The World We Will Live In – Stories of the Past and the Future

With this post, this blog begins an exploration of the world that, thanks to global warming, we are going to live in. It wants to make a simple point: That the central 21st Century choice will be either to accept the world that global warming will create, with all of the unwelcome transformation it will bring, or to decide to change our fossil fuel centric economy, with all the knotty transformations that that will require.

When global warming is discussed, we hear this bad thing will happen by 2050; this bad thing by 2075 and serious terrors by 2100. All of this seems safely beyond our time horizons, so it need not register emotionally. This is a mistake. For anyone living today under the age of 50, what global warming is going to do to the planet by 2050 will be part of the reality of the rest of your life for you can reasonably expect to live to above 80, which means you will live through the changes predicted for the year 2050. If you are a Cooper Union student, you have a better-than-even chance of living until 2080. If you are a newborn, like my granddaughter, your projected life expectancy will take you to 2095, with a reasonable chance of seeing 2100, the threshold of many promised terrors. One of the things we humans constantly ignore is that two years from now, it will be two years from now. And twenty years from now it will be twenty years from now, just as twenty years ago it was twenty years ago (I presume all of you 50 year olds can remember a world without the Internet or Google). When they say it is coming by 2050, remember you will live to see it and will have to deal with its consequences for the life you will lead.

Global warming has already altered the planet’s basic ecological systems enough so that we can predict with reasonable certainty the new global realities you will live through. We need to face those realities. Much of the explicit denial of global warming and much of the reluctance to address it derives from unconscious fears of changing the comfortable fossil fuel centric world we have lived in for 250 years. Humans are designed to fear change, particularly transformative changes whose risks and consequences are unclear. But in the throes of such instincts, what we are failing to grasp is that the real choice for the 21st Century is between two kinds of changes: uncharted changes in the way we provide the energy we need to maintain the wealth and prosperity we have become accustomed to, or topsy turvy changes in the world’s fundamental climate dynamics and the massively disruptive impacts of those changes on the economy and civilization we have built.   If we are to debate global warming properly, the debate must revolve around which change we should fear more, changing fossil fuel use or the changes continuing fossil fuel use will bring about in our planet, its ecological systems and the lives we now lead.

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Alteration of wetland. Photo by J. Henry Fair

The posts made under this topic are meant to focus that debate by describing the world we will live in if we do not face changing our fossil fuel use. Do we, for whatever reasons, try to live with the world these that posts will describe, or should we chose the enormous task of creating a post-fossil-fuel energy world, with all the effort that will require. The world of that choice is the world we are going to live in.

So, to begin to focus on that choice and to set the stage for future posts, let us take a brief look at the largest equivalent transformation in American history.

The greatest social-ecological disaster in American History was the Dust Bowl, 1931 to 1939. During those years, the United States paid the bill for three decades of ecological mismanagement of the short grass prairies on the Great Plains. These prairies, which run roughly from the 100th Meridian west to the Rocky Mountains, and from Saskatchewan to Texas encompass the bulk of five states, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, plus West Texas and the Texas Panhandle and the eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.

In this area, the annual rainfall averages less than 20 inches with periodic droughts. The resulting ecology was grassland, whose highest and best use was herbivore grazing, in specific the buffalo, an ecology adapted to the limited rainfall and reoccurring droughts. But beginning about 1900, such areas were aggressively plowed up for wheat farming and rural settlement mushroomed.   Local boosters rebelled against recognizing the natural limitations on human settlement, seeking the densely populated rural landscapes that had meant economic prosperity and political power in the East. Publicists for transcontinental railroads and others who would profit from such settlement claimed that rain would follow the plow, i.e. once the grassland sod was broken farmland would generate its own additional rainfall. A serious of wet years prior to 1920 seemed to vindicate such claims, as did the high prices for wheat that World War I generated.

But in the 1920s, reality reasserted itself. Rainfall fluctuated dramatically; some good years intermingled with more bad ones. Wheat prices collapsed, leaving farmers sunk in debt and lacking the resources to change farming techniques. Farming methods, derived from more well watered lands, emphasized intense plowing and pulverized the top soil, leaving it vulnerable to the winds that ripped down the Plains from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. By 1930, when the population of the Plains encompassed three times the percentage of Americans it does today, the Plains were poised on the edge of disaster.


Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. Dust Bowl surveying in Texas. Source.

In 1931, an eight year drought began. At the end of the year, in November, the bone dry, pulverized soil was picked up by the autumn wind storms and carried east, blackening skies over Chicago and Washington. Seven more years of drought followed, peaking between 1934 and 1936. Dust storms became a common American reality as some areas of the Great Plains lost as much as 75% of their topsoil, lacking both the moisture and the organic material needed to keep it in place. Agricultural production plummeted, to levels far below those needed to maintain most farms. Unable to pay their mortgages, hundreds of thousands of farmers were forced to abandon their land and flee. Ultimately, 2.5 million people, a number that constituted 2% of all Americans at that time, emigrated out of the Plains states, some heading for cities or better placed rural relatives, but most for California. Their struggles to create a new life in an unwelcoming California are described in John Steinbeck’s epic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” These were the Okies and Arkies of legend; named for the states they had fled, partially in pity, partially in derision, by the Californians who had to receive them.

At the time, particularly in California, absorbing 2.5 million climate refugees appeared to be an impossible task. But, when the outbreak of World War II drove up the demand for California’s agricultural produce and California war manufacturing boomed, the California economy almost seamlessly absorbed them. Back on the Plains recovery was more mixed. The depopulation from the Okie and Arkie out-migration was permanent, but in the 1940s, when the rains returned and World War II once again drove up wheat prices, the farm economy was rebuilt, around much different land holdings and a much lower population. The New Deal, through the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) invested significant resources in redesigning farming methods, ending the disastrous soil erosion of the thirties. Less helpfully, the New Deal ignored the ecological realities of the Plains and set out to rescue wheat farming. It sponsored widespread irrigation, drawing on the dam reservoirs the New Deal public works program created and, even more critically, on the waters of the Ogallala aquifer that underlay much of the Great Plains. But now, two generations later, the bill for ignoring ecological reality is again coming due. Two generations of irrigating far beyond the recharge levels of the Ogallala has so lowered the levels of the aquifer that, in a growing number of places, it can no longer be used for irrigation, and wheat production is plummeting in places like the Texas Panhandle. Once again, the agricultural population of the Great Plains is contracting as America still tries to maintain an agricultural economy at war with its basic ecology.

Global warming is the same story, a planet at war with its basic ecology. The world we are on course to live in will be the same story, one of wide ranging, high cost ecological disaster. Only if we chose not to accept such changes, but to create a new green fuel economy can we escape them. As noted above, we can accept the brave new world global warming will create or change the fossil fuel economy that is creating it while there is still time. But those two choices are the only ones the 21s Century is offering us. Whichever one we select will determine the world we will live in for centuries to come.


Large quantities of groundwater pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer allows these semiarid western lands to yield abundant harvests. Image Source.

Getting Ready for Paris 2020

In our post: Paris 2015, we looked back in the rearview mirror at the global warming agreement created at the Paris talks in December 2015 and tried to sort out the various claims, as the event fades into the past, as to whether the outcome was good or bad. The verdict was mixed, but much of the case that the Paris talks ended in good news rests on the fact they included a global agreement to meet again in 2020: to take stock of progress and to recalibrate national commitments to control greenhouse gases. This means that much of the future fate of the planet’s efforts to address global warming will depend on what the world does and learns in the next five years, and if we use that experience to create a consensus on how to use the 2020 gathering. If Paris 2015, as the last post argued, created a platform to address global warming, Paris 2020 must showcase humanity building upon that progress to accelerate the efforts to end the human activities that are driving it.


