Blog 24. Sustainability and the NRC

On June 28, 2013, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) issued a report saying the White House should establish a national policy on sustainability by executive order.  Now how can an order on paper generate sustainability?

First, a sustainability story, a hydrology lesson, Texas style.

A Texan, a farmer who lived along the Rio Grande, was trying to explain his situation to a New Mexico farmer, who lived just across the state line upstream. These were good old boys with manure on their boots.

Texas drawl: “Have you ever been confined to a ghetto?

NM (Puzzled): “Well, no.”

Tex: “Have you ever been locked in jail?

NM: “No, of course not.”

Tex: “Have you ever lived downstream?

Here’s the lesson for those who don’t speak Texan: Irrigation water flows from river to ditch to field. Then some of the water picks up salts as it oozes through the soil back to the river. The process is repeated downstream, until New Mexico sends salty river water to Texas. Even with water in it, the river is not an infinitely sustainable resource.

In water, air, and other necessities, we all live downstream from someone.

In ecology, “sustainable” refers to a process that can continue indefinitely without harm. Land, minerals, water, and clean air are either consumed as expendable resources or degraded by use as waste dumps. Eventually, that leads to disaster. The NRC report discussed how sustainability might be generated by communication among private, nonprofit, and government agencies. It didn’t directly address the two big issues: consumption and waste. It’s a walk-before-run approach.

The report says sustainability involves connections among environmental, economic, and social issues where the federal government is “not organized or operated to deal with this complexity.” Furthermore, ” achieving sustainability is a systems challenge that cannot be addressed by separately optimizing pieces of the system.”  The report focuses on what governing agencies can do, but, by its own words, the report “is grounded in systems thinking, incorporating social, economic, and environmental considerations …”   Hooray!

The language is right!  In prior posts of this blog, I said social problems are best solved by understanding the complex system(s) in which the problems occur and then tweaking the internal rules of interaction, not by attempting a cure on the unwanted systemic symptom itself (in this case, ecological exhaustion).

The authors examined six examples across the U.S. where local organizations, agencies, and stakeholders talked about their local sustainability problems-two cases being the Puget Sound and the Mojave desert, where multiple users have competing needs and multiple agencies have differing jurisdictions. Sustainability efforts were successful in proportion to the cooperation and participation of all players.

The report promotes “adaptive management,” saying “Adaptive management enables participants to set goals, undertake actions, monitor the effects of those actions on outcomes, and, most importantly, make adjustments as needed.” In other words, define the objective and let local, bottom-up management self-organize to achieve results. It is necessary for each governmental agency to get around the so-called “silo” effect in which “authority is fragmented as each agency focuses on implementing its own statutory mandate.” Cooperation, not selfishness, not competition is the method. Not your usual Wall Street business model. The objective is to enable continuing life, not to grow money.

The report describes the National Oceans Policy, initiated during the Bush administration and put into effect under an executive order by Obama. The report calls for a similar order on sustainability “to address environmental, economic, and societal issues and support human well-being … .”

So how does an executive order create sustainability?  By making talk about sustainability not only permissible, but mandatory.  Talk across the confines of agency and organizational boundaries.  As I’ve said before in these posts, if you can’t talk about a problem you are powerless to change it.

It’s a start toward a better way of managing the interconnections of people, place, and purpose.  But be aware, somehow sustainability will introduce a limit, a regulation, wheher written or unwritten.  Keeping salt out of the river requires a new rule.

For those who want details, here’s a glimpse of the NRC, adapted from various sources.

The National Research Council is the working arm of the United States National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The National Academies have more than 6300 professional members who are elected based on achievements in research. The academies serve, without pay, as advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine. The academies do not conduct research. They produce recommendations on policy to address some of society’s problems. The NRC produces reports that shape policies, inform public opinion, and advance the pursuit of science, engineering, and medicine. The members of its committees serve without pay. About 200 reports are produced each year, dealing with topics as diverse as the obesity epidemic, transportation safety, climate change, and invasive plants.