Ecology is undergoing a paradigm shift. The discipline once contended that nature must be protected from humankind and its relentless drive to dominate and destroy it. That view is giving way to a new vision of humankind and nature working together, each dependent on the other for its existence. Ecological science can show us how to sustain nature in support of humankind’s wellbeing. But humankind must also assume greater responsibility to sustain nature’s wellbeing. This means ensuring that all species—the planet’s amazing variety of microbes and plants and animals—can each fulfill their biological natures and perform the functions that sustain all of life on Earth. Sustaining humans and nature together calls for a deepened commitment to environmental stewardship. This new science-based ethic will help humankind strive to use natural resources as dividends of life-sustaining functions, to protect entire ecosystems not just their parts, and to ensure the development of scientifically defensible environmental policies and regulations. Environmental stewardship can help reimagine a policy process that treats ecological and political questions together, thereby enhancing the durability of solutions aimed at sustaining the welfare of all living beings—humans and non-humans—alike.
Important and ambitious initiatives are underway to protect the planet's biodiversity. Work in a number of areas is necessary for these visions and projects to succeed. First, it is critical to go beyond endangered biodiversity per se but consider their local and regional settings and extend that systems approach yet further to the climate system—a gigantic challenge to managing life on earth. This will in turn will require systems thinking and systems approaches to global economic development. High on the list of reframed approaches must be the food, land use, and infrastructure sectors. But it is also important not to lose track of what is needed for conservation of biodiversity directly—and for the longer-term goal of a biologically diverse planet with robust populations of plants, animals, micro-organisms, and ecosystems. Protected areas are important as ultimate havens and safe places, but they need to be imbedded in a biodiversity-friendly matrix. We need to think of a world in which plant and animal populations are not restricted to protected areas, but can recover and move across gradients in response to environmental change. And one where human aspiration is embedded in nature and biological diversity, in broader landscapes, freshwater-scapes, and seascapes.
Globally, forests regulate numerous ecological and biogeochemical cycles, and nearly half of the world’s population is partially dependent on the essential ecosystem services they provide: water for drinking and irrigation, protection from and filtration of storm water, timber, recreation, and climate change mitigation. Prior to the industrial revolution, forests covered about 30 percent of the terrestrial global surface, compared to less than 20 percent today; with the primary driver of forest cover loss due to human activities and the expansion of over 75 percent of the population into what is considered the original forest biome. Today, approximately one-third of pre-industrial forests remain relatively intact. Remaining forests face threats from conversion to agriculture and overexploitation for forest products; invasive pests; fragmentation from suburbanization; and climate change. The resilience and long-term stability of these ecosystems is becoming increasingly uncertain, and given the complex, multidimensional implications of forest degradation on ecosystem and climate instability, there is now a global call for forest restoration; one of the most effective means of climate change mitigation available. Yet, restoration solutions are technically and sociologically complex. They rely on three key pillars: 1) a much better understanding of ecological theory; 2) the correct application of the relatively new sub-discipline of stand dynamics; and 3) the development of site-specific treatments to cater to differences in economy, culture, legal, and social condition.
Conserving land once meant drawing lines on a map and calling the site a national park or wildlife refuge. For more than 100 years, that model of land conservation (since extended to all 50 states) has prevailed and today the United States has one of the greatest systems of protected lands anywhere in the world—a framework that has now been exported to 192 countries. Yet, we may be nearing the limits of that model of land conservation. We are not creating many new national parks, national wildlife refuges or national forests. Public sentiment about government land ownership is changing. Budgetary constraints mean that not only is there not enough money to buy all the land needed for conservation, but that even if public agencies could buy the land they would not have the resources to manage it well. Instead, land conservation efforts are increasingly focused on the private lands that lie in between the large blocks of protected federal or state land. These lands provide critical conservation values while still supporting important economic activities such as farming, ranching, and forestry. Land conservation in America is changing; to find new sources of innovation and more land to protect, we must turn to private lands.
