Archive for the ‘Sustainable development’ Category

The most wonderful and beautiful definition of sustainable community development

I have been reading a book called How Green is the City? for a term project and I just came across the most wonderful definition of “sustainable community development” I have ever read. It’s apparently paraphrased from a book by Maser (1997) called Sustainable Community Development: Principles and Concepts, which is a very text-book-like title, but the following definition is just so wonderful and beautiful that I had to share it:

Community sustainable development is

a community-directed process of development based on: (a) transcendent human values of love, trust, respect, wonder, humility, and compassion; (b) active learning, which is a balance between the intellect and intuition, between the abstract and the concrete, between action and reflection; (c) sharing that is generated through communication, cooperation, and coordination; (d) a capacity to understand and work with and within the flow of life as a fluid system, recognizing, understanding, and accepting the significance of relationships; (e) patience in seeking an understanding of a fundamental issue rather than applying band-aid-like quick fixes to problematic symptoms; (f) consciously integrating the learning space into the working space into a continual cycle of theory, experimentation, action, and reflection; and (g) a shared societal vision that is grounded in long-term sustainability, both culturally and environmentally.

(From p22 in: Devuyst, D., ed. 2001. How Green is the City? Sustainability Assessment and the Management of Urban Environments. New York: Columbia UP.)

I’ve printed it out and put a copy on the wall above my desk, I like it so much.

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Sustainability as a learning endeavor

More often than not in life, we wait until something ends to look back and reflect. History is just that – a look backwards at what has happened, a chance to comment on the implications of an event or experience. A chance to see just really what have we learned from the past. People wait until they near the end of their lives to write an autobiography. We wait until the end of a war to write into history books the winners and losers. We wait until the end of our schooling to look back and see just what have we learned.

But why should we necessarily wait until the end to reflect? With education in particular, waiting until the end to look back only leaves us dissatisfied with our experience. We think, I wish I had taken advantages of more opportunities in college., or I wish I had known about that in the beginning. It appears we could learn a lot more if we simply took time out to reflect on things during the process. I think the best education can come from constant reflection and thought during an experience. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but nearsightedness is better than being blind. Looking while you are in the thick of it is better than not looking at all.

As this first semester of my graduate education concludes, I am taking the chance to reflect on my experiences thus far. As a dual-degree student in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, my chosen concentration is Sustainable Development, or Sustainability. “Sustainable development” has always been a favorite pet phrase of mine, since I first came across the term while writing a high school history paper on the current situation of the global environment in the context of American environmental history. “Providing for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” is the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission definition of “sustainable development” I read. While researching global climate change, resource depletion and environmental conflicts worldwide, the idea of sustainable development was a breath of fresh air amidst all the pollution. It seemed to be a solution with real potential to create a healthy, livable planet, an idea with the scope and interdisciplinary aspects needed to focus the ingenuity and creativity of the world on a sustainable future.

Sustainable development has proven thus far to be an interesting subject and context as a learning endeavor. For me, sustainability is a necessity for any future our planet and the human species is to have. This term, I have learned that ecological economists and sustainable developers might say that sustainability is about limits – limits to growth, limits to resource availability, limits to planetary capacity, limits to consumption. But I say, it is also about embracing the a profound challenge and tremendous opportunity that these limits bring. Sustainable development, I think, is about using our immense human capacity for creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship to create a sustainable future in which all people can live. This is bigger than the “weak sustainabilist”* idea that all inputs to current economic systems of production can be substituted for with enough innovation and creativity. This is about thinking of a new way to live, about rethinking our individual, consumerist, unsustainable lifestyles, about rethinking the entire socio-economic system in which we operate. It can be done. People are starting to think. Activists, writers, thinkers like Will Allen, Paul Hawken, Anna and Frances Moore Lappe, Annie Leonard, Bob Doppelt, Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, even New York Times columnists Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman are thinking this way. Organizations and thinktanks, more than I can list, are thinking and doing this way. It is possible.

But sustainability is also personal. Not only have I begun to attempt to live my own life sustainably in my first semester on my own, but I have also come to realize that sustainability has a more personal meaning for me. If, in my life, I could contribute to creating a sustainable world in which there is abundance for all, I would have lived a life worthwhile. If I could live to see a world where people live in safe, sustainable, healthy and happy communities, where people have lots of meaningful, sustaining relationships, where people eat good tasting and nourishing food grown without harm to the environment, where people engage in worthwhile work that doesn’t degrade the environment or come at the expense of another person, where people live in harmony with nature – if I could live to see that kind of world, I would have lived a good life.