Paris 2015 Climate Talks

So what should be the goals for the Paris 2020 stocktaking? Paris 2015 met the goal its organizers set of getting every nation to commit to an initial plan to address global warming. Questions of what were the ultimate targets of such efforts, and how to create a global system for financing them were, as noted in the prior post, not resolved, but were successfully finessed so that the disagreements over them did not bring down the effort to forge a global warming agreement, as has happened in the past. But the global community will not be able to do this in 2020. With virtually every nation having put forth an action plan, it can be assumed that in five years there will be some heroes and some goats. But if all Paris 2020 does is chastise the goats and allow the heroes to bask in their success, nothing much will be accomplished. Addressing global warming will ultimately require reshaping the fossil fuel based energy system that has been the nucleus around which the global economy has orbited for two and a half centuries.

This is going to require some significant redirection of the environmental advocacy on the issue. The standard message of global warming action advocates has been to publicize the gloom and doom consequences of global warming, reaffirm its reality, and call for more and faster action. These efforts successfully set the stage for Paris 2015. But increasingly, as nations move to address their commitments made at Paris 2015, the calls for more aggressive action will run up against two painful realities. First, as one of the oldest adages in politics says, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody, or something with nothing”. The battle to reshape the fossil fuel economy in which we still live remains too much a battle between something known against something vague and aspirational. Despite the fact that it is scientifically indisputable that green energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal and energy conservation) can meet the world’s energy needs, we lack a compelling consensus on the practical steps humanity must take to successfully carry out the enormous transformation that reshaping the energy world around green energy will require.

Second, the saying “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” sums up a basic element of equity. Many poorer nations see using fossil fuels as the fastest way to reach politically and socially critical development goals. And when, as has been argued most compellingly by India, developing nations compare their carbon footprint to the countries whose levels of prosperity they seek to emulate, they want to know why they must accept limits on levels on carbon emissions that other more developed countries far exceed. For example, India has per capita roughly 10% of the carbon emissions of the average American and similar, if less dramatic disparities with China, whose growth it wishes to match. From India’s perspective if, in their drive to address poverty, they tripled their per capita emissions (Indian planners anticipate doubling their coal use by 2030), they would still be well below the level of more developed countries. Given the size of India, tripling per person carbon emissions would represent an enormous setback to efforts to control global warming. But, from India’s position, why should 950 million Indians foot the bill for saving humanity by limiting their use of fossil fuel and their chance to match the prosperity of the Global North and China whose emissions have caused the problem in the first place.


Laborers load coal in India. Photo: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

This is the problem with the advocacy that demands of fossil fuels that we “leave them in the ground”, a slogan that many of the most aggressive environmental advocates, such as, have rallied around. It is not that leaving fossil fuels in the ground is not a good idea; it is an inevitable idea if the world energy economy is to be reshaped. But, “leave it in the ground” does not answer the dilemma of countries like India, Indonesia, many African countries, and others whose low level of carbon emissions is directly related to their low levels of economic activity. If the world is to develop and obtain their full participation in the campaign to limit global warming, the challenge is to develop and obtain agreement on transitioning to and paying for a new world energy order that will enable all to address global warming while, at the same time, enabling developing countries to meet their goals of poverty reduction and economic growth.

This is not to say that, in the United States, “leave them in the ground” is not a well-chosen campaign target with the ability to advance the cause of limiting global warming.   It is clear that “leave them in the ground” played a major role in the Obama Administration’s decision to limit coal concession leasing on Federal lands. “ Moreover, leave them in the ground” is forcing the Obama Administration to address the contradictions in its own global warming policy, i.e. trying to constrain the use of fossil fuels while at the same time promoting them. Thus, a similar theme also echoes through the recent Obama Administration decision to withdraw its proposal for offshore oil drilling on the Eastern Seaboard. Though the driving force behind that decision was probably diehard local opposition to offshore drilling, the inconsistency of such a proposal with the Obama Administration’s attempts to be a global leader on addressing global warming cannot have been overlooked.

Still, in all candor, despite the many good decisions with respect to U.S. energy policies that “leave them in the ground” can promote, it must be recognized that such a policy will not meaningfully constrain the United States economically, as it has multiple existing sources for fossil fuel and a growing green energy sector. But, however attractive and emotionally engaging the idea of “leave them in the ground” is, as an action slogan saying no to fossil fuel extraction cannot be adopted the target for Paris 2020, for it does not answer the dilemma of India, among many others. Instead, the political and intellectual energies that drove the mobilization for Paris, and now drives the “leave them in the ground” campaign needs to go towards addressing that problem of how to meet the need for poverty eliminating economic growth without driving up carbon emissions. Answering this question, including funding that answer, will be the central challenge of Paris 2020.

It will not be easy. As Paris 2015 showed, providing the developing world with the energy for poverty-eliminating growth without resorting to carbon fuels will cost money, lots of money. The most common estimate at Paris 2015 was $100 billion a year, with the assumption that most of it would be provided by the world’s rich countries; impliedly from the prosperity they had created by also being the prime emitter of global warming gases.

Paris 2015 did not even pretend to offer a serious answer as to how to do this. A handful of ad hoc commitments, none of which were ongoing and all of which represented little more than a promise of good intentions, were the only funding results that Paris 2015 produced. They were just barely enough, as the last blog discussed, to hold the participants together. The only nation that one can say faced the problem with honor was Norway, from the comfort of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, created by the wise investment of North Sea oil proceeds, and backed by a local political consensus to use them to help address global warming.

The world will need a lot more Norways. Clearly, over the next five years, there needs to be a global debate over how to provide and administer the funding for non-fossil-fuel-based development. And that will require global warming advocates to rally around a plan and put behind it the energy they put behind the run-up to Paris 2015. Whatever the plan, if advocates do not rally global public opinion behind it, and particularly press for wealthy countries like the U.S., to agree to spend the necessary money, the future of the planet’s climate will be bleak. In the larger context of a global economy of 80 trillion dollars annually, $100 billion a year is not a lot of money, particularly given the impetus it will give to sustainable economic development and when the future of the planet and the enormously larger costs that runaway global warming will inflict are considered. But, such clear-eyed cost benefit analysis seldom drives how public monies are spent.

Selfishness and atavism drive most public investment decisions. They have already made their unwelcome presence unmistakably clear in many domestic debates on how to address global warming. Those forces and the obstacles they represent will not be overcome unless advocates for addressing global warming directly take them on; and the next five years is when they need to do it. If you are a person who likes to bet, then the time to place a bet on humanity’s success in addressing global warming will be when the global advocacy network can turn out the same kind of crowds and demonstrations in support of their governments spending billions on creating the new post-fossil fuel energy system that they galvanized in the United States to block the Keystone Pipeline.

Getting 195 nations to show up again in 2020 and put their record of addressing global warming on the line was a huge accomplishment, and represents a huge opportunity. A general consensus as to Paris 2015 has emerged. It failed to do enough, but it succeeded in getting humanity to begin to move towards doing so. But if this start is to matter, Paris 2020 must get us much closer to what we must do.