Food security and sustainability are a critical foundation of human peace and prosperity. To achieve true food sustainability and security, the farming community and food supply chain must be stewards not just of the land, but also of nutrition and climate change. That stewardship obligation should be seen as a responsibility to simultaneously provide for the current population while also preserving and enhancing the land for the next generation. On the farm, stewardship requires that farmers not just plant for this season's harvest or raise a herd of animals, but that they equally maintain a far deeper sense of commitment to the land, their children, and grandchildren. By taking advantage of existing opportunities, new technologies, and the restorative power of land, the agricultural community can be on the frontline of addressing climate change and food security.
Food production must increase by around 70 percent by 2050 in order tomeet increased demand from growing populations and changing diets. Simultaneously, the natural resources on which agriculture depends are becoming scarcer as agricultural land, fertilizer, and water use increase. This expanded agricultural footprint causes deforestation, biodiversity loss, eutrophication, and rampant groundwater depletion, among other negative environmental impacts. We argue that smallholder agricultural yields can be increased by improving field-level management and by promoting sustainable intensification technologies, which improve production without increasing environmental impacts. Our on-the-ground research, conducted across smallholder systems in South Asia, offers insight on the extent to which sustainable intensification can meet increased global food demand. For these approaches to be successful, they must be locally appropriate and consider the broad range of factors influencing farmer decision-making.
Many people live in arid places across the United States and around the world. As climate change shifts rainfall patterns, the challenges of drought and water supply promise to become more pressing and complex. Global water demand is projected to increase 55 percent due to growing demand from manufacturing, thermal electricity generation, and domestic use, largely from emerging economies and developing countries. To cope with these pressures, society needs a new approach to water management—emphasizing reuse, recycling, and the recognition that there is no such thing as “wastewater,” just water that is wasted. New practices and technologies are enabling the recovery of value where previously none was recognized. Not long ago, water managers in the United States still relied on the classic, linear approach to the capture and distribution of water, pioneered by the ancient Romans. Now, they are adopting complimentary practices which reuse water in ways better designed to cope with population growth, drought, climate variability, groundwater depletion, subsidence, and even nutrient over-enrichment. Reuse is growing with little federal involvement other than the baseline requirements of the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, as states pursue their own policies and regulations. Given the rapidly evolving state of play, a “state laboratories” approach is the best policy for testing new technologies, standards, and regulations with which to manage the growth of water reuse.
Humanity's perceptions of the ocean have changed abruptly in recent times, but now need to change even more if we are to achieve sustainable use of the ocean and the planet. Historic perceptions of the ocean once lulled us into the belief that the ocean was so immense that humans could not possibly have an impact on it. Of course, we now know that nothing could be further from the truth. But currently, the ocean is so degraded and the problems so complex that many suggest it is now impossible to fix. This “doom and gloom” attitude impairs the ability of communities, businesses, and countries to marshal the will and resources to address the problems creatively. In fact, new policies, science, technology, and awareness are demonstrating that it is possible—though not easy—to achieve sustainable use of the ocean, and in so doing, achieve multiple other co-benefits that assist with global needs, e.g., for food security, carbon sequestration, and adaptation to impacts of climate change. Solutions exist, but are not at the scale needed for success. In short, attitudes about the ocean have shifted from “it's too big to fail” to “it's too big to fix,” but now must shift further to “it's so big and so central to our future, it's too big to ignore.” The opportunity now exists to build on myriad small-scale successes, stimulate innovation, and greatly accelerate progress by crafting smart policies, practices, and technologies.
Environmental law and policy in the twentieth century centered on telling people what not to do. While this framework of “red lights” helped us to curb pollution, reduce waste, and limit chemical exposures, it did not spur transformative innovation in response to critical challenges such as the need for clean and sustainable energy. To focus America’s environmental problem-solving capacity on such issues requires a parallel structure of “green lights.” These policies must signal to the creative spirits and entrepreneurial talent across the nation and world that their efforts to deliver solutions—including renewable power and other clean technologies—will be rewarded. Our policy structure thus needs to be reframed with a sharper focus on promoting innovation in technology development, public engagement, funding, and partnerships in support of a sustainable future.