Sustainability for me is not just about overcoming the myopia of consumer culture, or about living on a farm and raising chickens, or about shopping only at thrift stores, or about buying organic vegetables from the coop. Sustainability is more than just living my own life sustainably. It’s about contributing to a sustainable whole. And teaching others about the merits of sustainability.

This is where my final point comes in: the educational opportunities presented by sustainability. Sustainable development and sustainable living provide immense opportunity for educators and people globally to teach creative thinking, community-mindedness, ecological connections – a potent antidote to the business-as-usual philosophy promoted by the corporate world and most conventional educational institutions. If we are to create a happy, livable world for all, we need to start thinking differently, and we need to do it now. Using the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable living as a teaching and learning module in classrooms, living rooms, and coffee shops, at workshops, faith gatherings, and fire circles, on front porches and street corners worldwide will help us begin to care for one another and for the earth. We need to think both globally and locally, to value relationships and social contact more than flat screen televisions and mansion-size homes, to learn to take time to enjoy nature and its awesome beauty and wealth. If we can begin to learn and teach these things, then perhaps we may all live to see a sustainable world.

*A note on “weak” versus “strong” sustainability: These terms are used by people in ecological economics and sustainable development to depict two different views on sustainability. “Weak sustainabilists” hold that the concept of sustainability can be worked into our current socio-politico-economic system via substituting newly discovered resources, capital, technology, and human innovation and labor for limited resources currently used in the capitalistic, production-based system. “Strong sustainabilists,” on the other hand, hold that true sustainability does not come from infinite capacity to substitute, and that there are some resources that are inherently limited on this planet and for which there are no substitutes (e.g. clean air or fresh water). “Strong sustainabilists” believe in a deeper, more inclusive and conclusive concept of sustainability that diverges significantly from the current economic paradigm described above.

Myopia: Too much discounting can lead to an unsustainable future

In reading a book on nuclear power recently, I came across this passage:

“The international scientific consensus is that a deep geologic repository is the best place to isolate plutonium and other long-lasting nuclear waste. If the DOE [US Department of Energy] can show that such a repository will be safe for ten thousand years, the ideas is that it will be the same for a hundred thousand. But, geologically, it’s hard to predict accurately beyond ten thousand years, which is why Congress mandated a few decades ago that the repository had to be able to isolate waste for that long. A federal appeals court judge ruled in 2003 that a high-level nuclear waste repository should be guaranteed for a hundred thousand years instead of ten thousand. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), responding to another court ruling that ordered it to consider the fact that a few radionuclides would outlast that time frame, recommended that accountability extend to a span of one million years.” (p. 268. Cravens, Gwyneth. 2007. Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. New York: Vintage Books.)

Now, this passage amazes and confuses me for a couple of reasons. First, how can we as a society be so concerned with the fate of generations millennia from now when it comes to them happening upon our nuclear waste, but when it comes to preserving a world with adequate resource stocks and a healthy environment for our progeny, we have a difficult time with it? Mainly, this comes down to discordance in discount rates.

Let me explain. Human beings are inherently myopic, or near-sighted and tending to care about the present more than the future. Of course, this makes sense. We are genetically wired to care more about ourselves than others and more about our current selves than our future selves. The existence of oneself is definite; you know your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, interests are real (at least to you) and they are exceedingly relevant because they are real. The interest of others is a less concrete fact, because we can’t really assess how anything will affect them – we can’t know absolutely what’s best for them. (And, from Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene perspective, who cares about anyone else? As long as we survive, that’s all that matters.) The future is even more indefinite: who knows whether or not I or any one else will be here tomorrow?

Now, most of the time, we generally presume our own existence will continue, at least for a duration of 70 or so years. And, if we have children, we assume their existence will be of similar length, and our grandchildren, and so on. And, honestly, we are not completely myopic, because we do care when it comes down to it about our children and grandchildren. But after grandchildren, or in some cases, great grandchildren, it gets a little more indefinite. This is where the discount rate and future discounting comes in. According to neoclassical environmental economics, the present value of anything – be it dollars, a factory, a forest, or the well-being of our great grandchildren – is less than it’s future value. How much less is summed up by the discount rate. The higher the discount rate, the greater we discount the future, and the less the present value.

