Balancing System Health Across Environmental, Social, and Ecological Metrics

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The American ethos has evolved to encompass a new kind of environmental consciousness. Current popular notions of environmentalism in the U.S. focus less on government responses to mitigate readily-observable pollution, and more on personal and collective actions that reconcile goals of economic growth and resource conservation. This is encompassed by the term sustainability, which has become a wildly pliable yet powerful concept. Like many broad concepts, sustainability can quickly convey an overarching goal. The term implies a connection between present and future societies through consumption and conservation patterns. It is also a novel concept in public dialogue, evoking notions of tradeoffs between economic, ecological, and social outcomes.  Identifying specific actions that can be tied to sustainable principles, however, involves work at much more refined levels (Solow 1993). Developing actionable policies based on sustainable principles will require development of robust data and analysis tools that tie economic indicators with novel metrics of social and environmental health. Sustainable policies would pursue balances between these metrics in order to promote current and future health of social, environmental, and ecological systems.

The increased pervasiveness of the term in national and international dialogue likely represents a shift in cultural thought. From the turn of the century until after World War II, Americans viewed their land as bountiful and were mostly concerned with preserving remarkable natural areas for future generations. As awareness grew of the impacts of industrial and cultural processes on the environment, an emerging holistic perspective typified by Aldo Leopold (1949) and Rachel Carson (1962) formed the basis of ecological thought. From roughly 1960-1990, ecological knowledge spread and American citizens and institutions were concerned with remediating an environment fouled by the remnants of industrialization. Massive legislative and policy efforts, including the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972, the passage of the modern Clean Water Act in1972, and passage of the Clear Air Act in 1990, represented efforts to confront tangible environmental impacts. Today, however, cleaner air and water has mediated some level of urgency for government regulation. Concern over environmental issues persists among many, but with a different focus. Rather than simply conserving natural icons or cleaning past ills, environmentalist thinking in the public mind has shifted to enabling present lifestyles that promote a viable future. This notable shift, however, does not yet have a coherent set of corresponding national legislation. Policies built on principles of future consequences, such as restrictions on carbon emissions, are still seen as a significant burden to larger political goals of economic growth. Sustainability action remains beholden to perceptions of human dominance over ecosystems.

Many criticize sustainability due to lack of a clear definition. Typical definitions include combinations of present and future needs, carrying capacity, resource usage, health, and ecosystem vitality (U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development 1987; Arrow et al. 1996; Wheeler 1998; Pearce 1988; Rees and Roseland 1998). While it may seem that the term sustainability should be defined before serving as the basis for governance, it actually joins a list of broadly accepted but ill-defined ideals that are prevalent in policy-making. Most Americans enthusiastically believe in freedom as a tenet of law, though establishing a definition of freedom is difficult and variable. The Oxford English Dictionary consists of no fewer than 14 definitions of freedom, with the first one being, “the state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition” (Oxford 2012). This hardly represents clear guidance for policy-making. Similarly, citizens of the U.S. have a long history of demanding equality through generations of increasingly inclusive policies, but defining equality is problematic. What is the proper distribution of wealth within a society that consists of people from many backgrounds, ethnicities, and work ethics? Despite the difficulty in defining these terms, their usefulness as a political and cultural idea is accepted. The cultural regime shift in towards sustainability is significant and can serve as the basis for legislative or regulatory activity that balances the tradeoffs inherent in the definitions.

If sustainability is then a useful goal for public policy, what fundamental changes must occur to enable its pursuit? Managing social, ecological, and economic systems on principles of sustainability would require several changes that expand how governance systems measure prosperity. First, the dichotomy between economic growth and ecosystem health must be recognized as simplistic. Market changes that result from evolving social and environmental goals do not necessarily impact economic growth, though they do often redistribute wealth away from current incumbents. These powerful incumbents often present stiff opposition to such changes on economic terms, claiming that the new policies are burdensome. Yet historical evidence questions the broad applicability of this notion, exemplified by the automobile industry. Starting with California in 1966, states and the EPA enacted a host of standards for emissions controls in vehicles, resulting in the introduction of fuel injection, catalytic converters, and computer-based regulation of fuel-mix. The compilation of these actions has served to dramatically reduce emissions per automobile from 1960’s levels. Yet, despite these regulations, which were consistently opposed by manufacturers, the automobile market is still thriving. Rather than being jeopardized by increasing regulations, new markets have been developed that benefited producers of new technologies. The largest threat to the health of automobile manufacturers has come not from environmental regulations, but from the business decisions of incumbent producers. Thus, changing public policy to reflect environmental goals does not have to impact growth, but it will impact incumbents, which have a disproportionate voice in governance.