To make the kind of rapid and comprehensive environmental protection progress we need in the twenty-first century, current fragmented, compartmentalized, and media-specific approaches will need to be abandoned. Today’s complex, interconnected environmental problems demand coupling reductionist approaches with systems thinking. Past approaches have resulted in unintended negative consequences and, in too many cases, “doing the right things wrong.” Pitfalls of reductionist approaches include making biofuels from food, building solar panels from toxic metals, and other examples. By building systems thinking into the foundations of environmental protection, not only can we produce better environmental results and avoid unintended consequences, but we can also achieve win-win solutions without the tragic win-lose battles of past approaches. Putting systems thinking into practice requires breaking down silos in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, gearing science toward problem-solving, rethinking risk management, and greater collaboration across government agencies.
Genomics—a scientific field that focuses on the mapping, function, and editing of the genome—is already changing industries like healthcare and agriculture. Genome scientists are beginning to take on sustainability challenges as well, and the field has transformative potential to address environmental problems. For example, pollutants can be cleansed from soils and waters through genomic work on plants and bacteria that can degrade pollutants; this approach has been used on large oil spills, such as those associated with the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters. Genomic techniques allow us to grow crops more efficiently using less water and, importantly, relying less on pesticide use. Genomics is also helping to develop biofuels from plants, trees, and forest residue, thereby reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Last, but not least, genomics can provide important information about individuals’ vulnerability to diseases caused by environmental conditions.
The promised fourth industrial revolution has offered us an array of tantalizing technologies from artificial intelligence to quantum computing and the internet of things, but is unlikely to erase the environmental impacts of a technological legacy that includes the internal combustion engine, coal-powered electricity generation, chemical synthesis, and the mass production of consumer goods. Better software and hardware won’t save the planet and don’t count on any app for global salvation. Climate isn’t our only worry. We are pushing against or through planetary boundaries in areas such as nitrogen and phosphorus flows and the loss of genetic diversity, and we will face significant challenges to produce ample protein for a planet of nine billion people. As Bill McKibben recently noted, “We’re running out of options, and we’re running out of decades.” But if we believe that technology has a role to achieving a more sustainable future, we will need a redoubled focus on disruptive innovation, not just marginal improvements in existing technologies and we must make sure we avoid negative unintended consequences. This has to happen before we run out of decades.
Fossil fuels provide most of our energy today, while renewable sources provide only about 10 percent. But environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels demand a transition to sustainable energy technologies like wind and solar power. To date, however, the value of wind and solar energy has been limited by the intermittency of these sources of electricity. To expand the use of renewable power, we must find methods to store wind and solar electricity cost-effectively. Photosynthesis in plants and bacteria, the original source of the energy embodied in fossil fuels, stores energy in chemical bonds. To power the planet completely with renewable energy, we need to develop innovative and low-cost technologies to store energy in chemical bonds using artificial photosynthesis, thus mimicking nature’s production of “solar” power.
Innovation in the energy sector is essential for low-cost deeper decarbonization in the twenty-first century. To enable this innovation, the American energy policy landscape needs to overcome market failures that slow investment. As long as energy producers can emit greenhouse gases at no cost and pass the consequences on to others, and as long as individuals and companies must pay all of the costs to develop technologies while only reaping some of the returns, current energy markets will not provide the incentives necessary to generate innovative low-carbon technologies. To rationalize energy pricing and spur innovation, I propose an energy innovation approach similar to the TIGER transportation grants used as part of the Recovery Act during the Great Recession, a competitive grant program for projects that result in “desirable, long-term outcomes” for transportation in the United States. A similar funding scheme can help fund high-priority areas that remain underfunded due to market failures. The scheme could focus on early stage technology research, a smarter electric grid, strategic deployment of battery storage, and related priorities. This policy approach holds promise for fostering enhanced energy innovation, smoothing the path towards a dramatic energy transition in the twenty-first century.