For instance, you can think about inflation as taking into account the discount rate of future dollars; so, a dollar in ten years buys you less than a dollar would today. Thus, a rational person offered $100 dollars today or a $100 guaranteed in two years should always take the $100 today. One hundred dollars today could be invested, and at an interest rate of five percent per year, would be worth $105 dollars next year, and worth $110.25 the year after that. Compare this to the alternative of receiving $100 dollars guaranteed in two years, and you can see why people prefer the present over the future. The discount rate, in the above example, is equal to 5% per year. Alternatively, one can compute the present value of $100 received in two years and compare this to $100 received today. One hundred dollars received in two years discounted at a rate of 5% is worth only $90.70*, which once again illustrates why one would rather have the $100 now than in the future.

The number that we give the discount rate (between 0 and 1) determines to what degree we discount the future. A higher discount rate means that we value the future less. A discount rate of 1 means that individuals are perfectly myopic, and the future is entirely discounted and doesn’t matter at all; thus, things in the future are worth next to nothing in present-value terms. A discount rate of 0 means that the future is worth exactly the same as today is, or future value of something equals the present value.

The neoclassical environmental economic application of discount rates and future discounting is to problems of environmental degradation. According to discount rate theories, humans are currently using nonrenewable natural resources at an unsustainable rate because we discount the future highly, and therefore, see little value in preserving resources for future generations to use. We mine ore and minerals, degrade arable lands, and pollute the air and water largely because the discount rates we currently perceive are high. If we were to assign lower discount rates, we would find that the present value of resources used in the future would be higher, and thus worth preserving.

What on earth has this to do with nuclear power and the aforementioned book excerpt? Recall that in the passage, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires any long-term nuclear waste storage facility to be guaranteed safe, secure, and “accountable” for one million years. One million years. By saying this, they are saying that they value the safety of generations of humans living one millions of years from now to such a high degree (meaning, they assign a sufficiently low discount rate) that they believe it is worth a huge present effort to secure and guarantee such a waste storage facility that long.

One more fact: “The estimated cost to the United States of dealing with waste from decades of nuclear activities in ways that ensure the public would receive no more than a very low does for the next ten thousand years will probably total, in ballpark terms, in excess of $350 billion” (Cravens, 2007, p 268; italics mine). Three hundred and fifty billion dollars just to guarantee safety for the next ten thousand years. I don’t think I can even fathom the possible cost to guarantee a long-term nuclear waste repository for one million years.

Stop and digest those last few paragraphs for a moment: We do not value the future enough (the discount rate perceived is high) to preserve natural resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, even clean air and water, but we value generations a million of years in the future so highly (assign an exceedingly low discount rate) that we justify spending an exorbitant, nigh, unconscionable amount of money researching and developing a long-term nuclear storage site that will still be secure and impenetrable one million years from now.

I am not making any position statements about nuclear power here. I’ll save that for another post. I am merely making the point that there seems to be a discord here in the way we value the future. Our collective fear of nuclear power and radiation and its possible effects blinds us, precluding rational benefit-cost analysis. We demand our government make huge expenditures to secure a long-term nuclear repository, yet we do not demand that they make similar investments in strategies to prevent or at least curb climate change and its innumerable looming negative consequences. We damn nuclear power and proclaim the unacceptably (but largely unsubstantiated) high risks associated with nuclear reactor meltdown, terrorists obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material, and cancers due to radiation exposure, yet we barely bat an eye at the (empirically observable) smog generated from fossil-fuel dependent cars, or the smoke, carbon dioxide, and toxins belched from coal-fired power plants.

Human beings are largely myopic, yes. But we are also largely rational. We have been taught to properly weigh the pros and cons in rational decision-making, and choose the alternative where the pros outweigh the cons. However, sometimes in our policies, we can become blinded by our fears and special interests. With respect to the degradation of the environment, this is not only irrational, but also dangerous. With each passing year, we ignore the impending environmental crises, making token actions and statements, but never really facing up to the ecological limits of our planet. It is time to start looking at the costs and benefits again – this time, with the limits in mind -, reassess our priorities and our policies, and reexamine our discount rates. Only once we recognize the need to place greater value on the future – our own future – will we be able to craft policies for a sustainable world.

*For those of you interested in the math, the present value (PV) of anything is equal to the future value at time t (FVt) divided by the sum of the interest rate (r) plus one to the t power, where t is the number of years in the future:

PV = FVt/[(1+r)^t]

Conversely, the future value at time t of anything is equal to the present value times the sum of one plus the interest rate to the t power:

FVt = PV*[(1+r)^t]

For those of you exceedingly intrigued by the discount rate concept, the present value of an infinite future stream of benefits (PVi) is equal to the present value divided by the discount rate:

PVi = PV/r

For more information, the following is an excellent discussion on the concept of discounting:

Harris, J. M. 2006. Resource Allocation over Time. In Environmental and Natural Resource Economics: A Contemporary Approach, 2nd ed. (pp.90-105). Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company.

