What does sustainability really mean? On Earth Day, Kent Portney explains why it is up to humans to face up to the role that their behaviors—as consumers, citizens, and political actors—play in creating and solving the planet's environmental challenges. He is the author of Sustainability and Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously: Economic Development, the Environment, and Quality of Life in American Cities.
Earth Day provides an opportune time to reflect on the state of the planet, the quality of the biophysical environment, and the directions in which these conditions are moving. Perhaps equally important, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the actions that humans have taken—personal and collective actions—that affect these conditions. As I see it, this is the heart and soul of what sustainability is all about. Despite the politicization of the concept of sustainability, the fact is that concern for how to provide food, water, energy, and the general ability to improve human well-being will be the overriding concern for the rest of this century.
In the face of widespread denial of the challenges that lie ahead, I see many glimmers of hope. Whether the specific issue is climate change and carbon emissions, or disposal of solid and hazardous wastes, or water scarcity and pollution, or a long list of others, the time is rapidly approaching when it will be very difficult to simply expect that technology will save us. In some cases, technology helps us delay facing up to the fundamental challenges, providing mechanisms for kicking the can down the road a bit. When I hear discussions about how desalination technology, for example, will solve our need for clean water, I cannot help but think how short-sighted this is. Desalination wouldn’t have helped the people of Flint, Michigan, very much. When I hear people advocate for increasing reliance on nuclear energy, I cannot help but wonder how such advocates propose dealing with high-level nuclear wastes even if other basic safety issues can be adequately addressed. When I see the tangible evidence of air pollution in Beijing, I harken back to the days when Pittsburgh and Chattanooga faced a similar situation. In the US, we may feel smug about having solved the problem, but at some point we have to come to grips with the idea that the air pollution in Beijing and other developing nations is at least partly a product of how these problems have been addressed in the US. When I see that so many of our state legislatures in the US, such as those in Alabama, Oklahoma, Kansas, and others, have passed or attempted to pass legal restrictions on their respective cities’ efforts to move toward sustainability, climate protection, and resiliency, I wonder whether our political systems are capable of coming to grips with what will inevitably be the most salient issues of the future. Maybe technology will eventually solve these problems. It certainly has a role to play. But it’s up to people to face up to the role that their behaviors—as consumers, as citizens, and yes, as political actors—play in creating and solving these problems.
Back to the glimmers of hope. On the margins, behaviors are changing. Almost every day, I read about advances in technology that promise to contribute to sustainability. Improved battery technology and what it promises for advancing electric vehicles, substitutes for fossil fuels, new understandings of agricultural practices in crop and soil sciences, and many others form the basis of this hope. But the most hopeful signs are rooted in peoples’ willingness to advocate for, use and, yes, pay for these technologies is what matters. When I read reports that well over 300,000 people have placed orders for the next Tesla model, or when I hear that the CEOs of ten large food companies testified before Congress of the need for national action on climate change and its impacts on water, I see some of the behavioral changes that I know will be needed in order to come to grips with the sustainability challenges of the future. When the city of Santa Monica purchases electric vehicles for its city fleet, and when the city of Phoenix purchases CNG-fueled buses to replace older more polluting vehicles, and when Bloomberg reports that growth in private investment in renewable energy has surpassed that of fossil fuels, it is clear that things are starting to change. Therein lies the glimmers of hope.