefits sustainable models could offer are two obstacles that must be overcome if we are to move forward in both a responsible and profitable direction.

“There is a political argument that must be made to invest in a sustainable future through a portfolio of federal, state, and local policies and programs.”

Public Policy & Millennial Market Influence

    The U.S. government has taken steps to promote improved environmental standards and sustainable practices, both at the industrial level and for the average citizen. In accordance with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the EPA introduced more stringent carbon emission regulations (an effort that is being bitterly contested, with 26 states filing suit). The Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 provided tax credits for residences with solar-electric and wind-energy systems.  These policies and others like them demonstrate the government’s commitment to promoting sustainable development, but it is important to realize we as citizens must engage with the political process and encourage more initiatives at the state and local level.

    In addition, Millennials will have growing market influence in the years to come. Interestingly, our generation has demonstrated —despite an especially difficult economic climate—the willingness to pay more for sustainable offerings. This proclivity could carry significant implications for industries moving forward. “Brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share but build loyalty among the power spending Millennials of tomorrow” says Grace Farraj, SVP, Public Development & Sustainability with Nielsen.  By making it a point to patronize businesses with an environmental focus, Millennials can dictate the terms to developing businesses and established businesses alike. By leaving an imprint in the marketplace that reflects an emphasis on environmental stewardship, we could shape tomorrow’s economy, making it more equitable and beneficial for us all.

Conclusion

The shift toward a more sustainable future is not likely to be easy or quick. It will require commitment and consistent effort at every level, from the private to the public sector and from everyday people alike. But it is of immense importance that we do no get so comfortable with the now that we forgo a better tomorrow for ourselves and our posterity. We possess the knowledge and capacity to create a world that is better for all of us. We should not let the opportunity to usher in a new era of human prosperity go to waste.