And what we must do, particularly if we are to line up all of humanity behind this goal, is to make real progress towards reshaping our fossil fuel based world.   And while that will result in “leaving it in the ground,” the way to get there is to plan and fund a new global non-fossil-fuel-based economy. This will be the challenge of Paris 2020, for our hope of future progress towards controlling global warming will depend upon it.

Advocating for such a step will be far more challenging and far more complicated than the last twenty years of global warming advocacy, and probably much less emotionally engaging than the “leave it in the ground” battles promise to be. But those who want fossil fuels left in the ground must recognize that there is only one way to make that truly happen, to generate a wave of public support for the inclusion of each country’s fair share of that $100 billion annual cost of global green energy development in their countries’ national budgets. For those who would save the planet from global warming, it that is what they now must do.


Note: The next post on global warming will discuss what a global action plan would look like, how it could be created, and how the ever divisive question of who pays what could be addressed in a globally acceptable way.



Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Strategies in Architecture 1925 – 1970

In the winter quarter of 2013, The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design (CUSID) mounted an exhibition at Cooper Union called Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Considerations In 20th Century Architecture 1925-1970. The purpose of this exhibit was to show that, in one of the defining movements of 20th century architecture, concepts of harmony with and collaborative use of environmental dynamics were a fundamental part of modern architecture, one that, in a world where the search for sustainability has made green buildings both a tool and an aspiration, provides a rich heritage for the architects of today to utilize in their quest to identify the environmental design innovations that will serve as the foundation for a future era of green buildings.

This highly acclaimed exhibit has now been turned into a book (see link at end) and the exhibition was given an encore run last fall at the Elmhurst Art Museum near Chicago. Given the importance of its message, this blog post is written to highlight the book’s availability and to discuss what it has to offer to the aspiring architect and urban planner wrestling with the challenge of green buildings. Lessons From Modernism has been one of the signal accomplishments of the CUISD and represents a critically important piece of intellectual capital for all those architects, urban planners and advocates of sustainability concerned with the future shape of humanity’s built environment.

The exhibition and book describe and discuss 25 signature examples of modernist architecture, highlighting how, in each, environmental design strategies were integrallyused to achieve design and social objectives. These case studies are the heart of the book. The book also contains, as did the exhibition, presentations of critical environmental realities that set the framework for modernism and discussions of the philosophical and social dynamics that framed modernist architecture, including formal commentaries on sustainability as an element of successful architecture. Among the notable supporting essays is Alan Berman’s examination of health and hygiene as some of the drivers of the modern architectural program, a reminder that environmental design has a much broader agenda than simply climate control in buildings. There is another important essay that deserves some attention, Daniel Barber’s Lessons From Lessons from Modernism, which looks at why architecture turned away from the path of climate based, environmental design strategies that was gaining momentum through the 1950’s and sixties. Barber points out the change in course was pushed by two forces, first, as he say, are forces “external to the discipline” specifically the ascendancy of “fossil fuel based HVAC systems”. Barber goes on to point out that “the second reason the climate lesson was not learned in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, and the reason that it might not be learned again today, is a result of the internal dynamics of the discipline of architecture”. Barber points out “that [in the 1950’s and 1960’s] environmentally sustainable approaches to architectural form making…were aggressively rejected…[by] protagonists of the emergent post-modern movement…. [and this conflict gave rise to]… the dichotomy between environmental relevance and novel form [that] is still being negotiated today”. It is an important note, that points to the conflicts between those who focus on the formal basis of modern architecture and those that have worked to find architectural form in social concerns and environmental necessities.


Housing at Sunila Pulp Mill, Alvar Aalto 1936

What immediately strikes one when reviewing the book and the architecture it highlights, is not just the brilliance of the architecture, but the fact that at a time when the world had yet to reach the point of having a self-conscious environmental movement, much less a movement for green buildings, how seamlessly the environmental design strategies LFM_NewMCoveroperate in the design of the buildings. Unlike the green building programs of today, with their LEED certifications and other scoring systems to publicize their accomplishments, these buildings are unselfconsciously brilliant works not only of design, but also of environmental art.

As Kevin Bone discusses in his opening essay, Lesson from Modernism, the exploration of sustainability and the rise of the green buildings movement have brought architecture, and equally critically the green buildings movement itself, to a critical crossroads. As Bone points out, green buildings have so far tended to be approached as a technical specialty, something for consultants to address, an engineering problem to establish how many green bells and whistles can be added to a building design. Even worse, from the perspective of the non-architect urbanist wrestling with the problem of creating sustainable cities, many in the publicly invisible innards of the profession’s self-reflective thinking, as Barber discusses in his essay, see green buildings as a threat to the artistic freedom of expression that they regard as critical to the discipline of architecture.

Both these perspectives, as the opening essay puts forth, are wrong, but together they have the power to direct architecture down paths that will not lead to the beautiful, innovative and inspirational building and community designs that an epoch of sustainability will need.

It is the message of Lessons from Modernism, and of the architecture it highlights, that architecture does have the ability to meet that need. Rooted in the past is the key to the architecture of the future needs and that green buildings are not a limiting, but a transcending concept. The acceptance of the social challenge of a sustainable architecture will not crimp its style, but will fulfill its historic function of providing the physical expression for our communities and their aspirations.

Aalto_SunDiagram copy

Sun Diagram, Housing at Sunila Pulp Mill

As the book illustrates, what distinguished the architecture of modernism and the lessons it has to impart on the architecture of the future is a dual aesthetic. The first is an aesthetic of simplicity and a respect for the obvious, for the most basic facts, such as considering the changing orientation of the sun throughout the year. Building elements do not fight each other; they work together to find the best and easiest solution to design problems, even when the solution seems brazenly unorthodox. Which leads us to the second basic lesson of modernism; successful buildings talk to each other, to their surroundings and to their users. They are not temples of design, even imperious green design; they are monuments to common sense, to simple solutions and to service, service to the ideals and needs of their community.

The challenges of architecture in a world trying to live sustainably will be monumental. For one thing, the world is urbanizing at an unprecedented pace. It was only in 2005 that over 50% of the world’s population lived in urban areas; by 2040 the percentage will be 80%. The cities of the future are being designed now. If their designs neglect the potentials this exhibit highlights, humanity will have a far lower quality of life and a far more expensive and environmentally damaging one. Similarly, architecture must move into new areas of focus to meet the challenges of this world. Much of this new urbanization will take place in sub-tropical and tropical areas where global warming is already drastically altering the environmental conditions, forcing communities to adapt and architecture to respond. These developments are taking place in environments whose resource limitations and new complexities will challenge the discipline of architecture to draw upon all of its experience and all of its skills in order to design livable and successful resource-efficient communities.

Lessons from Modernism is not a how-to manual for addressing all of these challenges. The topic is too broad. But what it will tell the interested reader–architect, urbanist or advocate for sustainability–is that there is a rich history that can be drawn on to address environmental and social problems. These strategic lessons are the lessons that the architecture of the future needs to learn from and build upon. As the ferment generated by the engagement of architecture with sustainability proceeds, and as architecture explores what it means in its use of the term green buildings, Lessons from Modernism will be a good place to start; a must read for how to link the past to the future.

Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Strategies in Architecture 1925 – 1970, Ed. Kevin Bone, with Sunnie Joh and Steven Hillyer, The Moncelli Press, New York, 2016.