Climate change is rapidly altering our nation and we are not prepared. Our investment in infrastructure is already lagging, leading to crumbling bridges, roads, stormwater systems and more, and these challenges will be exacerbated by increasingly severe weather events. At present, we are often only spurred to action in the face of disaster recovery. After the latest hurricane, wildfire, or heatwave, we come together to rebuild. These events take a significant toll in terms of loss of life, economic devastation, and the huge investment needed for recovery. We must rethink how we invest in infrastructure to ensure that we are maximizing the impact of every dollar, providing essential amenities today while building a more resilient future. Bringing adaptation to the forefront of the climate change conversation would help society face up to the reality we are already living in—that we must come together both to reduce our future impact on the planet and also to learn how to live with the impacts we have already caused. Public investment must be prioritized in a way that increases resilience—by design—by collaborating more, integrating natural systems, the built environment and social equity, and bringing innovative design thinking to the forefront to help us solve some of our nation’s biggest challenges to build a resilient future for all.
Global average temperatures are rising more rapidly now than at any time in modern history. Scientists estimate that by the end of this century temperatures in the United States will increase by between 3.6 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit compared to pre-industrial days. As a result, the U.S. population is beginning to experience climate-change-related challenges to our homeland security, economy, health, quality of life, and the natural systems upon which we depend. These challenges will continue to grow. The risks we face going forward will vary by geographic region, by economic sector, and by the socio-economic status of the people facing them. To meet these challenges, the National Weather Service, whose mission has been focused on weather forecasts, needs to be recast to also deliver climate data, particularly forecasts for the protection of life, property, and the national economy. To meet this broader mission, the National Weather Service’s operations, global observations, data gathering systems, and human resources must be expanded and revitalized. Already stretched too thin, the Weather Service lacks the authority and funding to adequately perform its current role, never mind an expanded climate-related mission going forward. For our nation to be truly weather-ready, the Weather Service must be able to warn the public about increasingly extreme storms, flooding, drought, fire, and other disasters through improved short-, medium-, and long-term forecasts of weather and climate-related events.
Maintaining a safe and stable climate requires a rapid reduction in the emissions of pollution that cause global warming. Government policies are one important means to achieve this goal, which requires elected officials to enact, implement, and strengthen these policies over decades. Yet there remains a critical lack of “political will” for climate action. One important influence (among others) on government officials are engaged citizens demanding action. A strong issue public—a subset of the population highly engaged in the issue of climate change—mobilized by diverse groups, and organized into a powerful advocacy coalition will be critical to winning the fight for a safe and stable climate.
The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change represents a significant milestone in the world's attempts to address the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, the Agreement cannot meet the enormity of the challenge on its own. It needs the help of other international agreements and institutions, both to remove potential obstacles to climate action and to take affirmative steps to promote it. To date, the help has been uneven. In this regard, a "climate change SWAT team" should conduct a full evaluation of the international landscape, analyzing what is needed from each agreement/institution to better align international law and policy with the Paris Agreement's goals, as well as the challenges to achieving it.
United States climate change policy is in a logjam. Young Americans can offer a way forward by asserting their rights in court. Youth plaintiffs who file rights-based cases against governments will have a relatively high probability of success both in courts of law and the court of public opinion. Such “youth versus government” cases—compared to climate change cases based on claims of damage—better align plaintiffs, defendants, and complaints for judges to feasibly take action. Responding to climate change requires a new perspective on rights-based claims, as well as those based on public trust, the notion that governments have an obligation to protect the wellbeing of citizens. In addition, youth versus government cases are more likely to appeal to the general public. They make the future impacts of climate change more tangible, and they depict a sympathetic, David and Goliath narrative focused on climate change justice for young people. These cases should form a core component of American climate change action strategy moving forward.
