Examining Sustainability & Politics


In America's classrooms and an increasing number of its corporate boardrooms, "sustainability" is the mantra of the moment. The sustainability perspective is that without a healthy and productive ecosystem, wealth is impossible; environmental protection is a prerequisite to wealth. If we do not develop an economic system less dependent on the one-time use of natural resources, then it is inevitable that energy, water, food and all sorts of critical raw materials will become more and more expensive. The development of a sustainable, renewable resource-based economy has become a necessity. Events such as the BP oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster have proven that unsustainable practices not only damage the environment, but can also claim lives and livelihoods.

The following body of work is a collection of essays that focuses on sustainability, namely in politics, education, and management. Every week I examine contemporary issues in the Huffington Post.  This compilation is a way to collect my analysis on various issues, creating an easy tool for anyone wishing to explore sustainability issues. I also write a fair amount on politics and government and often integrate my discussion of sustainability with a discussion of the current political climate and of the public policy process, so those posts are also included in the collection.

Some important themes that have been in consistent throughout my essays since I started posting them in 2009 include our dependence on non-renewable fuel resources, the role of local government versus federal government in promoting sustainablity policy, the economics of sustainability, the growing field of sustainability management, and the increase in higher education opportunities in the field of sustainability. Accordingly, the posts have been organized into these six areas:

Sustainability Management
  • What is sustainability management?
  • What are the drivers and inhibitors of sustainability?
  • Why is sustainability management so critical?

My academic and professional expertise is in management, and one consideration missing from standard management education is sustainability. In addition to traditional areas such as finance, human resources, information management and strategy, managers must also learn to control the use of energy, water and other raw materials, and must pay attention to the content and cost of the waste produced by their organizations.

So what exactly is sustainability management?  Sustainability management can be broadly defined as the organizational management practices that result in sustainable development.  It is a management practice that minimizes environmental impact and maximizes resource conservation and reuse. The depletion of our natural resources is clear and presents challenges for all organizations in the future. Companies such as Wal-Mart and Bank of America are beginning to understand that managing sustainably benefits their profit margin and long term resiliency as well as the environment. I discuss examples of such companies in the posts that follow, taking a specific interest in the economic motivation behind sustainability management. I also discuss the need for sustainability management at the local, national, and global levels and evaluate our progress toward meeting this need.

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Issues of Energy
  • Is current energy policy wise?
  • What is the technology driving renewable energy?
  • Why do we need renewable, clean energy?
  • How do we hasten the transition to a renewable energy economy?

Energy is at the core of the sustainability challenge. Most of the production, transportation, and everyday processes that we depend on daily are energy intensive. We not only need to make these processes more energy efficient, but also need to power them with renewable sources if we are to develop a long-term sustainable economy.

Enhanced energy efficiency can help us reduce demand as we reach peak production capacity. Energy efficiency saves money for consumers and lessens the pressure on producers to increase their energy production capacities. However, the growing global population and increased energy use means that increasing energy efficiency will not be enough; we also need to develop renewable energy technologies to meet the growing global demand for energy.

With government investment in research and development, renewable energy technology can advance enough to become a low-cost alternative to fossil fuel use. We have begun this transition to lower cost and plentiful renewable energy, but we still have a long way to go. In the meantime, efforts to extract more fossil fuels using extreme methods such as hydrofracking and mountain top removal for coal are damaging the environment. We need more government regulation of these practices in order to ensure the safety and health of our environment. By carefully examining critical events such as the BP oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster; federal, state, and local policies related to energy issues; and emerging renewable technologies in the posts that follow, I hope to provide insight into the energy issues we face and to shed light on some solutions to these issues. If we can solve the energy challenge, we can solve the sustainability challenge.

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The Politics of Sustainability
  • Why are local governments leaders in sustainability?
  • What is the state of national politics, and what are its implications for sustainability?
  • How is policy important to the development of green infrastructure?

There is an old argument put forth by many politicians and industry leaders that protecting the natural environment and economic growth are incompatible goals. However, the contrary is true – economic growth depends on a sustained, functioning natural environment.  There is a political argument that must be made to invest in a sustainable future through a portfolio of federal, state, and local policies and programs.  The politics behind passing needed policies and implementing important programs are complicated, require long-term thinking, and tough choices.

Take infrastructure as one example.  Infrastructure is the backbone of economic growth in capitalist societies making the transfer of goods and services possible. Building railroads, ports, bridges, and interstate highways facilitated economic transformation and prosperity. This construction was made possible through far-sighted policy and investment by the government- and by the fact that distributing public resources made elected leaders more influential. The present situation is no different; we need public investment to spur the development of green infrastructure. We need to develop green transportation for people and goods as well as for the production, transmission and storage of clean energy. The development of smart grid infrastructure is essential for the development of distributed, decentralized generation of energy.