Paris 2015: Looking Back in the Mirror

A month has passed since the global community did a collective high five over reaching the Paris Agreement on Global Warming. Since then, weather events have only made it more urgent to determine if Paris was a genuine cause for celebration or a mostly meaningless exercise in good intentions. In the last month, Britain has been drenched in historic levels of rain and flood; the Midwestern United States from Missouri to Texas has faced the same. America has had the warmest Christmas on record, and temperatures at the North Pole climbed to the mid-thirties, 50 degrees above normal. We have learned that 2015 was the warmest year in history; this year’s El Nino is history’s strongest. The post-1998 global warming pause that many have taken comfort in was no pause at all, but merely a statistical quirk due to changing the methods used to measure ocean temperatures.

So in the face of all of these reaffirmations that humanity had better do something about global warming and had better do it fast, looking back in the mirror as Paris recedes into the distance, what do we see?

First, the bad news: One hundred ninety-five nations made individual commitments to reduce climate change causing atmospheric emissions, but they fell far short of what is needed. Before Paris, the growth in global emissions was projected to raise the average global temperature by 4.5 degrees Centigrade (that’s 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit for the Anglo Saxons among us). Combining every nation’s promises would reduce projected future temperature growth to 3.6 degrees C (6.4 degrees F). For 20 years, European scientists and climate authorities have argued that to “avoid the worst effects of global warming” humanity must hold global temperature increase to an average of 2 C (3.6 degrees F). Even in assuming that is correct, as we will discuss in a minute, Paris got humanity less than half way towards that goal.

More bad news: There is no binding obligation on individual nations to fulfill their plans. This means the commitments were not only grossly inadequate, but they are essentially non-enforceable. Given that few would dispute that what humanity ideally needed was a binding treaty with hard commitments for emissions reductions that would meet the need to halt the upward spiral in global temperatures, to critics, idealists and the ever growing body of global opinion, Paris, at best, was an exercise in feel-good-diplomacy. At worst, it was in the words that Shakespeare gives Macbeth, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

So are the idealists and the advocates right, or is there some good news under the surface of these seemingly damning numbers? Let us start that inquiry with the problem of a no binding agreement. The world has made two attempts to create one: the Kyoto Agreement of 1992, which flopped in execution, and the attempt in 2009 in Copenhagen to negotiate a Kyoto Agreement replacement, which broke down in abject failure. Both times, two sets of clashing interests doomed the effort. Within wealthy, high emission-producing countries, a fatal split developed between those ready to reduce emissions and those with a vested interest in the use of fossil fuels, or who feared either being disadvantaged by other countries who refuse to cut back its use, or that limiting fossil fuel use would undermine economic growth.

The second clash was between nations with wealthy, high emitting economies, and those with less wealthy, low emitting economies, with the latter seeing any attempt to restrict their use of carbon fuels as unfairly denying them the right to develop as wealthy nations had–through the abundant use of fossil fuels. Those clashing interests undermined the Kyoto agreement and collapsed the Copenhagen talks.

They also did something more pernicious. In order to justify their position, agreement opponents vocally minimized the threat of global warming and posed addressing global warming as an economic threat to future prosperity, a position that was economic nonsense from a sustainability perspective, but nevertheless placed economic prosperity and addressing global warming in opposition to each other. Such a position led to overt denial of the need for coordinated international action against global warming, and fueled direct attacks on national initiatives to address global warming.

Faced with these unpleasant political realities, conference organizers made the decision to focus on getting every nation to voluntarily commit to addressing global warming in some way and to use moral suasion and the pressure of international and domestic opinion to force every nation to at the very least create an initial plan on how to address global warming. By implication, this also forced every nation that proposed a plan to acknowledge the need to address global warming. This plan, aided by a new recognition in many developing countries, most critically China and Brazil, of the reality of global warming and its growing local impacts, worked. One hundred ninety-five nations submitted plans to reduce local global warming emissions. The result has been a transformed global climate of opinion around the issue of global warming. No one said, as they did of Kyoto, “we won’t do it”; no one said, as they did in Copenhagen, “we won’t do it unless we receive major financial help in reducing emissions”; no one said, “it is not our problem, it is all the fault of wealthy developed nations, and we have the right to pollute to our hearts content for the sake of economic growth”. In short, every nation accepted that all of humanity had to starting doing something to address global warming. After twenty-five years of humanity circling, evading, and contriving excuses for not acting and for being afraid to act because they might sacrifice some freedom to grow rich, the world has said, “we will act”. Even if the current level of proposed action is a priori inadequate, it crucially sets the stage for the future.

Moreover, while similarly inadequate on the action level, but groundbreaking on the moral level, Paris did three other critical things. First, it brought some reality to the discussion regarding the target level of climate warming that humanity should be shooting for. For two decades, European scientific opinion has argued and largely won acceptance of the premise that humanity should be seeking to hold the average global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Centigrade (C)[3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (F)], in order “to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.” In 2015, average global temperature levels for the first time reached an increase of 1 C (1.8 F). Now, one need only glance at the planet to see what a 1 C increase has done. The Arctic is melting; Greenland is pouring meltwater into the oceans; global climates are in turmoil; ocean temperatures are reaching highs not seen in millions of years; the earth’s flora and fauna are fleeing global temperature rise; there is growing evidence of weakening basic weather engines such as the Monsoon and the Gulf Stream. In the rapidly warming Arctic, melting permafrost is leaking methane at levels that could spike global warming to an irreversible runaway point. Now, if this is what a 1 C increase is doing, what are the “worst effects” that holding the ultimate planetary temperature increase to 2 C, double the current level, will supposedly prevent?


Shrinking Glacier, Gries, Swiss Alps, CUISD Glacier Folio Project

Paris took on this question of a target level. Though it did not formally reject the 2 C degree increase as a target ceiling, it basically reduced it to a minimum goal and stated that the world should ideally aim to hold the maximum temperature rise to 1.5 C (2.7 F). This was a huge step towards reality and a critical stage setter for planning the future – good news, very good news indeed.

The second critical thing Paris did was hold together the rich and poor nations and avoid the fatal split on the “who will pay for it” issue that sunk Copenhagen. To be sure, they did not come up with a very good solution, a hodgepodge of one-off commitments from various countries to contribute to the estimated $100 billion a year that humanity must invest to address global warming, largely by transfers from wealthy, high emitting nations to less developed ones, so that the developing nations can find a new path to prosperity that does not depend on burning fossil fuels. Like the pledges to reduce emissions, the total of these financial commitments fell far short of the stated target. But, led by last minute American financing enhancements, it provided enough of a commitment for the future, to persuade key developing countries, most critically India, that because they have to address global warming, they are better off staying at the table and collaborating globally, than trying to solve the problem by posing ultimatums and threats of non-action that have in the past mostly played into the hands of American global warming deniers.

But the third thing Paris did was undoubtedly the most critical. Paris committed everyone to a followup meeting five years from now in 2020, where progress will be reviewed and commitments updated. It was a step that many countries were initially strongly opposed to, because they had cobbled together emissions reduction plans that were, to be polite, wobbly, and they had no desire to revisit the issue in a short five years. Gentle but firm insistence by a coalition of the most committed, combined with two recognitions–first that a five year revisit would force early reconsideration of the funding issue, and second, that a five year revisit would actually strengthen their hand against domestic opponents–ultimately combined to sway the timid. Thus, humanity has not only come together for the first time on global warming, it has committed to make not only domestic action, but to make international collaboration an ongoing priority.

All of this is, of course, a glass that is only half full. And only the next five years and what happens at Paris 2020, will tell if those who, in the face of the failure to obtain truly far reaching emissions reductions, believe that the results of Paris are still worth celebrating and set the stage for the future are correct. But, as to that, I heed my Grandfather’s advice, “when it comes to the future, never bet against yourself.” I submit that, at Paris, humanity bet on itself. Let us hope my Grandfather was right.



