Sustainability is based on a simple and long-recognized factual premise: Everything that humans require for their survival and well-being depends, directly or indirectly, on the natural environment (Marsh 1864). The environment provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It defines in fundamental ways the communities in which we live and is the source for renewable and nonrenewable resources on which civilization depends. Our health and well-being, our economy, and our security all require a high quality environment.
When we act on that understanding, we tend to prosper; when we do not, we suffer. For example, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s occurred because wheat farmers were encouraged by the federal government to plow up sod across large areas of the high plains in Texas and Oklahoma at a time when precipitation was more plentiful. When customarily dry conditions recurred, huge dust storms swept across the unprotected landscape, making farming impractical and life much more difficult and hazardous due to dust pneumonia. Soil conservation practices, including crop rotation and fallowing land, were introduced on a large-scale basis afterward, and the Dust Bowl has not recurred (Egan 2006). Nonetheless, aquifer depletion, climate change, and unsustainable farming practices all render the Great Plains increasingly vulnerable to severe drought (Adler 2010).
This chapter provides a brief history of the concept of sustainable development or sustainability. Although the Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was not specifically tasked to provide an historical overview, this history is useful in providing context for the rest of the report. Conceptually, sustainable development emerged as a result of significant concerns about the unintended social, environmental, and economic consequences of rapid population growth, economic growth, and consumption of
natural resources. This history has three overlapping story lines, as more fully explained below. The first occurred in the United States as a conservation movement, which developed from the recognition that our taming of the wilderness was destroying much of what we valued as part of the U.S. culture—a recognition that led to conservation laws which began to emerge in the late nineteenth century. The second was based on the realization that some of the chemical and physical agents increasingly released into the environment because of industrial development were harmful to people and the environment—a realization that led to such events as the original Earth Day and the formation of EPA in 1970 and the ensuing media and pollutant-based environmental laws.
The third story line is based upon the perception that population growth and consumption are challenging the ability of Earth’s ecosystems to provide for future generations and that the response to this challenge requires more than “place-based” (see Appendix C) conservation or the control of environmental pollutants. The institutionalization of this began with a series of international conferences and agreements that were—to a very large degree—based on and inspired by actions that were already under way in the United States. Although formal international endorsement of sustainable development occurred at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED or Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, many of its underlying concepts and principles had long been recognized in U.S. law and policy. Since the Earth Summit, the most successful U.S. efforts have been in response to stakeholder or constituent demand. However, in contrast to the United States, the third story line also contains the explicit and strategic use of the concept of sustainable development in other developed countries.
The conservation and preservation movements in the United States—and the laws that were enacted in response to these—represented an effort to reconcile economic development with the protection of the environment by ensuring the availability of natural resources for the benefit of both present and future generations (Van Hise 1927, Fox 1981). It was also a response to the destruction of native virgin forests by logging and conversion to agriculture, as well as to the extinction of species such as the passenger pigeon and the near extinction of the American bison (more popularly known as the buffalo). As the movement evolved over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its objectives included protection of forests, water, soils, public lands, and wildlife (Beatty 1952, Hays 1959, Reiger 1975, Norse 2005). Early fish biologists and ecologists also played an important role in advancing the concepts and methods related to sustainable fish consumption and harvesting and sustainable ecosystems. There was also an understanding among American’s leading conservationists that human well-being relied on all natural resources. Gifford Pinchot, the first chief
of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote that “our unexampled wealth and well-being are directly due to the superb natural resources of our country” (Pinchot 1910). Pinchot later added that the first purpose of conservation policy is “wisely to use, protect, preserve, and renew the natural resources of the earth” (Pinchot 1947). Conservation was successful due to the vision of leading conservationists such as Pinchot and John Muir; however, the movement also required political leadership to gain traction. In the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt, the “conservation president,” signed legislation establishing five national parks, and created or expanded many national forests, wildlife preserves, and other conservation areas (Brinkley 2009). “The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life,” Roosevelt told Congress. “We must maintain for our civilization the adequate material basis without which that civilization can not exist. We must show foresight, we must look ahead” (Roosevelt 1907). Other conservation laws and programs require or encourage greater efficiency in the use of natural resources, and still others impose limits on harvesting natural resources so that those resources will be able to regenerate or reproduce for use in the future (Hays 1959; Leopold 1986).