The following blogs report on and analyze environmental policy on the national, state, and local stages. Topics that appear often include the EPA and the Clean Air Act, the BP oil spill, and state-specific subsidy programs that encourage sustainability. Over the past several years, I have kept a close eye on the environmental policy decisions made by the Obama Administration and by Congress, and these decisions are analyzed from a political perspective and from a sustainability one in the posts that follow.

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Urban Sustainability, examples from New York City
  • Why is urban sustainability important?
  • What can be learned from New York City?
  • Why do density and social equity matter?

I have written extensively about sustainability in New York City, including my most recent book: “Sustainability Management, Lessons from and for New York City, America, and the Planet.” New York City has historically been a leader in fields ranging from finance to media, and is currently experimenting with sustainability. Mayor Bloomberg has made his PlaNYC 2030 sustainability plan a priority across the administration. He has done so because he views sustainability as integral to the city’s long-term quality and global competitiveness as its population grows and other cities emerge as global leaders.

The trends seen in New York City -- of municipal government taking leadership to implement sustainability measures and practices regardless of global, national, or regional government assistance -- can be seen worldwide.  There are a variety of factors pushing local governments to take the lead in sustainability although two stand out: (1) Local governments are more clearly confronted with the short-term impacts of sustainability challenges, (2) Water supply, waste management and transportation infrastructure are a basic responsibility of local municipalities.

In response to this need for a strong local sustainability initiative, New York City has succeeded in implementing several sustainability measures from PlaNYC 2030 and must continue to manage the goals set forth by Mayor Bloomberg in that plan. The following essays chronicle the successes and failures of sustainability policies in New York City and look to the future as this diverse city must meet its growing demands for energy, mass transit, and clean drinking water.

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Sustainability Education
  • What are the dangers of cutting U.S. federal funding for scientific research and education?
  • How are sustainability education programs emerging and growing?
  • Is there reason to be optimistic?

Over the last few years I have witnessed and helped lead the growth of sustainability and environmentally focused programs here at Columbia. These include an undergraduate major in Sustainable Development, multiple masters programs, a Ph.D. in sustainable development and a new master's level certificate in sustainability analytics. The growth of these programs represents a larger transformation already underway in society. Although I may be biased from my position as an educator in these programs, it is undeniable that a societal shift in thought is taking place. Young people in particular, are increasingly accepting the realities of the crisis in sustainability.

The development of these education programs is a key element of the transition to a sustainable economy. Our students will become the leaders in every field that can make this critical change.  Students must master the science, engineering and architecture of the physical dimensions of sustainability to understand the complex challenges facing our planet and devise, implement, manage and communicate solutions to those problems.

This growing interest in sustainability education indicates a positive trend not just for those individuals in the programs, but also for the nation.   As an educator at Columbia University, I see students everyday who are learning the details and theories of sustainable development. My job is to provide students the tools to drive sustainable changes. These students are energized, passionate, driven, smart, and equipped with the tools to succeed where past efforts have failed – and for these reasons, I choose to see the glass as half full and have hope for the future.

In the essays that follow, I describe the growing number of programs in sustainability education and discuss how these programs are changing the way the generation of professionals will go about their work, especially as the green job market continues to grow. I examine the impact of this growing field on public opinion, the job market, and our nation's future.

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Government and Politics

Section 1: National

  • How have national politics changed since the 2008 election?
  • How effective has President Obama been during his term?
  • What were some of the defining political moments of the last three years and why do they matter?
  • What do the politics of the 2012 presidential election say about our nation?

Section 2: State/Local

  • What can national politicians learn from local leaders in New York?
  • What are the key issues facing state governments as we enter the 2012 election?

With a background in political science, and public policy and administration, politics and government are never off my radar. In a country like the United States, it is impossible to escape from the constant barrage of media coverage on political issues, especially during election years. The posts in this section seek to make sense of this onslaught of information and to provide perspective on political moves and on governmental policies and processes.

Other issues I seek to address in this section include that of public service and the role of government. With Hurricane Katrina and the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti not too far in the past, our nation's capacity for disaster relief is one that must be evaluated and improved. In addition, the current attack on public service needs to end, as public service is imperative to a healthy and productive nation. 

President Obama has often been the subject of my writings, I focused a great deal of attention on the 2012 presidential election. My posts on presidential politics increased during 2012 as I evaluated the political climate and provided analysis of important events during the campaign. These focused pieces reflected news events during the campaign,  but generally this section covers very diverse news, from national issues like the economic recession, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to local events such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. To provide ease of reading and comprehension, the section has two subsections: (1) National Politics and Government and (2) State/Local Politics and Government.

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I invite you to explore these topics and follow the evolution of these issues over the course of the last three years. As I continue writing in the Huffington Post blog, my posts will be updated here.