The Evolution of a Sustainable Mindset

Trips to Northern Wisconsin to fish and swim at my grandparents cottage, digging in the garden in my grandpa’s backyard, family vacations to the wilderness of the American West, nature walks around the neighborhood picking up rocks and sticks, living in a house full of books on science and nature. These are the experiences that shaped my interest in the natural world around me. The more I learned of the natural world through experience, the more I wanted to read about it through books. I’ve always been someone who has loved ideas and books. Growing up, nearly every open wall of my house was filled with bookshelves and books. Year after year, they piled up on coffee tables and countertops. I picked up a new book nearly every afternoon when I came home from school. They were full of new ideas, possibilities, and knowledge. Throughout the course of my high school and college education, as my interest in science solidified, I began to read books on the well-being of the environment and the people who live in it. The evolution of my desire to have a career in sustainability can be traced through several key books I have encountered throughout high school and college.

When I was a junior in high school, I was assigned a final project in American History to examine American environmental history over the ages. As part of this project, my mom gave me the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. I was enamored with the way these masters of sustainable design described processes of industrial production where every waste was a resource, and all facets of society incorporated concern for the environment, the economy and society. This “cradle to cradle” production (as opposed to the current “cradle to grave” methodology where materials go from extraction to consumption to waste) and “triple bottom line” of consideration are key elements of a sustainable society, whose definition I also came across as part of this project. The Brundtland Report (also titled “Our Common Future”), born of the 1987 United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED), defines sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the future without compromising the ability of future generations to meet those needs.” This vision fit directly with the principles outlined in McDonough and Braungart’s book. More importantly, it made sense to me on a personal level. Such a vision aligned with the teachings of my parents, who, while ordering paper and cleaning products from Seventh Generation, told me about the importance of preserving the Earth’s resources for use seven generations from now.

In my freshman year of college, I took a course on International Relations and wrote a term paper making the case for collaborative environmental sustainability in a globalizing world. In addition to reviewing the Brundtland Report and Cradle to Cradle for this project, I also discovered the principles presented in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, the Easter Island story, Lester Brown’s Eco-Economy, Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth, Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, and a number of other books on environmental economics, sustainable development, and the future of the social and natural world. The research for this term paper supported my conclusion that sustainability is not just necessary for continued human society but also possible.

This past spring, I picked up a book in my family’s living room entitled The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. Louv’s research on the importance of “nature play” – time spent in the outdoors – both for robust and healthy mental development in children and for maintaining mental health in adults further solidified what my own experiences in nature as a child had taught me. Playing outside, exploring and discovering the intricacies of nature taught me about how things worked, and developed in me a keen interest in science and biology. Reading Louv’s empirical approach confirmed for me the necessity of preserving natural spaces within easy reach of every person, especially in cities, in order to maintain a healthy society.

At the end of this summer, I heard about community study circles that were starting in the Fox Cities to investigate sustainable development right here in my own community. Using the book The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices, by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti as a guide, these study circles brainstormed possibilities for implementing the Natural Step principles in our community. This book, which discussed the principles and methods for creating sustainable communities, was instrumental in confirming my desire to work at the level of municipal governments, businesses or institutions to implement real change in policies and practices, and to plan to meet a vision of a sustainable world. My experience in this study circle has brought perspective to the academic knowledge of sustainable development I gained from the previously mentioned books and research projects. Through discussion with citizens of the Fox Cities area about the possibilities for a sustainable community, I have become excited about the opportunities for creating sustainable policies and practices in our communities.

My environmental education, through both books and academic research, has taught me that the challenge of creating a sustainable future is not solely about developing practices that prevent the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources; it is also about commitment to more equitable distribution and use of the world’s resources. Developed nations, and those in the upper segments of all societies, currently consume far more than their fair share of natural resources, while contributing to a polluted environment that disproportionately diminishes the quality of life of those in poverty. Sustainable development – whether in a rural village in the developing world or an urban center in America – can help increase the health and well-being of all members of society.

My personal and academic reading continues, and with every new book or article, I become aware of some new aspect, method, or principle of sustainability. I look forward to continued deeper research into these methods, as I develop my own experience and credentials for future use in working with communities, businesses or organizations toward creating sustainable practices and contributing to a healthier earth.

(This essay was originally written for graduate program applications.)