Second, national measures of well-being must evolve beyond a singular focus on economic growth to include social and environmental factors. A representation of this bias towards economic growth can be found in the Environmental Kuznet’s Curve (Kuznet 1955). The U-shaped curve describes environmental degradation as a function of per capita income, with degradation first increasing as income rises, but later falling as citizens achieve sufficient wealth and slow degredation. This trend is used as one justification for continued pursuit of economic growth in lesser-industrialized nations, for environmental well-being increases with wealth. While some aspects of environmental quality in the U.S. and elsewhere (suspended heavy particulates and atmospheric sulfur dioxide) have followed this trend, others have not (carbon dioxide and urban and agricultural runoff into estuaries). Economic growth, however, may not fully explain the shape of the curve. It is likely that aspects of psychology, sociology, and socio-technical systems contribute to the observed trends. Psychology can help explain how people respond most readily to tangible and visible representations of environmental degradation, including local changes and dramatic events. For instance, the Cayahoga River Fire of 1956 is a dramatic event often credited as a turning point in environmental awareness, but it had no direct connection to per capita income. Later, as those stark images of environmental degradation fade, citizen support for continued regulation eases. The economic and sociological aspects of technology adoption also help explain portions of the Kuznet’s Curve. Many viable technologies are created every year, but the successful ones fulfill economic needs while meeting sociological norms. This serves to reinforce current technologies that were created as part of the growth-oriented system. Energy efficient buildings are a prime example, for significant cost savings are possible, but current financing and energy distribution systems make this switch difficult. The instances above related to the Kuznet’s Curve exemplify how the focus on economic growth is self-perpetuating, when many other factors are influential in the development of societies.  A more intricate understanding of the relationships between ecosystem health, economic growth, sociology, and culture must evolve.

While economic measures may dominate most policy-making processes, it is possible to develop better metrics for economic health, environmental quality and social well-being (Arrow et al. 1996). Environmental informatics is expanding rapidly through increased capabilities of remote sensing, field measurements, and storage capacity (Meadows 1998). Information regarding social networks has exploded as part of the internet revolution, allowing researchers to better understand how well-being is influenced by our surroundings and communities. Thus, we are developing the tools that can bring environmental and social data collection to the level of specificity currently found in economic markets. A significant challenge is how to integrate these potentially non-economic indicators with economic measures in a meaningful way. We can understand that a person with more social connections has value within a network, but how does that translate to monetary terms? In some cases, it may not be necessary to obtain a common indicator if the separate measures of economic, social, and ecological health all have well-understood and meaningful ranges. In other cases, especially when public agencies are evaluating the economic and ecological benefits of natural resource management actions, verifiable integrated methods are critical for justifying actions. Better data can also perpetuate system feedback, which has become the basis of the adaptive management technique for environmental systems. Thus, specific metrics of sustainable social, ecological, and economic systems are not necessarily broad, but can be synthesized to guide institutions in developing specific policies and metrics.

Urban systems provide a unique laboratory to explore and describe how sustainability principles can become operational policies. In the human-built environment of cities, most impacts can be attributed to human actions. Urban policy-making has the capability to affect these impacts within the limitations of social and political systems. Small actions can have magnified effects through economies of scale (Beatley 2000). Moreover, cities are hotspots for data collection and analysis, lending them to experiments in measuring indicators and instituting feedback loops. Wheeler (1998) has detailed the key tenets of sustainable urban systems, including: 1) compact land use, 2) reduced automobile usage, 3) efficient resource use and less pollution, 4) restoration of natural systems, 5) quality housing, 6) healthy social ecology, 7) sustainable economics, 8 ) community participation, and 9) preservation of local culture. In each of these instances, it is possible to define measurable objectives and collect verifiable data that gauges progress towards specific goals. Achieving some or all of these goals would make the system more “sustainable” in the aggregate, which could then provide insights into the overall function, structure, and trajectory of the city. It is also likely that some urban residents would perceive goals as conflicting. For instance, for those who believe that quality housing constitutes a large secure yard, reducing automobile usage could impact their lifestyle. While these issues are not to be ignored, the overall trend of U.S. social attitudes, especially amongst younger generations, indicates that such tradeoffs may not be as stark in coming years for this example. Nevertheless, the concrete nature of urban sustainability provides a roadmap towards balancing the multiple goals with robust data.

Perhaps the most difficult issue in the definition of sustainability is the requirement to assess the needs of future generations (Dasgupta 2007; Solow 1993; Common 1995). Ideally, societies would identify optimal intersections of current and future needs, extracting just enough resources to meet current needs while leaving enough for future generations. In reality, estimating the needs of future generations is fraught with uncertainty. Governing institutions are faced with the task of reconciling public opinion that supports the principles of sustainability while dealing with the difficulties of enacting an ideal across a diverse constituency, all in the context of limited knowledge. For current U.S. political systems, this proves a daunting task. Moreover, as Solow (1993) points out, policies that seek to provide for future societies without recognizing those in need today are contradictory. Rather than focus on arguments over definitions or future needs, societies that seek sustainable policies must use specific metrics to balance health of economies, ecosystems, and communities. Pursuing these goals simultaneously is perhaps our best chance at achieving equity across time and spatial scales.

The pursuit of sustainability as a policy and social goal presents both opportunities and challenges. The broad acceptance of the term shows that citizens throughout the world, as well as the U.S., are increasingly aware that current practices impact future outcomes. The change in public dialogue, exhibited by a near obsession with words such as green, eco, and sustainability, has resulted in an opportunity to alter broader social constructs that, sometimes unknowingly, influence individual and institutional decision-making. Yet, some concrete facts hold true. Individuals remain biased towards decisions that increase monetary wealth. Companies and institutions maintain policies that measure progress in economic terms. Including social and environmental health metrics in overall planning and policy processes will prove difficult, especially in the face of entrenched interests. Nevertheless, robust data analysis provides the path to show the usefulness of such procedures. Combined with an undercurrent of cultural change, these factors can drive sustainable principles in the policy-making process. Sustainability is relevant to policy-making, but policies should really be about strengthening communities and ecosystems, for which sustainability happens to be the best descriptor we have developed thus far.



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