Environmental justice has come into sharp focus again in recent years in the wake of the predominantly minority community being exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan and other public health crises across the United States. To secure environmental justice for all individuals and communities, living in a clean, safe, and healthy environment should be considered a human right enforced by the adoption of an environmental rights provision in every state constitution. Such constitutional protections would help individuals and communities to defend their human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, clean air, and clean land—and provide new legal mechanisms for the protection of those human rights.
In the face of extraordinary environmental challenges created by a warming planet and an increasingly complex, high-tech global economy, governments need to become smarter about how they make and implement environmental policy. Specifically, governments—at all scales—need a robust capacity to analyze large volumes of environmental and economic data using cutting-edge data science and machine-learning algorithms. Three factors can be expected to drive the need for algorithmic environmental governance: more problems, less funding, and growing demands on governments. Policy makers and government officials could benefit from the superior predictive power and speed of machine learning in areas such as identifying toxic chemicals, targeting facilities for environmental inspections, and predicting climate-change-related flood risks. To make algorithmic environmental governance a reality, policy makers need to invest in information infrastructure, address concerns about privacy, strengthen human capital, and clearly define objectives.
Meeting our environmental and sustainability goals will require thousands of public and private organizations and individual citizens to apply their energy and passion with better focus. This network—the “environmental protection enterprise”—is what actually puts policies into action. Half a century ago, the enterprise consisted mainly of a small group of federal, state, and local government agencies and NGOs. It was remarkably successful at implementing "top-down" federal mandates aimed at specific pollution sources. Today we face challenges such as climate change, water shortages, waste generation, and reliance on toxic chemicals, that require more systems thinking and holistic strategies. Fortunately, many new players have joined the enterprise, including more agencies, businesses, NGOs, and community groups, enhancing capacity to deliver results. The enterprise lacks, however, the focus it needs to deliver a sustainable future. Success will require enterprise members to develop shared principles and goals, sharpen their focus on key issues and find ways to make the best use of the comparative strengths of the full spectrum of institutions and individuals in the enterprise. This approach will not replace the difficult process of political policy-making nor solve every problem, but it is necessary in order for innovative policies to be able to take flight and achieve their intended outcomes.
High-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” has made oil and natural gas abundant, which has lowered gas station prices and cut greenhouse gas emissions. These benefits have been accompanied by concern over fracking’s alleged darker role in water pollution, aquifer depletion, and earthquakes. The history of fracking offers important lessons on the proper role of science in environmental policy. As advocacy organizations drew attention to the issues, academic institutions and governmental agencies stepped up with deeper scientific analysis of fracking’s effects. Some of this research identified unexpected vulnerabilities and previously unknown risks associated with the fracking life cycle. Other studies showed that pervasive, yet untested, expectations of fracking’s most dire consequences have not materialized. That fracking reality differs from many people’s presumptions shows why good policy must build on careful science, rigorously analyzed data, and solid facts—pursued without fear of upsetting interested parties or overturning prevailing wisdom.
Corporate leadership in sustainability gained a foothold in the 1990s and the future looked promising, with a wide array of encouraging milestones like the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty and the founding of the U.S. Green Building Council. In recent years, post-2015 Paris Agreement pressure has led some companies to set ambitious science-based targets, launch initiatives like the New York Declaration on Forests, and take on work like Walmart’s Project Gigaton climate effort. However, we have recently lost momentum, and need new ways to push forward on sustainability measures from corporate leadership. Voluntary efforts in many sectors have stalled when signals from companies haven’t been supported by the incentives that would drive systemic change. Here is the fundamental challenge: in the absence of national regulation, where are the consequences for unsustainable and environmentally damaging behavior? In the world of corporate responsibility, who provides accountability and how do each of us in our respective roles do more? We need a new era of corporate leadership that relies on boards, CEOs, and shareholders to deepen promising new trends—including the rise of environmental-social-governance reporting, shareholder activism, and more.