The environmental movement in the United States, which is broad in scope, responded to growing industrialization, population, and pollution, as well as to resource exploitation (Lazarus 2004). It was motivated by a public desire for higher quality of life and well-being, improved human health, and long-term protection of ecosystems (Hays 1987). A major issue is adverse effects of pollutants, pesticides, and chemicals on humans and the environment. For example, at least 20 people died and thousands were sickened in 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania, during an episode of industrial air pollution. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which described the potential impact of pesticides on birds and animals and suggested that humans were also being harmed (Carson 1962). Public perception of dirty air and rivers that were no longer suitable for swimming or fishing, and a landscape littered with industrial waste were driving forces in the development of media-specific laws and in the formation of EPA. There was also concern that the federal government was often supporting environmentally damaging economic development in the form of federal dams, highway projects, stream-channelization and flood-control projects, and other activities that had unintended adverse environmental effects (Andrews 2006).
The first major federal environmental law is the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). In declaring a national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” (42 U.S.C. § 4331(a)), Congress provided a statutory foundation
for sustainability within the EPA. By its very nature, NEPA emphasizes the importance of sustainability. This provision is particularly true because Congress then stated that “the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government” is to, among other things, “fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations” (42 U.S.C. § 4331(b)(1)). NEPA then states that this and other similar responsibilities are in addition to existing grants of agency authority: “The policies and goals set forth in this Act are supplementary to those set forth in existing authorizations of Federal agencies” (42 U.S.C. § 4335; ELI 1995).
Beyond its declaration of policy, NEPA requires that federal agencies prepare an environmental impact statement before taking a major action “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” (42 U.S.C. § 4332 (c)). The statement is to include both a description of the environmental effects of the proposed action as well as alternatives to that action. In this way, NEPA requires federal agencies take into account environmental considerations into their decision-making processes (42 U.S.C. § 4332 (c)).1
Through the 1950s and 1960s, Congress passed legislation concerning air quality, water quality, and other environmental problems. Beginning in 1970, however, it overhauled these prior laws to impose limits and permitting requirements to protect air quality (Clean Air Amendments of 1970) and water quality (Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972 [PL 92-500]), to protect drinking water (Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974), and to prevent and control adverse effects from the improper disposal of solid and hazardous waste (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act [RCRA] of 1976). These statutes used a “cooperative federalism” approach in which the federal government sets standards and states are given substantial financial support to enforce and implement these requirements.
In 1980, in response to risks presented by sites where hazardous substances had been improperly disposed, Congress adopted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which established Superfund. This act imposes liability on certain parties for conditions on these sites and establishes a process for their remediation. Additionally, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which was first passed in 1947, now mandates that EPA “regulate the use and sale of pesticides to protect human health and preserve the environment” (EPA 2010).
In the late 1960s, at the beginning of the modern environmental era, federal responsibility for environmental protection was divided among many federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior (water quality), the U.S.
1 Both Congress and the courts have decided that the environmental impact statement requirements of NEPA are generally inapplicable to EPA decisions, in no small part because the statutes EPA administers contain information gathering and analytical requirements that are considered the “functional equivalent” of an environmental impact statement (Rodgers 1994, 1999, § 9.5(D)(2)). That exemption does not appear to apply to other provisions of NEPA, however.
Department of Agriculture (pesticides), and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (air quality). An advisory council identified the government organization at that time as an impediment to effectively addressing “the environmental crisis, noting that “many agency missions … are designed primarily along media lines…. Yet the sources of air, water, and land pollution are interrelated and often interchangeable.” The advisory council added that “some pollutants—chemicals, radiation, pesticides—appear in all media. Successful interdiction now requires the coordinated efforts of a variety of separate agencies and departments. The result is a blurring of focus, and a certain Federally-sponsored irrationality” (PACEO 1970).
In response to the advisory council, President Richard Nixon in 1970 created the EPA by a reorganization plan that transferred to the new agency a variety of environmental functions from four federal agencies (Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970, codified at 5A U.S.C.). The agency’s overall mission, then and now, is to protect human health and the environment.