Author’s Note:

The next blog will look forward to Paris 2020 and what, in addition to actually implementing the various national commitments made at Paris, we should spend the next five years setting the stage for.

Part 4, The Three Future Steps to a Sustainable Economy

As discussed in the last post (Part 3) humanity has taken the first step towards sustainability in a widespread, though far from universal, effort to do the easy part: harvest the low hanging fruit. But creating a true sustainable economy will require three more distinct steps, all of which will be much harder than what has come so far, yet all equally necessary.

Step Two: Eliminate Perverse Incentives

The place to begin is eliminating perverse incentives. What is a perverse incentive? As the name suggests, it is an incentive to do the wrong thing, rather than the right one; in this case, to create wealth in environmentally destructive ways. Trying to create a sustainable world when economic and social life is full of incentives to do unsustainable things is like trying to brake a car while stepping on the accelerator.

The problem is that many perverse incentives started their life as something else; as ways for society to encourage the old fashioned economic activity that it liked. Too many of these perverse incentives have succeeded, creating large groups with a vested interest in their perpetuation. The politics of disentangling society from such incentives, even given that they no longer serve the purpose for which they were created will, in the face of the resistance of their beneficiaries, often be fiendishly difficult.

So what are some examples of perverse incentives? One is low priced flood or fire insurance, which encourages real estate developers to build on highly vulnerable environmental sites as the development and homeowner insurance clients will not have to pay the full cost of replacing the property, if it is destroyed by environmental disaster. In recent years, attempts have been made to price such insurance at a cost that would reflect the environmental risk. Until those efforts succeed, society will pour billions of dollars into replacing storm destroyed and forest-fire-incinerated inappropriately sited development.


Another perverse incentive is the irrigation programs in the arid West where, to promote what is essentially crop production in the middle of deserts (Let the deserts bloom was the motto), the water was priced far below cost, sometimes at only 5% of its true value. This not only induced food production in highly unsuitable areas, but shifted production out of areas where it had far more benign impacts, exemplified by the impact of California irrigation-subsidized dairy farming on dairy farming in the naturally watered Northeast and Midwest.

A third is deep-sea fishing quotas, set high above the replacement level of fish stocks to justify the subsidies for fishing fleets many governments give in the name of helping rural fishing communities. But it hardly helps such communities when there are no fish left to harvest.

Then, there is the biggest perverse incentive: subsidies for fossil fuel production. Once we thought we could not do enough to promote the production of fossil fuel. Now, with the deep entanglement of the fossil fuel industry in our economy that this thinking promoted, these perverse incentives are proving to be the hardest to cut back on even given the onward march of global warming. The International Energy Administration has estimated that annual global subsidies for fossil fuel, to producers and consumers, total over $300 billion a year versus an estimated total of $50 billion globally for green energy. It goes without saying that if fossil fuel subsidies were cut in half the globe would have the money to quadruple its investment in green energy and the outlook for a world under assault from global warming would be transformed.

As the perversity of many of these incentives has been recognized, there have been efforts to scale them back. Reform of fishing policy is slowly making progress with the spread of managed fisheries and marine reserves. India has just slashed back consumer subsidies keeping down the price of fossil fuel and China is withdrawing government support for coal mines in the Yellow River Basin. But so far, these efforts have mostly been nibbling around the edges.

The problem is twofold. First, there is the standard political problem that every interest benefited by a perverse incentive does not want to give it up and will fight bitterly to block eliminating it. And second, there has been a failure to organize a systematic attack on such perverse incentives by articulating a social norm that recognizes that the elimination of perverse incentives is not only an essential step towards a better economic future, but it is also in the immediate economic interest of the general taxpayer and a fundamental requirement of a fair and equitable society.

Society needs a leader to carry that banner, and it should be the corporations who are finding it so profitable to capture the low hanging sustainability fruit. They have a powerful voice, and they understand the concept of a business climate. Eliminating perverse incentives is the key to creating a welcoming business climate for sustainability.

Step Three: Development of New Financial Structures That Promote Sustainability

Simply put, the solution is to do structurally what harvesting the low hanging fruit does situationally for organizations: make sustainability fundamental to future profits.

The first way to achieve this is to move towards prices based on user charges. If a purchaser of a good or a user of a service is required to pay an amount for the service that reflects its waste of environmental wealth, the user will have an incentive to minimize the environmental impact of their purchase. Meanwhile, with charges based on the environmental cost, the seller will have the resources necessary to lower that cost and therefore compete on the basis of reinvested environmental wealth, lowering their costs and that of society when it purchases their products.

This dynamic explains why the first and easiest platform to create fully sustainable institutions is water utilities. A water utility provides an environmental resource, water. In collecting, distributing and disposing that product (through sewage treatment), it must protect and preserve the environment that provides the resource it is managing. With those costs incorporated into the rates for the water it sells and by charging for the amount of water used, it gives the consumer an incentive to lower his usage and consequentially its impacts, while ensuring that the water utility has the funds to maintain environmental standards and protect the environmental resource it is managing.

This is a closed loop system that supports sustainability and the interests of both the customer and the utility provider. It is full cost pricing, the best way to eliminate the disregard of external costs by resource producers that has become the fatal flaw of our current economic system.

This model, of closed loop, full cost pricing to the user, is the model for sustainability.

This is also a model that applies internally to organizations. If, in their business accounting, they accurately price their costs to the environment, they will use resources far more efficiently and sustainably, and price their products far more accurately. A good example of such an initiative is the Microsoft Corporation, which has established a system of internal carbon pricing, thereby encouraging managers to minimize the costs and impacts of carbon use that affect the external environment.

Another key step towards an economics of sustainability, for it will create important incentives for its adoption, is to use the savings that being sustainable will produce to pay for sustainable investments. For example, in the 1990s, when New York City designed its famed Catskills watershed protection program, it used a small portion of the multi-billion dollar savings from that program to pay for its costs. Similarly, if a perverse incentive is eliminated, it can be done as part of a program of environmental investment, which is funded using the saved costs of the perverse incentive.

However, this brings us to a critical problem in designing a sustainable economy. In the closed-loop-water-rate system described above, if the water utility makes a cost saving sustainable investment, it has every incentive to do so because all of the benefits of that investment flow back into it and to its consumers by reducing the cost base of the water utility. But, consider the following case. An electric utility invests in air pollution scrubbers. The reduced pollution lowers childhood respiratory illness, saving society significant health care costs. But none of that saved health cost money flows back to the electric utility. This leaves it with no economic incentive to invest in pollution control.

Corporate life is filled with areas where sustainable investment will produce no comparable cash flow back to the investor. Sustainable investment will always create wealth for society, but a truly sustainable economy will require that individuals also receive a return on their investment in sustainability. Reconfiguring the economy to design ways to reallocate the social wealth sustainability will create back to those who invest in it–using techniques such as user charges, full cost accounting, closed loop systems redirecting the wealth lost in perverse incentives and other financial tools not yet imagined or designed will be the task of the next decade of sustainability leaders

Step Four: Promoting Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Scaling Up to Industrial Strength Sustainability

Humanity will know it is on the threshold of a sustainable economy when two interrelated things happen. First, the role of entrepreneurship in pursuing sustainability is recognized; and second, the results of such initiatives are broad in scope, sector-wide sustainability initiatives: sustainability at an industrial scale, as it were.