Prevailing wisdom has long suggested that the purpose of companies is to provide financial returns to their owners. This framework has been codified over the last 50 years in shareholder primacy, a notion that has resulted in companies perceiving an obligation to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing social and environmental impacts and discounting long-term sustainability. We now need a corporate logic that incentivizes companies to contribute to a sustainable society beyond short-term profit and financial return to shareholders. Indeed, the pendulum of markets now seems to be swinging away from short-term thinking and exclusive focus on the primacy of shareholders, and towards broader considerations of the responsibility of businesses toward society and the environment. Shareholder activism, increased transparency, and evolving corporate governance structures are driving change. However, time is of the essence and to accelerate this change, governments need to broaden financial disclosure requirements and expand the way we measure economic health to include key environmental and social aspects.
Waste management across the United States relies mostly on landfilling for disposal and on recycling for recovery. These technology choices keep cities clean, but they are environmentally costly. For many countries, this “harm-reduction” approach would be a significant improvement over the status quo, but the United States can—and should—do better. A reimagined waste strategy could minimize environmental harms across the full life cycle of production and consumption. By collecting and mixing different types of materials, current practices preclude attempts to salvage value from the waste stream. Waste management policy must therefore emphasize waste prevention over waste treatment alone. Cities can do this by updating reduction and reuse strategies, such as charging residents for how much waste they create, and by improving collection and sortation by implementing new technologies and incentivizing reverse supply chains. These policies and programs can work to produce material streams with value, unlock entrepreneurship and investment, and create jobs, while better preserving the energy and materials embodied in products.
Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center and his colleagues introduced the concept of planetary boundaries in 2009, which attempted to quantify limits for human development impacts and define a “safe operating space for human societies to develop and thrive.” The Stockholm group proposed safety thresholds for greenhouse gas concentrations, biodiversity loss, and other environmental issues. Because of the accelerating human use of materials, we may need a similar approach to gauge the sustainable use of materials such as metals, polymers, and construction minerals. It may well be time to begin the task of critical materials mapping and derive appropriate planetary boundaries for the human use of materials.
Sustainability requires attention to natural capital, the set of nature’s resources that society uses to generate livelihoods, incomes, and broader wellbeing. Sharing these natural resources equitably between generations may depend on how society allocates them within a generation, and vice-versa. Sustainable development, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future, requires that we distribute resources so that current generations meet their own needs—an intragenerational equity challenge. Current generations also need to avoid infringing on the ability of future generations to meet their needs—an intergenerational equity challenge. Most sustainable development efforts have approached these two challenges separately, but they are more connected than they appear. Capital assets, the resources that make up society’s pool of shared wealth, store opportunities and pass them to the future. To sustain equity between generations, society must not let the value of these assets decline over time. But this value depends on the rules or institutions used to allocate those assets. This is especially challenging for natural capital, which is often “shared” across many members of society. The systems used for sharing this capital in the present likely impact how wealth is passed on to future generations. This connection suggests that the two challenges of sustainable development, typically considered separate from each other, need to be addressed jointly.
Unlike many other global economic externalities, climate change has a simple solution: make people pay for the harm they cause by raising the market price of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. We have learned, however, that raising the price of carbon in one country or one region will not be sufficient to slow global warming. Virtually all major countries must act together to overcome the free-riding that has plagued all past international climate change agreements. One way to increase the odds of introducing successful carbon pricing in the international arena would be to create a “climate club”—to encourage countries to undertake harmonized emissions-reduction policies. The central feature of such a club would be a requirement that nations be penalized if they fail to meet their obligations. Most climate change discussions are still focused on the doomed voluntary agreement model. But carbon pricing and through a club structure offers a way to overcome the tendency toward free-riding that plagues voluntary approaches.