EPA is the primary federal agency responsible for administering most of the major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, RCRA, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and CERCLA. However, EPA is not the only agency with environmental responsibilities. The U.S. Department of the Interior, for example, is the federal agency with primary responsibility for administering the Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977). The U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have significant responsibilities for federal energy efficiency, operation, and cleanup at DOE sites nationwide and for meeting conservation requirements, which affect the environment in a variety of ways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Program administers, in coordination with the EPA, the issuance of permits under section 404 of the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Act amendments, which controls development in wetlands across the nation.
Although sustainable development was formally endorsed at an international conference in 1992, it was supported by the United States and is based to a significant degree on U.S. law and experience. Since that time, the United States has approached sustainable development in a manner that is somewhat different from other countries, particularly developed countries, as discussed below.
Sustainable Development at the International Level
At the end of World War II, the United States led an effort to create a system of international agreements and institutions based on two pillars—economic development as well as social development or human rights—that are predicated
on a foundation of peace and security. These key elements formed the basis of the concept of development as it was formally understood by the international community (Dernbach 1998; Schlesinger 2003; Borgwardt 2005). The ultimate aims of development are human well-being, quality of life, freedom, and opportunity (WCED 1987; Sen 1999; Sarkar 2009; De Feyter 2001).
Development has worked well in many ways. Living standards have increased around the world, the global economy has grown, and people are living longer (UNDP 1999). Development has also caused growing problems of resource exploitation and pollution around the world. These concerns led to the creation of the Environment Committee in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (OECD 2001), which held its inaugural meeting under an American chairperson in November 1970. In 1972, in Stockholm, the United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment agreed to establish the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) (UNEP 2011a). This conference did not, however, provide a framework for reconciling development with environmental protection.
In the 1970s and 1980s, however, it became increasingly clear that the interrelated issues of widespread poverty and growing environmental degradation around the world were not being effectively addressed and that the development model needed to be modified.
In 1980, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published its World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development (IUCN 1980). The strategy represented the “integration of conservation and development” in the form of “sustainable development.” It defined conservation as the “management of human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations.” The IUCN acknowledged the difficulty of merging the two concepts: “Conservation and development have so seldom been combined that they often appear—and are sometimes represented as being—incompatible.” It nonetheless concluded that “integration of conservation and development” is needed to “ensure that modifications to the planet do indeed secure the survival and well-being of all people.”
The World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland Commission, after its chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland), adopted this approach in its seminal 1987 report, Our Common Future (WCED 1987). The commission was created by a UN General Assembly Resolution in 1983 to “propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development to the year 2000 and beyond” (UNGA 1983). The report, which described “a threatened future,” provided the iconic definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Commission also called upon the UN General Assembly to transform its report into a global action plan for sustainable development.
The nations of the world did precisely that at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, or “Earth Summit,” in Rio de Janeiro (scheduled to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the Stockholm Conference). These nations, including the United States, endorsed a global sustainable development action plan, known as Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992a), and a set of 27 principles for sustainable-development, called the Rio Declaration (UNCED 1992b). Together, these agreements modify the definition of development by adding a third pillar—environmental protection and restoration—to the economic and social pillars of development, and is also known as the “Triple Bottom Line” approach in the corporate sector. Sustainable development has the same ultimate aims as development—human well-being, quality of life, freedom, and opportunity. It also requires a foundation of peace and security (UNCED 1992a,b; Dernbach 1998; UN 2002).
The principles of the Rio Declaration are generally recognized as foundational to global sustainability. Many of the principles are similar to those contained in U.S. conservation and environmental law. They include the following:
- “Human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development” (Principle 1). This principle makes clear that human well-being and quality of life is the objective of sustainability. This declaration is similar to that contained in NEPA. Achieving sustainable development requires recognizing the need to balance the conservation of resources while protecting humans from the uncertainties of nature.
- “In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it” (Principle 4). This principle—integrated decision making—is the fundamental action principle of sustainability because it integrates the social, environmental, and economic decision making on issues, rather than considering the environmental issues separately (Dernbach 2003). This principle is reflected in different ways in each U.S. conservation and environmental law.
