Set Environmental Goals Via Rates and Directions of Change
When speaking about environmental goals, people often focus on achieving a specific level of environmental quality by a specific time. How ever, such formulations might not be the best way to evaluate our rate of progress. Measuring progress requires a metric and a path to determine the direction in which progress is going.1 Earlier chapters have discussed the importance of monitoring—especially in relation to ecological systems.
Sustainability is an evolutionary concept, and there are inherent limitations in the rate of adaptation of human systems to technological and social change and in the speed of cumulative social learning. Population, resource use, and gross domestic product might be much more important in limiting development than is the carrying capacity of the biosphere. That is because carrying capacity is not an absolute, but a value that changes as technology evolves.
Populations and settlement patterns change much more quickly than they used to. Science and technology are major factors in environmental change and major instruments of human adaptation to it. It is important to ask what fraction of the agenda of science should be governed by "needs" formulated in societal terms and what fractions should be driven more by scientific opportunity, that is, the opportunity to build and generalize the conceptual structure of knowledge itself. It is not, of course, an either-or choice. The optimal system blends societal
To believe that environmental goals are achieved, there would need to be indicators of progress, milestones would have to be established (which might more nearly be political than scientific), and an agreed on means of measuring progress would have to be put in place. In many cases—as with the questions of sustainable rates of consumption—the absolute end point of success might never be achieved in fact, in which case measurable progress toward that end point becomes important.
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problems in search of scientific solutions with scientific solutions in search of societal problems in a highly complex mutually reinforcing system.
The advance of conceptual, curiosity-driven research is likely to turn up new options for solving problems in the future that we cannot even imagine in the light of today's knowledge. The annual and cumulative costs of future options are sensitive to the time scale on which the options are implemented. The cost-timing problem is complicated by the existence of benefits of learning by doing: slow implementation provides more opportunity for learning from experience and so for lowering costs over time, and it provides time for R&D, which can reveal more efficient and less-expensive, technological and management-response options.
One needs to adopt the same approach to environmental improvement that has now been widely adopted in total quality management (TQM) and product and process improvement in general. One needs a dynamic system of continuous evolutionary improvement, not simply fixed end points. There is now considerable experience to demonstrate synergy between environmental improvement and product and process improvements that generate continuous gains in product value and continuous improvement in both labor and capital productivity in manufacturing or operations (in the case of services). The growing opportunities for exploitation of information technology made possible by its constantly declining cost and increasing capability present a theoretical opportunity for a much more dynamic and evolutionary approach to both product and process innovation. The potential for this idea has recently been put forward in considerable detail by Richard Florida, of Carnegie Mellon University, in a paper entitled The Environment
A systems approach would establish definable, measurable, results-oriented indicators of progress toward goals. With such a system, attempted solutions would be evaluated against these indicators and rejected unless measurable progress were demonstrated. It is unlikely that any goals would be "achieved." However, a standard of continual improvement could be workable.
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and the New Industrial Revolution: Toward a New Production Paradigm of Zero Defects, Zero Inventory, and Zero Emissions (Florida 1995).
FINDINGS CONCLUSION, AND RECOMMENDATION
Therefore, in setting environmental goals, rates and directions of change might be more important than endpoints, but it is endpoints that seem to be at the center of the public discussion of environmental policy.
Rates and directions of change should become the focused goals for current actions with end points as the tools for motivation (not just one-time goals). Both a desired endpoint and a rate-of-change are needed in order for society to be successful in achieving its goals. Without an endpoint, it can be difficult to mobilize the political will to take action; without a predetermined rate-of-change, it can be difficult to establish the specific actions needed to achieve the desired endpoint.
For example, at the Department of Energy's Hanford site, the environmental cleanup has as its societal goal returning most of the site to unrestricted use within 75 years. Without intermediate milestones, the rate of progress can be difficult to judge, and tens of billions of dollars can be spent over several decades without knowing the extent to which any substantial result has been achieved.
Rather than stopping at the selected specific end points being discussed in the federal government and elsewhere, environmental goals should be formulated in terms of an adjustable strategy for continuous evolutionary improvement in environmental performance that includes intermediate milestones.