People of color in the United States face elevated risk from environmental harms, but they are often underrepresented in conversations about how to address them. How we communicate emerges as a fundamental driver of whether people feel included or excluded from the give-and-take about how to solve problems. We therefore need to communicate about environmental issues in ways that connect with all audiences—and tie those issues to concepts that are important in people’s daily lives. For example, using hip-hop music to communicate about the the key principles of sustainability offers the promise of making conversations about the environment more inclusive. Simply put, environmental communication should be tailored to the specific audiences who need to be reached. We should also look for more engaging ways to communicate about the environment that will connect with people who today don’t hear the message. And successful communication needs grounding in the issues important to peoples’ lives. Through better and more diverse modes of communication, we can create solutions that improve the environment as well as people’s quality of life.
Increasingly severe storms hitting cities across the globe. Loss of biodiversity and natural areas around the world. Growing plastic garbage patches in the Pacific and on beaches everywhere. What do these and the many other “systemic” risks described in this collection have in common? No one response by any one individual or organization is going to be able to address them. Rather, networks of all shapes and sizes are being used to drive change, both locally and globally. They do so by creating opportunities for individuals to pool resources in new and unusual ways across locations, areas of knowledge, institutional structures, communities, and many other dimensions. Networks are working to build more resilient cities, more sustainable supply chains, and more inclusive business models. As more attention focuses on such networks, more lessons are being shared about how to build them so that each of us can contribute to driving systems change.
Big environmental challenges, especially ones that stretch across time or space, cannot be addressed without a sense of moral obligation. To deepen this sense of moral obligation, we must engage the religions of the world. These traditions are embraced by 85 percent of the world’s peoples, shaping their spiritual and moral attitudes toward nature. How can some two billion Christians, over a billion Muslims, and more than a billion Hindus, for example, be drawn further into environmental stewardship? As the United Nations Environment Programme recognizes, religious organizations are the largest non-governmental organizations on the planet. It is increasingly clear that their moral influence, their spiritual perspectives, their institutional capacity, and their educational resources are poised to make a difference in environmental issues. The alliance of religion and ecology can work creatively to restore human-Earth relations. One example is Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, which calls for a new integral ecology, bringing together social and environmental justice. This encyclical, addressed to all the world’s peoples, helped to encourage the Paris Agreement on climate change and is now being taught in schools and universities around the world. Laudato Si and other examples show that when diverse moral and spiritual values are brought to bear on environmental problems, innovative solutions arise.
“Environmental justice” in the United States first gained national recognition when predominantly minority communities recognized that they bore a disproportionate burden of adverse health outcomes from harmful environmental exposures. This aspect of environmental history differs from other environmental movements as it focuses primarily on human health, as opposed to other important concerns such as species conservation or ecological preservation. While the environmental justice movement began because communities perceived that they were exposed to more harmful pollutants than other whiter, and in some cases richer, communities, a wealth of scientific research has since confirmed their fears. Much research on environmental justice has examined residential proximity—the concept that some persons live closer to hazardous sites and facilities, and thereby face higher exposures and associated adverse health outcomes. Research on proximity has focused on hazardous waste facilities, disproportionate burdens from noise, traffic pollution, power plants, ambient air pollution, flooding, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and other potential sources of environmental exposures. However, many other issues are relevant such as fines for regulatory violations and health responses to environmental contaminants. Both race and socioeconomics relate to environmental conditions, but race/ethnicity is more strongly tied to exposure. Specific laws and policies to address environmental justice, along with the scientific underpinnings and public health and environmental tracking systems to support them, are needed to give adequate protection to disadvantaged communities from the local to federal level.
Sustainability in the twenty-first century requires a reorientation of environmental research towards policy-making. Generating actionable knowledge will depend on doing science in new ways. For too long, scientists have studied environmental threats as abstract problems. The urgency of those threats now demands that science get concrete. The gap between research framework and lived experience needs to be bridged. We can do this by inviting vulnerable populations into the work of science. Various initiatives are already under way that allow scientific experts and science-users to collaborate on the design of new research. As we plunge ahead into a new era of scientific practice, however, we need to pay careful attention to where we’re coming from. We need to understand that expert-lay collaborations have a history, and it’s a history that holds both cautionary tales and bright ideas.