Entrepreneurship, whose contemporary image in the minds of many is of Silicon Valley or Wall Street, can often seem totally unrelated to sustainability. But, in any economy, what entrepreneurship represents is the pursuit of opportunities, to capture new wealth and to serve new needs. At the core of sustainability is the goal of capturing the enormous sums of lost environmental wealth. This is what the companies who are pushing beyond harvesting the low hanging fruit are now doing. Their work with sustainability has brought them to recognize the economic opportunities that often go unseen. Already, the investment world is filling up with green funds, impact investing funds, ESG and SRI funds, all looking to profit from sustainability initiatives. If such initiatives produce new wealth, there is no reason why those who recognize such opportunities should not profit from them. How such a system will evolve is yet to be seen. The important point is that the opportunities of sustainability will attract a growing entrepreneur class and a growing investor class. Society should be doing everything possible to welcome them and give them the incentives to profit from the wealth their sustainability initiatives will generate.

Similarly, what will be wanted not only from the perspective of a society trying to create sustainability, but also from the perspective of investors and entrepreneurs will be scale: the creation of sector-wide, even society-wide programs, that offer enormous savings and thereby change the fundamental dynamics of various economic sectors. The New York City water conservation program, as will be discussed in a future post, is one strong example. Wetland banking programs are another. Such industrial strength sustainability programs must be sought out and made an integral part of society’s economic strategy.

There are many, harkening back to the debates that created environmentalism, that regard things done for profit as intrinsically antithetical to the cause of sustainability. Many more fear that, once sustainability engages with profit making and the world of investments, it will lose its focus, as did the message of Wealth of Nations when it was captured by the first generations of industrialists in Britain. But to succeed, sustainability must exist as a new system of economics for economics is about is integrating individual needs and incentives with those of society. If there is no provision for the individual to independently profit from sustainability, those who seek sustainability will not only be losing the individual support and creative energy required, but they will also be gambling on a view of human nature that there is no evidence for in history.

In closing, it has to be said again that sustainability is not an exercise in trying to establish a new era of environmental purity, one in which humanity will sacrifice some of its economic ambitions for the sake of the environmental health of the planet. Humanity has rejected doing so. That is why the concept of sustainability arose in the first place, to meet the need to save the planet in a way that would make peace with humanity’s economic hopes and dreams. This makes sustainability a problem in economics, of creating new ways, earth-friendly ways, of creating wealth.  That is the hand humanity has dealt itself. All those who seek sustainability must play that hand and follow these four steps:

  1. Harvest low hanging fruit
  2. Eliminate perverse incentives
  3. Develop new financial structures that promote sustainability
  4. Foster sustainability entrepreneurship and sustainability at industrial strength scale.

Whether humanity does so, by instinct or design, will be the key to its future.


Photo courtesy of The Sustainability Laboratory



Part 3, The Problem of Sustainability: Where Humanity Must Go and the Progress that Has Been Made

Introduction and Recap

In the previous posts on this topic, this blog discussed how sustainability emerged as a path forward in a world that, in the two decades following Earth Day 1970, had become politically and morally stalemated between two equally compelling recognitions: first, that in its pursuit of wealth, society had detrimentally mismanaged the planet and its resources; second, despite this, humanity had no intention of throttling back on its pursuit of wealth. Sustainability was the answer to that political and moral stalemate for it recognizes the need to make peace with humanity’s desire for wealth and the elimination of poverty, while accepting that such desires cannot be met if the mismanagement of the globe’s environmental resources continues to waste the environmental wealth that is the basis for prosperity and, ultimately, human survival.

In the second post on this topic, this blog emphasized that sustainability is not a checklist of green things, but requires a new system of economics, based not on being “green”, but on capturing the enormous amounts of wealth lost by not being green and utilizing it to create a robust long-term prosperity.

The third and the fourth posts will discuss the five steps needed needed to create this new economic system. The third will look at the nature of the problem and the first steps that humanity has already taken. The fourth will look at the four-step path into the future.

Where Humanity Must Go

That humanity wastes an enormous amount of the planet’s wealth is not subject to serious dispute. Long ago, we broke away from the wisdom of nature, whose mantra is, in the words of the old Puritan proverb “waste not, want not!” Every byproduct of natural processes–from the grains of rock lichens dissolve, to the bones of dead whales sinking into the ocean floor–are ultimately recaptured and used to maximize the variety of life and the total productivity of the global ecosystem.

Photo by J. Henry Fair

By contrast, human have focused only on the productivity of the specific resources that we utilize, rather than the total productivity of an entire ecosystem. Take, for example, a natural grassland. Nature gives it approximately 200 species of grasses and other plants. But the grass that is most directly beneficial to us is wheat, so we plow the grassland up and devote it exclusively to growing wheat. We lose any benefits from all of the other grasses, and all the animals that feed upon them. We vent the soil carbon that the dense grass root systems captured into the atmosphere. We accept the soil erosion and loss of soil nutrients from breaking the sod and limiting the biota that use it, and the disruption of the groundwater regime. And we promote more wheat growth through fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides whose amounts we seldom calculate accurately, sending run-off pollution into streams and groundwater, all at high cost to fish and downstream users.

So why has humanity been so wasteful and why has this waste suddenly become a global crisis? Because the benefits of being able to transgress nature’s limits and produce the quantities of food and other goods that our steadily growing, ever-wealthier human population needed, all seemed self-evident to us. Impacts on the natural world seemed small in comparison. Moreover, moving on to new lands, new techniques, and new uses of nature’s seemingly endless resources always overcame any limitations we came up against. For six millennia, the story was the same: the world was big and we were small, and to survive and prosper we were driven to wrestle wealth from the earth, and dismiss the costs.

But, in a world that has been industrializing for the 250 years since 1765, and that has seen its population multiply by ten times and its wealth by at least 100 times, we have become big and the earth has become small. The costs we have inflicted on the environment have accumulated to the point where they can no longer be ignored. One can start with climate change and, from there, go on to a long list of consequences, such as the health impacts of air and toxic pollution, the loss of renewable resources such as groundwater and fish, the waste from unnecessary consumption of water and energy. If these costs keep rising, as they are on course to do, the cost curve of our ways of exploiting nature will cross the benefits curve, ultimately reversing most, if not all, of the gains of 250 years of industrialization.

Sustainability is about saving the civilization that humanity built over the last 250 years from ignoring its impact on the environment, by capturing natural wealth, rather than wasting it. From which it follows, that we need to shift our economics to incorporate nature in our cost calculations. So where should humanity start to do so? Or more precisely, since sustainability has now been debated for over twenty years, has humanity started in the right place and where should it go next?

Today’s Progress Towards Sustainability: A Promising First Step–Harvest the Low Hanging Fruit

The good news is, that despite some notable exceptions, such as the fossil fuel industry, industrialized agriculture, and most real estate development, the overall news on starting down the sustainability road is actually pretty positive, particularly when one considers how deeply embedded non-sustainable economic practices have been for centuries.

Numerous business and government institutions now recognize the problem of sustainability and the benefits of doing something about it. They have launched numerous sustainability efforts, and created internal organizational entities to support them. There has been a common theme as well to all these efforts, a logical first step: to harvest what we will describe as the low hanging fruit.

Low hanging fruit can best be defined as readily obtainable financial benefits from environmentally sound practices that are technically and organizationally feasible. What is needed is a leadership push to overcome the obstacles to adopting this, such as institutional inertia, concern with startup costs and a general cultural inconsistency with organizational self-images (i.e., that tree hugger green-fluff is not for serious businessmen).