- Precautionary approach. “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (Principle 15). The U.S. Clean Air Act and other environmental laws enable the adoption of standards based on the possibility of harm rather than complete certainty (Ashford and Caldart 2008). (The relation between sustainability and precaution also has been considered by O’Riordan and Cameron 1994, as well as others.)
- Intergenerational equity. The Rio Declaration’s acknowledgement of the need “to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations” (Principle 3) is reflected expressly in NEPA and implicitly in nearly all U.S. laws related to the environment.
The sustainability literature has emphasized the need for social justice and equity, particularly in the global context. Dernbach (2002) notes the link between these concepts: “Poor people in developed and developing countries tend to be exposed to the worst environmental conditions … without efforts to reduce poverty and environmental degradation for the present generation, it will be difficult to ensure that future generations will have the same access to the same quality of environment or developmental conditions as the present generation.”
- Internalization of environmental costs (Principle 16). The “approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution” is reflected in varying degrees throughout U.S. environmental law. (At the international level, the “polluter pays principle” had earlier been adopted by the OECD Council on May 26,1972 as part of the OECD Guiding Principles Concerning the International Economic Aspects of Environmental Policies).
- Public participation in decision making (Principle 10).
- “Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.” The Rio Declaration also supports public access to information as well as justice. U.S. environmental law is based on a variety of opportunities for public participation (ELI 1991).
The commitments to sustainable development made at UNCED have been essentially reaffirmed, with differing levels of emphasis, in a variety of meetings and conferences since 1992. Box 2-1 identifies some of the key meetings. Sustainable-development concepts have also been incorporated into a variety of international treaties, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, both of which were opened
Several commitments and conferences related to sustainable development are of note:
- Agenda 21, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UNCED 1992a,b)
- Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 (UN 1997)
- Millennium Declaration (UN 2000)
- Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, World Summit on Sustainable Development (UN 2002)
- UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio de Janeiro, June 4-6, 2012 (UNCSD 2011)
for signature at the Earth Summit. As the twentieth anniversary of the Earth Summit approaches, sustainable development has become a key part of the generally recognized international framework for maintaining and improving the human condition (UNGA 2010). Moreover, apart from international conferences and declarations, a great many sustainability activities are occurring throughout the world, and particularly by nongovernmental organizations and the private sector who often refer to sustainability as the “triple bottom line” (Hawken 2007, WBCSD 2011).
The long-term importance of this framework is underscored by a 1999 NRC report, Our Common Journey, which said that it could take at least two generations (until 2050) to achieve a transition to sustainability (NRC 1999). The recommended primary goals of this transition “should be to meet the needs of a much larger but stabilizing human population, to sustain the life support systems of the planet, and to substantially reduce hunger and poverty” (p.4).
The framework also requires new forms of knowledge. Sustainability science has arisen as an emerging field that is problem-driven and interdisciplinary and sets a goal of “creating and applying knowledge in support of decision making for sustainable development” (Clark and Dickson 2003, Clark 2007). By drawing on multiple disciplines, such as law, engineering, and social and natural sciences, sustainability science is “defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it uses” (Clark 2007). Fiksel et al. (2009) noted that “EPA must continue to use science to fulfill its mandate” to protect human health and the environment and also to “use sustainability science to move beyond the current regulatory framework and to develop a more integrated systems-based approach to address challenges of this new century.”