In a world of increased climate variability leading to more natural disasters we need to recalibrate the balance of effort between after-the-fact response and preparedness. By anticipating risks, preparing for disasters with an eye towards root causes, and absorbing lessons from past events, we can enhance the resilience of our communities. Prioritizing preparedness offers a much more effective use of limited resources than reactive crisis management. The era of climate change requires using real-time data and communications, mainstreaming risk reduction within governments, monitoring and evaluating effectively, and engaging local communities in building resilience. Disaster risk reduction must reward risk-hedging and transformational thinking before natural disasters strike.
We live in a rapidly urbanizing world. Between now and 2050, the world’s urban population will grow by about 2.5 billion, making the twenty-first century decidedly city-oriented in a manner unseen in human history. Given the speed and scale of this urbanization, cities of the future cannot be built using the ideas or technologies from past centuries. The urban growth patterns in the United States and across the world during the past half-century have caused a spike in the consumption of land, water, and fossil fuels—affecting energy and climate systems worldwide. Lifted by economic growth, many developing nations and emerging economies are now adopting Western-style ways of living and demonstrating urban growth patterns similar to the United States. The land- and resource-intensity of this development pathway translates into ever broader environmental and social impacts. By harnessing the efficiency gains and environmental advances made possible by population density, the coming urban century could be more sustainable than centuries past. But sustainable urbanization requires a focus on co-locating services and residences to minimize travel burdens, low embodied and operational energy, and building infrastructure that can be adaptable to unforeseen future demands.
Urban parks of the future must be more than a respite from urban life. They must serve as part of the city’s very infrastructure. We need to reconceptualize twenty-first century parks using “greening” and water management strategies that encompass the urban environment as a whole. Parkland and open space should address multiple issues including: air pollution, water quality, microclimates, public and mental health, aesthetic experience, and ecological resilience. Confronting these challenges will require planned physical adaptations, social reform, investment, maintenance, and policy changes. Specific refined policies must encourage smart growth through real estate and construction practices, implement effective retrofits, and build on existing tools such as zoning law amendments and municipal financing programs. Planned well and executed appropriately, such modified city park systems could absorb the added pressures from population growth while also addressing current health and environmental issues head-on.
Environmental policy is often viewed as a single one-time decision: faced with an environmental problem, let’s design the solution, and make it stick. But those initial decisions are taken under uncertainty about the future, so past policies can become mismatches with emerging new conditions, yielding errors in regulation and unintended consequences. Environmental policy needs to move from static, one-time decisions toward more adaptive, ongoing learning processes. In a changing world, environmental policy should be built to learn. But our policy institutions are often slow to update. So we need to explore innovative ways to design policy-making to incorporate learning over time, toward a regulatory process of ongoing monitoring, analysis, and multiple sequential adaptive decisions. But adaptive learning is not free—it poses costs of data collection, analysis, instability, and credibility. We need to compare adaptive instruments, and we need a framework for evaluating adaptive policy—analyzing the frequency of review, the scope and severity of impacts, and discretionary versus automatic adjustments—so we can see where adaptive environmental policy would work best.
From “big ideas” like the Millennium Villages Project, to the Green Revolution in Africa, to the National Program on Improved Cookstoves in India, the world has seen its fair share of well-meaning, supposedly “transformative” environmental projects fail. The initial promise of a bright green future can degrade quickly under the weight of unforeseen negative environmental and social outcomes. Future environmental work must understand how and when big ideas fail, and what must be carefully considered in big-idea approaches to complex problems. An extensive body of social science research, primarily in the field of political ecology, documents how various green schemes have gone wrong. Our original research on the National Program on Improved Cookstoves in India and contemporary food waste reduction initiatives in the U.S. also provides concrete examples of big ideas that have gone—or might go—awry. To avoid these pitfalls, any initiative intending to spark large-scale change needs to consider sensitivities to context, place, perspectives, and people.