Until about ten years ago, these factors kept most large business and governmental institutions from taking any real steps down the road towards being more profitable by being sustainable. But in the last decade, as pioneering efforts have made the economic benefits of sustainability measures apparent and the evidence of the sustainability crisis has become irrefutably obvious to the average intelligent organizational leader, that push has been forthcoming and the cultural image has changed, resulting in a surge of sustainability initiatives. Now, in the business world, a commitment to corporate sustainability has become a mark of enlightened management. And as companies such as, Walmart, Google, Federal Express, MacDonald’s, 3M have embraced sustainability; they have discovered a vast orchard of low hanging, sustainability fruit. Changes in delivery routes to save fuel, new forms of packaging to reduce waste costs, redesigned industrial processes that conserve water and reduce chemical uses, switching to green energy to lower impacts on global warming, provision of dedicated buses for commuting employees, are just a thin slice of the many examples of how sustainability has saved money and improved productivity.


This new culture of corporate sustainability had done three important things. First, it validates the basic model of sustainability, as the new and future path to wealth and prosperity. Second, it makes corporations comfortable with continuing to pursue sustainability up the ladder of involvement. And third, it puts growing peer pressure on laggard organizations to embrace sustainability. It is no accident that in the last five years most leading business schools have begun to offer course concentrations in sustainability, often leading to degree programs.

Moreover, the pursuit of low hanging fruit has not been limited to the private sector. Both government and nonprofits organizations such as colleges and medical institutions are now pursuing the benefits of harvesting sustainability’s low hanging fruit. Consider New York City’s Plan NYC, an overall blueprint for urban sustainability. Universities are now competing with each other in their Greenprint initiatives and programs for sustainability, to the point where the Sierra Club now publishes an annual listing of America’s 100 greenest universities.

Of course, this does not mean an end to companies rationalizing environmentally destructive practices when they directly affect the corporate bottom line or from trying to use sustainability as a green wash. Many argue that the resistance to addressing problems such as global warming proves that nothing has changed. But, that is a naïve view of how humanity makes the kind of course correction that sustainability will require. A sustainable movement gathers successful experience, creates a new climate of opinion and establishes the proposed course as the wave of the future. This is happening now, perhaps more slowly than one would like or the problem demands, but it is happening. What is being created is a business and social climate of counting the environmental costs and pursuing profit by saving such money, instead of externalizing it. The stage is being set. For if we cannot do the easy stuff, we will not be able to do the hard stuff. In the next blog post, we will discuss the next steps that clearly a sustainable agenda will require.

Part 2, The Need to Transform How Humans Make Wealth and the Road Sustainability Must Walk

The previous essay concluded by asking: When humans are such an unprecedented success as a species, why do we need to address the issue of our environmental management of the planet, what we now call the problem of sustainability. The answer is simple. We face an immediate and undeniable danger of becoming the victims of our own success. The costs of our current ways of creating human wealth, costs that used to be small in scale compared to the benefit conferred on us, are steadily growing to a point where they are threatening to subtract from that wealth creation in ways they never have before. The mounting consequences of global warming are the most obvious examples of this. The droughts and their crunching of food production, the spiking heat waves of summer, the growing number of Sandy-type storms, the drowning waterfronts and shorelines, the deaths from heat, the jellyfish taking over the oceans, the dying coral reefs, the continent-level climate changes from altered dynamics of the Gulf Stream or the East Asian monsoons or an Arctic Ocean ice-free in the winter, the pine beetles spared by ever-warmer mountain winters to gnaw through millions of acres of Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast forests all result in enormous drains on the wealth that burning fossil fuels creates. We have fished for ten thousand years, but now we can “strip mine” the oceans of fish as we never could before, depriving millions of cheap protein and forcing the creation of fish farms that have their own long list of costs. One could go on and on with such examples. But to cut to the obvious point, the model of focusing on the exploitation of particularly beneficial natural resources and ignoring the costs of that exploitation no longer works in a world of 7.3 billion people. The cost curve is moving toward a point where it is going to cross the benefits curve, and when it does, the heritage of 250 years of industrial revolution and the society we have created with its wealth is going to inexorably unravel.

Consider also for a minute the implications of the observation that humans have already commandeered 40 percent of the world’s biological output. The current population projection is that the human race will increase another 50 percent in the next fifty years, to about eleven billion people. That means even if there is no further increase in the level of human wealth, as we currently measure it, we must appropriate 50 percent more of the world’s biological output, which will take us up to 60 percent. Now it becomes interesting. If the ambitions to eliminate poverty are to be realized, and if countries like China and India achieve stated goals of quadrupling their GDP in the coming decades, and if the United States and Europe grow by only two percent a year, then by 2050, the minimum increase in human wealth, as we now measure it, would be at least double the current level. But if so, we would require 120 percent of the biological output of the earth. As a popular question goes, what is wrong with that picture?

So we need a new economics, a new path to the wealth that humans require to eat and survive. But what could be the foundation of such a path? As is most often the case, the solution lies in the core of the problem. The crisis of sustainability, of an economy faced with choking on its own success, is a crisis of waste, of wasted resources from creating wealth by ignoring the external costs. Capturing the wealth being dissipated by the environmental costs of our current economic activities can provide the source of wealth that will be the foundation of sustainability. Doing so solves the environmental issues and solves the economics issues as well.

The examples of what this makes possible are nearly endless. When New York City in the 1990s chose a program of water conservation to meet its water supply problems, it saved $4.5 billion in infrastructure costs, reduced the operating costs for affordable housing, provided several hundred jobs in environmental services, and eliminated the impacts of droughts on the economic life of the city. In Namibia on the southwest coast of Africa, the iconic game herds and predators were succumbing to the pressures of shrinking habitat as poor villagers invaded wildlife lands to exploit them. Then the local government gave the villages authority to manage the wildlife herds and to keep the profits from the resulting tourism. The villagers took over the management, protected the habitat, supervised the tourism programs, and found a new level of prosperity, with the wildlife protected and flourishing as never before. Near Mexico City, a local farming village developed a program to grow small fruit trees for sale in central city markets, but the location was arid and the soil poor, so what rain fell passed through the sandy soil and below the root levels. Then the villagers began to collect used and discarded disposable diapers, taking from them their cellulose liners and burying them around the trees. The cellulose captured and held the rainfall and then disintegrated over the course of the summer, enhancing the soil. Fruit production soared, as did villager income.

These are examples not of formulaic or checklist approaches to sustainability, but classic economic entrepreneurship, seeing an opportunity to use resources that would otherwise be wasted and to profit from their wise use. It is for this reason that the CUISD emphasizes sustainability entrepreneurship, for it is in the process of creating sustainable activity that the experience needed to craft a new economics of sustainability will be gathered.

In the end, sustainability will not come from being green. Sustainability will come from capturing and utilizing the resources we now waste from not being green; from the profits in eliminating practices like burning fossil fuels that have more costs than benefits; and from working with the dynamics of our natural resources, not against them, as by creating marine reserves and eliminating overfishing. Sustainability will also come from finding ways to use the cost savings from the benign use of environmental resources to pay for further programs of environmental resource capture, creating a righteous cycle of sustainable investment, as New York City did with its water conservation, watershed protection, and natural infrastructure programs like the Staten Island Bluebelt.