Sustainable Development Outside the United States
Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration were not simply agreements about sustainability ideas; they were also agreements to achieve sustainability. Certain subsequent actions and experiences of countries and regions outside the United States, particularly those of the European Union (EU), are thus worth noting briefly. Even a brief review suggests that many countries, including developed countries, tend to address sustainable development as a policy objective or framework. As of 2009, 106 UN member countries were implementing national sustainable-development strategies (UNESA 2011). The EU’s sustainable-development strategy is particularly relevant to the United States. The EU’s sustainable-development strategy was first adopted in 2001 and then renewed in 2006 (CEU 2006a,b). Its basic aims are to exploit “the mutually reinforcing elements of economic, social and environment policy” and to avoid or minimize trade-offs among goals (CEC 2005, p.4). “Sustainable development offers the [EU] a positive long-term vision of a society that is more prosperous and more just, and which promises a cleaner, safer, healthier environment—a society which delivers a better quality of life for us, for
our children, and for our grandchildren” (CEC 2001, p.2). The strategy identifies the following areas as priorities and contains specific measures to address them: climate change and clean energy; sustainable transport; sustainable consumption and production; conservation and management of natural resources; public health; social inclusion, demography, and migration; and global poverty and sustainable development challenges (CEU 2006b). In a 2009 review of progress in implementing its sustainable-development strategy, the European Commission said that “the EU has demonstrated its clear commitment to sustainable development and has successfully mainstreamed this sustainability dimension into many policy fields” (CEC 2009, p.3). The review added that integration of policy objectives is “improving the cost-efficiency of policy decisions” (p.3), and noted progress in developing “a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy” (p.3), which it said would be a key to economic recovery. Still, “unsustainable trends persist and the EU still needs to intensify its efforts” (p.15). The European Commission issues a biennial report that monitors the EU’s progress in implementing its sustainable-development strategy; the most recent report was issued in 2009 (Box 2-2) (CEC 2009).
The OECD, which is composed of 34 of the world’s most highly developed countries, including the United States, creates and analyzes information and trends concerning the environment and sustainable development and provides opportunities for relevant government officials in OECD countries to meet and share information and ideas concerning good policy practice in the areas of environment and sustainable development and to adopt internationally binding agreements in some of them, notably, chemical safety and hazardous waste. For example, in 1989, in the context of freshwater use, the OECD developed the
The European Commission’s report uses more than 100 indicators but identifies 11 “headline indicators” to provide an “overall picture of whether the EU has achieved progress toward sustainable development in terms of the objectives and targets” identified in the strategy. Progress on two indicators—gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and resource productivity—was identified as clearly favorable, using the symbol of a shining sun. For other indicators, there was no or moderately favorable change, indicated by the symbol of a sun obscured by clouds. These indicators included energy consumption of transportation in relation to GDP growth, healthy life years, the employment rate of older workers, and the abundance of common birds. Unfavorable trends included greenhouse gas emissions (moderately unfavorable, symbolized by clouds) and conservation of fish stocks (clearly unfavorable, symbolized by clouds with lightning) (CEU 2009).
“user pays principle,” a concept of pricing natural-resource use to “at least cover the opportunity costs of these services: the capital, operation, maintenance, and environmental costs” (Ruffing 2010). According to the OECD, “these opportunity costs should reflect the long-run incremental costs to the community of satisfying marginal demand” (Ruffing 2010). Such a charging system is usually known “as long-run marginal social cost pricing” (Ruffing 2010).
Sustainable Development in the United States
Many of the key principles and concepts in sustainable development are rooted in, or similar to, concepts in U.S. conservation and environmental law. Generally, U.S. conservation and environmental law has advanced sustainability in some areas. Nonetheless, the United States has not used a national strategy or sustainability “indicators” (see Appendix C), and a great deal more needs to be done to achieve sustainability in the United States.
U.S. environmental and conservation laws are related to all three pillars of sustainability, not just the environmental pillar. The laws have at least nine purposes, including protection of human health, preservation for aesthetics or recreation, biocentrism, sustainability of the resource base, environmental justice, efficiency, pursuit of scientific knowledge and technology, intergenerational equity, and community stability (Campbell-Mohn 1993). The purposes of environmental and conservation laws are not limited to environmental protection; these laws also have social and economic development goals and effects. There is inherent difficulty in labeling any of these purposes as strictly social, environmental, or economic. Protection of human health, for instance, can be understood as environmental because it primarily concerns protection from pollutants, waste, and chemicals that are emitted or discharged into the environment. Yet human health protection can also be understood as social and economic because it involves humans rather than the environment and other species and often involves equity issues, such as the benefits accrual to parties different from those burdened with significant risk. On the other hand, biocentrism, which “seeks to preserve natural systems because they have inherent value beyond their usefulness to humans,” and which is only weakly reflected in U.S. environmental law (Campbell-Mohn 1993), along with ecological risk, fit primarily in the environmental pillar.
