Is Sustainability Possible?

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By Otis L. Graham, Jr., Ph.D.

Otis is an historian of modern America, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a CAPS Board Member. He is the author or editor of 19 books and numerous articles on the history of the United States, with a focus on American reform movements, political economy, environment and immigration.

The writer's views are his own.

May 14, 2013

Sustainability is an idea crafted at a UN Conference in 1987, defined in the report Our Common Future as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The idea expressed by the sentence was to create a common ground and purpose for world-minded people who go to or follow the doings of  UN conferences and are weary of quarreling with each other over whether the poor of the earth would be better off having fewer children or if instead the first issue should be to persuade people in the affluent developed world to walk on the earth with much lighter footprints.

Sustainability as a concept caught fire. A bulky list of projects was published as Agenda 21, a mix of projects aiming at ecological healing or empowerment of the poor. The UN, most of the globe’s national governments including of course the U. S. and many of its state and local governments, also your nearby university and mine, many churches, corporations and civic groups use the language of Sustainability and claim to be there or getting there real soon. Sustainability started as an elastic idea, and now takes the tangible form of many meetings and conventions where builders show off the latest in energy-efficient, water recycling buildings and housing/transportation clusters, students describe creek cleanups and governments compete for awards for green behavior.

A sort of bonfire has been ignited, though not without critics on the American right such as Glenn Beck and the Republican National Committee, people who don’t like environmentalism and especially don’t like a reform agenda hatched in Rio de Janeiro. Some of Sustainability’s well-wishers admit regret at its opaque language.

The most serious and telling criticism points out  that no country or human community can reach Sustainability if their civic leaders remain stubbornly unwilling to debate and decide how and how urgently the human population of the U. S. can be brought down to, or even for a time below, carrying capacity.

One Task Force (entitled “Population and Consumption”) of President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development made this point in an interim report to the Council in 1996. Regrettably, the final Council draft of 1999 neutered the recommendation that population stabilization should be the number one goal in the new century. The topic was sensitive, since most of America’s population growth derived from immigration, a “sensitive” subject, i.e. third rail to Clinton and his advisors. Thus America’s first (and thus far, only) national White Paper on Sustainability concluded that fear of controversy prevented even a Presidential Council recommendation for population stabilization.

Hope springs eternal. A heartening sign of courage could be found this Spring in the publication by Worldwatch Institute of Is Sustainability Still Possible?, the organization’s State of the World volume for 2013. The lead essay was written by Worldwatch  President Robert Engelman, who wobbled not at all: “All else being equal, the smaller the population, the more likely that sustainability can be achieved.”

In recent years I have yet to find programmatic attention to population policy as a key component of Sustainability. That's a theme not often found on the website agendas of the country’s burgeoning conferences on the Big S, where one is reminded of the words of the spiritual, “Everybody Talkin’ ‘bout Heav’n Ain’t Goin’ There… "

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