So there are two key takeaway points about sustainability. First, it is ultimately a problem involving economics. To emphasize the point, we will not create sustainability by being green, we will become sustainable by wisely using resources that are currently wasted or destroyed. Being sustainable will involve eliminating all the unnecessary costs that not being green and not utilizing green alternatives imposes on our society. We will not be sustainable by applying a checklist of eco-friendly practices. We must instead behave like true economic entrepreneurs and look for opportunities to creatively utilize all of the resources we are currently losing.

Second, we must recognize that the economics of sustainability are a work in progress. We know the point we must get to; we know the common element in all sustainability will be the wise capture of the environmental resources we are now wasting and using them to create righteous cycles of investment. Reaching that critical turning point will require an enormous effort in economic and social creativity, to find answers on the ground as to how to transform our age-old pattern of resource exploitation into one that will build wealth, rather than, as we are finding to our dismay, increasingly tear it down by the costs it imposes on us.

We have ahead of us many years of debate; experimentation, much of which will probably fail, trying our patience and our willingness to discard our preconceptions; groping for synthesis; and reaching across competing social interests and institutions, seeking common ground among those willing to lunge forward and others clinging to the past. And all the time, we will feel ever more urgently the need to outrace the growing consequences of our unsustainable world. It is safe to predict that the coming decades will be a demanding and unforgiving time, as we face the need for transformations of a kind that have never happened before in the human use of the planet. But we can hope that, at the end of the day, we will have found our new Adam Smiths, and even more that we will have created a sustainability road map, a way forward to a new wealth of nations.

Part I, The Emergence of Sustainability: Some Fundamental Facts

Editor’s Note: This essay is the first of a four-part reflection on the topic of sustainability and the new wealth of nations. The next three installments will be published over the upcoming months.

It is the premise of this blog that the problem of achieving sustainability is ultimately a problem in economics, and that creating a sustainable world will require devising a new system of economics, one that is organized around the principles of sustainability and is based on utilizing the wealth that sustainability will provide.

To explain, let’s start by examining how sustainability became one of the fundamental aspirations of the twenty-first century. Modern environmentalism was born on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day. It was the culmination of a decade-long period of broad public recognition that something was badly amiss with the natural environment. The political energy generated by that awareness led, in the decade that followed that first Earth Day, to a burst of environmental regulation, first in the United States and slightly later overseas. To simplify a very complicated topic, the assumption was that fixing the world was largely a problem of stopping those who were doing environmentally bad things, who were putting greed above the duty of environmental stewardship.

But as the seventies turned into the eighties, and those regulations imposed mounting costs and constrained traditional economic practices and prerogatives, the affected economic interests recovered their nerve and began to push back. In the United States, they argued that the cost of environmental regulation was too high, choking economic growth, perhaps the penultimate American ideal, sacrificing the needs of people for the sake of furry creatures and pretty places. Overseas, particularly in developing countries, globalizing interests pushed back harder, arguing that Western elites wanted to keep the developing world poor for the sake of nature, accusing environmentalists of being the new colonialists and arguing that poverty had to be addressed before the environment.

This debate raged over most of the eighties, at the end of which each side had won a point. The environmentalists successfully beat back attempts to deny the world was badly mismanaged environmentally and something needed to be done about it. But the economic interests opposing them succeeded in demonstrating that humanity was not going to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment and that green strategies that assumed otherwise were doomed to failure. The resulting political stalemate had unsatisfactory implications for both sides. For environmentalists, it meant that, no matter how many battles they won, they were going to lose the war. For the economic interests opposing them, it meant that they would prevail only at the cost of accepting the responsibility for wrecking the global environment, undermining their moral legitimacy and social prestige—and creating ongoing challenges no important economic interest would want to face.

So the idea of sustainability emerged and was embraced because it provided a way out of this dilemma for both sides. It solved the problem by saying we will not let ourselves be limited to an either-or choice. We will both create economic growth, and make that growth environmentally benign and therefore able to be maintained over time, hence the new noun sustainability.

Though this has been derided as a political punt, in fact, it was a supreme act of political realism, and it unleashed great energies on both sides. It made it possible for environmentalists to stay on message and, at the same time, talk to and work with economic interests and explore using economic tools to solve environmental problems. As for economic interests, they could now accept and address environmental concerns and programs without surrendering anything fundamental. Moreover, by acknowledging the environmental challenges society faced, they rescued much of their legitimacy and economic leadership position. Of course, harsh and critical differences remain between the two sides’ perceptions of what sustainability is, and numerous issues still default back to the old environment versus economy script. But in the two decades since sustainability has become an important political and social concept, the result has been dialogue, creativity in many and often surprising instances, and the ongoing possibility of ultimately breaking through to the promised land where the environment and the economy cease to be mutually opposed and become mutually self supporting. While some disparage this as a naive hope, it can be answered that, after forty years of inconclusive battles directly pitting environmental protection against economic self-interest, no better hope exists.

Understood from this perspective, it is clear that to achieve sustainability, humanity will have to create a new economics, one that generates wealth in ways compatible with the environment. But, what this entail?

Let’s start with nature. Nature arrays its resources in interactive systems we call ecologies, layers and layers of them, all linked together by feedback loops that maximize all forms of life, conserve the resources life needs, and provide—through diversity and complexity—an amazing resilience to stress. These systems fill every resource niche with some form of life, creating a treasure house of wealth with a breathtaking order and beauty.

To turn to we humans, our salient characteristic is intelligence, and its principal ecological impact is that it enabled us to cooperate in groups and thereby break free of the limits inherent in nature’s feedback loops. For a long time, the effects of doing so were so small and so local that they mattered not in the larger dynamics of our species and the planet. But to survive the Wisconsin Ice Age, we became amazingly capable hunters. And once the limits imposed on the exercise of our hunting skills by the Ice Age ended fourteen thousand or so years ago, we burst upon the natural world like a tsunami, peeling the land of much of its big game, creating the first population explosion, and forcing us to create agriculture to feed the population that our extraordinary hunter-gather skills had produced and now could no longer feed.

Those experiences set the norm for our use of the planet ever since. Instead of fostering the broad-spectrum diversity of life that nature produces, humans use their intelligence to maximize the production of a select handful of resources required to meet our needs, starting with food. Sometimes this means using our skills to completely consume a resource, as when we drive a species to extinction. More often, this means altering the natural dynamics of the resource production to our benefit, while ignoring the costs of doing so. Take grasslands. Whereas nature fills them with maybe two hundred plant forms and potentially dozens of animals, each adapted to particular forms of vegetation, we plow them up to grow one grass: wheat. We accept the loss of all the other species, the self-renewing topsoil dynamics, the loss to the atmosphere of the sequestered soil carbon, the changes in stream flow and groundwater recharge, and the resulting soil erosion. If necessary, we further promote the preferred species with additional inputs: fertilizer to replace or enhance soil nutrients, irrigation to make up for the failures of prevailing precipitation regimes, pesticides and herbicides to eliminate competitors for the growing grain. This pattern—intervene, maximize a preferred natural resource, and disregard the costs of doing so—is the prevailing human model for the economic use of the planet’s resources.

So what in the greater scheme of things is really wrong with that? Measured by the number of our species, 7.3 billion humans and still climbing, we are an amazing ecological success. Moreover, on a planet with perhaps two million vertebrate life-forms and as many as one hundred million invertebrate species, it has been estimated that we have captured for our use 40 percent of the biological output of the planet. We have created a culture that has reduced poverty to the lowest level in human history and now formally aspires to its global elimination. So why do we even need sustainability? Why do we need a new way to make wealth?