In addition, cost-effective programs have been established in the United States that resulted in lower pollutant emissions. For example, in 1990 Congress amended the Clean Air Act to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from large coal-fired power plants by 50 percent over 10 years (104 Stat. 2468, P.L. 101-549). The act used a cap-and-trade program to achieve that result. Under this program, plants with lower control costs that reduce their emissions beyond legal requirements are allowed to “trade” their excess reductions to plants with higher control costs, thus enabling a cost-effective way to achieve the emission limit. The program cost only 20 to 30 percent of projected expenditures (EDF 2011).
In addition, a 2003 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) study found that this program accounted for over $70 billion annually in quantified human health benefits—the largest of any major federal regulatory program implemented in the last 10 years (OMB 2003).
Finally, environmental and conservation laws have also had the effect of fostering sustainability in the United States. The air is cleaner and more healthful to breathe, our rivers and lakes are cleaner, and waste is much better managed, even as the economy has grown (EPA 2008). This development means that EPA has fostered sustainability to some degree through its implementation of these laws. In spite of the similarities between U.S. environmental law and sustainable development, there are some important differences. Most obviously, sustainable development is a normative conceptual framework that is broader than the sum of U.S. environmental and conservation laws. Sustainable development also raises questions that are not fully or directly addressed in U.S. law or policy, including how to define and control unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and how to encourage the development of sustainable communities, biodiversity protection, clean energy, environmentally sustainable economic development, and climate change controls. Each of these questions needs to be addressed across government agencies.
During President Clinton’s Administration, the United States took a step in the direction of a national effort on behalf of sustainability with the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD). Created by an executive order in 1993 and terminated by another executive order in 1999, the council issued a series of reports containing recommendations for sustainability. Its primary report was Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future (PCSD 1996). It stated, “A sustainable United States will have a growing economy that provides equitable opportunities for satisfying livelihoods and a safe, healthy, high quality of life for current and future generations” (p.iv). None of the PCSD’s reports, however, constituted a national strategy or provided for any continuing effort on behalf of sustainability at the national level; nor did the federal government follow up on many of the report’s recommendations. Since the elimination of the PCSD, there has been no federal governmental body or organization tasked with determining or implementing a coordinated sustainable-development policy for the United States.
According to the most recent OECD review for the United States, the country was well above the OECD average for per capita water use and per capita carbon dioxide emissions. U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides were also well above the OECD average per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) (OECD 2005). The report also stated, “Decoupling of environmental pressure from economic growth has been achieved in some areas, but the United States still faces challenges with respect to high energy and water intensities, environmental health risks, marine habitat conservation and maintenance of biodiversity” (p.1).
In addition, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has published a series of reports since 1997 describing and assessing U.S. sustainability efforts, and making recommendations (Dernbach 1997, 2002, 2009). These reports indicate that U.S. progress is modest at best. The 2009 report nonetheless identified six areas where considerable progress is occurring. These areas are local governance, brownfield redevelopment, business and industry, colleges and universities, kindergarten through 12th grade education, and religious organizations. A common characteristic of these areas is that their efforts are driven by the threats of climate change (NRC 2010a, IPCC 2007), the global deterioration of ecosystems (MEA 2005), and the availability of more sustainable ways of approaching these and other issues (e.g., NRC 2010b; TEEB 2010). Another common characteristic of these six areas is that their efforts are driven by their members, customers, citizens, and stakeholders. For corporations, other sustainability drivers include cost savings, competitive advantage, economic opportunity, and consumer demand, not simply avoidance of government regulation (Feldman 2009; Porter and Kramer 2011). For communities, other sustainability drivers are cost savings, reducing demand on utilities and infrastructure, and a desire to have more attractive places to live and work (Mazmanian and Kraft 2009, Weiss 2009). In all six of the areas, sustainability practitioners are learning what works and what does not work from their peers, are using new communication technologies to share information more rapidly, and are engaging in steadily more ambitious and effective efforts to maximize environmental, economic, and social value.
