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The Inevitability of Sustainability Politics, Technology and Management

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I keep hearing that environmentalism is on the wane, renewable energy is yesterday's news, and that the political world no longer cares about the planet's well being. That is, of course, complete nonsense, as is the idea that environmental quality is some kind of luxury item. Our modern economy and way of life is based on a series of technologies that cannot be sustained the way they were originally developed. As the population of the planet grows and the consumption of land, food, water, energy and raw materials grows along with it, we are learning that we cannot simply use stuff up, destroy the landscape and move on to the next mountain or valley. The current approach to economic life has created a lifestyle our forbearers couldn't even dream of, but it cannot be sustained without a revolution in management, technology and scientific understanding of our home planet. Fortunately, I think we are capable of creating the change we need.

The facts of population growth, economic growth, environmental degradation, and human reliance on the natural world make sustainability politics, technology and management inevitable. The political pressure of our increasingly crowded planet is already found in local politics in America. We call it the "not in my backyard syndrome" (NIMBY). Development of our most valuable land is an increasingly contentious political process. Communities in large cities expect to be compensated for the negative impacts of new development. The politics around hydraulic fracturing in the small towns in New York's Southern Tier indicate that the anti-development political impulse is not limited to large cities. More positive manifestations of sustainability politics can be seen in the widespread public support for sustainability plans such as New York City's PlaNYC2030, as well as for bike lanes, greenmarkets, recycling, and just about anything we call "green."

Many pundits and politicos are stuck in a 20th century notion of environmental protection and seem to have missed the transition to sustainability. When the environment emerged as a political issue in the early 20th century it was all about Teddy Roosevelt-style wilderness conservation. The environment was thought of as a "thing of beauty" and its protection was seen as an elite issue. This definition is out of date, but has persisted since that time. In the 1960's and 1970's we began to become aware of the interconnectedness of the environment due to the superb analytic and communication skills of environmentalists such as Rachael Carson and Barry Commoner. Their work led to a redefinition of the environment as an issue of public health. We didn't protect the environment because we loved nature we protected it because a polluted environment could make you sick.

While the issues of conservation and environmental health remain with us in the 21st century, the transformation of the environmental issue to the one of sustainability has changed the issue's definition and brought it from the fringe to the center of the political agenda. The initial definitions of environmental quality and environmental protection defined environmental quality as something that might be expensive, but if pursued would bring benefits such as higher quality of life and better health. Environmental protection was something that was done after production was complete, by treating waste at the end of a pipe; or it was something that was undertaken after consumption took place when waste was cleaned up, treated, or disposed. The sustainability perspective turns this traditional definition upside down.

Sustainability is an effort to sustain production today without impairing our ability produce in the future. Our goal is not conservation of resources, but the continued productive use of resources. We do not conserve resources for posterity, but we manage resources for their continued use. If a resource can only be used once, we try to learn how to re-use it, or we try to avoid using it. Our goal is to base our consumption on resources that can be grown or renewed. There is no question that the use of scarce resources may benefit an individual in the short run; and that many people are more interested in making a quick buck than passing resources on to their children. Public policy and law can help prevent serious damage from these impulses. But the general point is that the best, most effective managers will be sustainability managers and the best run organizations will adhere to these principles because they lead to long-term profitability. A sustainability perspective would lead a CEO to question an entire production process and to see if there was some way to manufacture the same good without generating pollution and waste in the first place.

The sustainability perspective is an effort to use design, engineering and public policy to make economic production and consumption efficient and effective. Pollution and poisoning people or the planet may provide some short-term benefits, but our experience with environmental remediation and restoration tells us that these short-term benefits are consumed quite rapidly, and are soon replaced by longer term costs. We might make $50 million selling the good that resulted in pollution, but the pollution might well cost $500 million to clean up. If you are in doubt, ask BP about the costs of clean-up. The sustainability perspective asks if there is a way to keep making the $50 million without needing to pay the $500 million in clean-up costs. The clean-up costs may seem optional, but if the alternative is to allow a key resource to be destroyed, it must be paid. Since 1980 and for the foreseeable future, America's military, industry and citizens will be paying hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up the toxic wastes dumped during the middle of the 20th century. China will soon be facing a similar clean-up bill.

In sustainability management, environmental protection and efficient use of resources is not added to a production process but is central to that process. The best run organizations try to minimize their use of non-renewable resources and try to reduce their environmental and carbon foot-print. Companies like Walmart don't do this because they love nature, but because they see it as a way to make money. It becomes yet another cost advantage a company uses to beat the competition.

The issue of the environment still has a regulatory dimension, because valuable and vulnerable natural resources must be protected from evil and stupid people. Not all companies are managed as well as Walmart, Pepisco, Starbucks and the many other companies that are working to adopt sustainability management. But more and more are. And these companies need government to provide reasonable rules as well as incentives for the development of renewable energy, smart grids, and other forms of sustainability technology and infrastructure.

The environmental issue is now part of the overall issue of economic development and economic growth. Logic tells us that non-sustainable economic growth leads to economic shrinkage. The politics of sustainability is about protecting the planet so we can continue to benefit from the resources and wealth it provides for us. The evolution of the sustainability issue is not well understood by many in the political world, but that is starting to change. Climate change is only one element of this issue. In many respects global warming must be seen as an impact of the lack of sufficient renewable energy. Ecosystem and ocean preservation are required to ensure high quality food and water. Careful development of land is required to protect ecosystems and a community's sense of well-being.

Sustainability politics is often most visible at the local level as communities work to preserve the quality of their water supply, air, and way of life. The force of this political current should not be underestimated. It combines the political salience of economic growth with the emotional power of parents protecting their children's future. Sustainability politics is not going away, in some ways it has just begun, in many ways it has been with us for a very long time. It was certainly on John F. Kennedy's mind almost a half century ago, in June, 1963 when he spoke about the urgency of preventing nuclear war and observed that "Total war ... makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn... For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal." Seven years before the EPA was established, Kennedy understood the importance of an interconnected biosphere. This awareness has formed the conceptual base for sustainability politics and needs to be understood as a long-term, continuously growing force in our political world.

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