Sustainability efforts in the United States are also increasingly affected by three facts. First, the sustainability literature has made it clear that environmental law and regulation provide only a set of legal approaches for sustainability and that other approaches and incentives (e.g., subsidies, tax law, economic development law, and private certification) also have an important role to play (UNCED 1992a, Richardson and Wood 2006). The other tools have come into greater focus as ways, for example, to foster more sustainable communities (Fitzgerald 2010). Somewhat similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Better Buildings Initiative is using grants to state and local governments to help develop an economic infrastructure that will make it easier for homeowners and business owners to do cost-effective energy efficiency upgrades and retrofits of existing buildings (DOE 2011).
Second, the economic recession that began in 2008 has helped reframe the sustainability dialogue to some degree in terms of “green jobs” and “green business.” In June 2009, the OECD governments, including the United States, adopted a “Declaration on Green Growth,” recognizing that “a number of well-targeted policy instruments” (p.2) encouraging green investment could help enable a short-term economic recovery and create a more sustainable infrastructure for the long term. The OECD also called for the development of “a Green Growth Strategy in order to achieve economic recovery and environmentally and socially sustainable economic growth” (OECD 2009, p.3). The Green Growth Strategy
was subsequently submitted to the Meeting of the OECD Council at Ministerial Level, 25-26 May 2011 for endorsement (OECD 2011). In its 2011 report, Towards a Green Economy, the UN Environment Program advocates a shift in investment in key sectors (e.g., agriculture and energy) and suggests policies such as “reduction or elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies” (p.9) to achieve this shift (UNEP 2011b). The clean-energy sector in particular is seen by many, particularly at the state and local level, as a source of economic and job creation opportunity for the United States (Byrne et al. 2007). One of the two themes for the conference to be held on the twentieth anniversary of the Earth Summit, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, is “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” (The other theme is the institutional framework for sustainable development [UNCSD 2011]).
The third factor affecting U.S. sustainability decisions is global competitiveness. The globalization of economic activity and the accompanying result of emergent global scale problems (e.g., biodiversity, climate change, risk of pandemics), limitations of current institutional approaches at the global, national, regional and local levels, and the evolution of global, middle-class consumer values in major emerging markets help explain why sustainability has emerged as such a powerful challenge and opportunity for EPA and other institutions in the United States. China is increasingly seen as a major, even dominating, economic competitor in renewable energy and certain other forms of clean energy. The reasons for China’s competitiveness include the government’s support for such energy businesses, the inexpensive labor costs, and the large size of the Chinese market. China provides an additional reason for the United States to more aggressively pursue development of clean-energy technologies and sustainability. The EU also emphasizes the value of sustainability to its economic competitiveness. In its 2006 Annex to the “Renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy,” the economy is listed first. (Sustainability “promotes dynamic economy with full employment, and a high level of education, health protection, social and territorial cohesion and environmental protection” [CEU 2006b, p.2]).
Sustainability in This Report
The 2009 Executive Order [EO 13514] applies a definition of sustainability that is drawn from NEPA: “to create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.” This report also uses that definition.
The phrase, “create and maintain,” captures the two senses in which the term sustainability is used by the committee in this report—as a process and as a goal. Sustainability is a process because the United States and other countries are a long way from being sustainable, and it is thus necessary to create the conditions
for sustainability (NRC 1999). Sustainability is also a goal. As sustainability is achieved in particular places and contexts, it is necessary to maintain the conditions supporting it in the face of social, technological, environmental, and other changes. Although the exact nature of a sustainable society is difficult to know in advance, the basic conditions for that society (e.g., absence of large scale poverty and environmental degradation and intergenerational responsibility) can be stated (WCED 1987).
Thus, sustainability is gaining increasing recognition as a useful framework for addressing otherwise intractable problems. The framework can be applied at any scale of governance, in nearly any situation, and anywhere in the world. Although it was created to address serious problems—growing global environmental degradation and poverty—sustainability provides a way to address these problems in a way that can also create even greater opportunity.
2.1 Finding: EPA’s historical mission is to protect human health and the environment (p.19).
2.1 Recommendation: EPA should carry out its historical mission to protect human health and the environment in a manner that optimizes the social, environmental, and economic benefits of its decisions.
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