Data Series #2: Global sustainability and "the impact of our choices"

We continue our series of interviews with scientists studying humanity's impact on the planet.

Helping us understand the topic of sustainability is Robert (Bob) Brinkmann, Director of Sustainability Studies at Hofstra University and the Director of Sustainability Research at the National Center for Suburban Studies. He is also a consultant with the United Nations on sustainability issues.

In addition, Dr. Brinkmann is a professor in Hofstra University's Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability. He chairs the Board of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute and is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies. His new book, Florida Sinkholes: Science and Policy, will be published this year and is available from the University of Press of Florida here. Born in 1961, Dr. Brinkmann is a native of Wisconsin.

Dr. Robert Brinkmann

Catholic Ecology: The word "sustainability" is used more and more frequently among environmentalists and policy makers. What is sustainability?

Dr. Brinkmann: Sustainability is basically using resources today so that they are around for future generations. It is an outgrowth of the conservation movement of the 20th century. However, it encompasses elements of environment, economic development, and social justice. In the past, most conservation professionals were focused on protecting the environment. Now, we are concerned with not only the environment, but also with ensuring that our actions are fair and provide reasonable economic opportunities.

Sustainability grew in reaction to the globalization trends of the 80's and 90's. We saw widespread expansion of economic opportunities during this time. However, we also saw widespread environmental degradation and pollution as well as an expansion of economic disparities.

It is important to note that sustainability science relies on quantitative analysis of success. For many years environmentalists were criticized as "tree huggers" because we were emotionally connected to the environment and didn't have strong science to back up our activism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a tree hugger. I'm one. However, our modern sustainability science allows us to measure the impacts of our actions on the planet and model our actions to understand how they will impact us for generations.

CE: It sounds like sustainability is often considered to be a large-scale realitythe choices made by governments and companies and communities. How would the average persona home or small business ownerthink about sustainability in their own lives?

Dr. Brinkmann: There is that old phrase, "think globally, act locally." That is so true today in our smaller and smaller world. We can each make individual choices that allow us to live more simply and in tune with nature. We do not have to buy into the consumerist tendencies in our culture that encourage us to buy more and more. I think it is also important to be a good example for others. We should teach our skills, get involved in our community, write, and help others.

Some simple day-to-day things we can do might include: drive less, plant a garden, reduce the waste you produce, and volunteer to help others. Try to measure the impact you are having in these choices. How much less gas did you consumer over the year? How much food did you produce? How many hours did you volunteer?

As far as small businesses, there are so many options! I think one of the most important things that a business can do is to look at the nature of their business to try to find ways to limit their impact on the environment through all actions. There are many consultants that will help green small businesses. Plus, there are also lots of professional networking organizations that will help. Some communities have green small business certifications as well.

CE: What does the data show about how various nations are factoring sustainability into their policies, laws, and educational systems? And what obstacles are they finding?

Dr. Brinkmann: I've been looking at the range of sustainability practices taking place around the world for a project I am doing with the United Nations and it is really impressive to see how much work there is around the world on sustainability. Overall, most nations are looking at things like life expectancy, improvement of education, and reduction of poverty. They are also making significant strides on things like ensuring biodiversity and building sustainable development policies within national priorities. Indeed, most nations have developed reports outlining their progress.

The biggest obstacle, especially for the poorer nations, is funding. For example, how does one move toward green energy in some nations when they do not have funds to invest in an updated grid system or the solar or wind farms that will supply the energy. We certainly face these issues in the United States, so you can imagine how difficult it is in the developing world.

CE: Are there any common themes among the nations?

Dr. Brinkmann: Besides the ones mentioned above, most nations are heavily focused on building green energy and a sustainable and healthy water supply. Most of the nations are also looking toward the focus on sustainability as a form of economic development. We've done this here in the United States to a certain extent by investing in solar and wind farms. Many are also concerned with ensuring that all of their citizens are engaged with sustainable development to ensure that it is fair and equitable.

CE: What are some of the striking differences?

Dr. Brinkmann: I think that the most striking difference is actually in the U.S. We are one of the few nations of the world that doesn't have a strong sustainability program. We have it somewhat fragmented in the different cabinet offices of the United States, but we really don't have strong national goals like other nations. I'm not saying we don't have individual goals in things like green energy, but we don't approach sustainability comprehensively. As a result, the best approaches to sustainability planning and management are at the local or national level. That is why we see that individual cities or states are very focused on things like setting goals for greenhouse gas reduction or improving access to healthy food.

CE: Does the data show if cultural world views impact a nation's engagement on sustainability?

Dr. Brinkmann: Absolutely. There are a few nations of the world that are not fully engaged with the modern sustainability movement because they see it as a new form of capitalist oppression. However, by far, most nations are involved with sustainability in some way and many have developed their own unique approaches. There are two great examples. Bhutan, for instance, has developed a sustainability index called the Gross National Happiness Index. The indicators that focus more on social justice and quality of life. The Canadian approach to measuring sustainability includes a range of standard indicators associated with environment, equity, and environmental protection. But it also includes things like access to live entertainment and national parks as well as reduction of diseases associated with the West, like diabetes. Many nations have developed individualized sustainability indicators and plans that fit their needs and that reflect their culture.

CE: China and India are getting a lot of attention as fast-growing nations seeking to employ millions by adopting Western industrial economies. This is causing significant environmental issues. What has your work shown about sustainability thought in those nations?

Dr. Brinkmann: Both of these nations are rapidly developing and are confronting the issues of development faced in the 1950's and 1960's in the United States. I do research in China and I have found that China is getting very serious about sustainable development. One of the challenges that China faces, however, is that they do not have a strong history of non-profit activity or social activism. We know that in the U.S., these are major drivers of environmental policy. In China, most of the environmental policy is coming directly from the government that also encourages economic development. It will be interesting to see how the environmental institutions evolve in this unique setting.

CE: What was the biggest surprise found in your research?

Dr. Brinkmann: I was surprised by how many sustainability projects are taking place all over the world. We often think that we are leading the way on a number of things in the United States. In this case, we are following the rest of the world. We do some amazing things, but we do not have a comprehensive sustainability vision at the national level. We are much more fragmented in our approach.

CE: If you had to give an award to the nation with the best sustainable practices, which would it be?

Dr. Brinkmann: I would actually give it to New York City. While not a nation, I think that your readers would get a better understanding about the way that sustainability is actualized by taking a look at New York's sustainability plan here. It is highly quantitative and addresses the major themes of sustainability. Think what we could do if we had a national conversation about this!

CE: What else would you like to add?

Dr. Brinkmann: I think that some in the United States do not like the concept of sustainability because they look at it as a big government thing. I suppose in some way it is. We have big problems like climate change that are huge that must be managed by large organizations. Governments are the only way we know how to do this quickly. Governments are also key to funding the type of research that needs to go forward to understand how to deal with complex global problems. Plus many of the issues with sustainability are already managed by the government: agricultural policy, transportation policy, energy policy.
I think a better way of thinking about sustainability for those who are nervous about more government is to think about how we can change our government to do better. Do governments really need to build more roads or do we need to build more sustainable transportation options? Do we need to subsidize big agricultural companies or do we need to subsidize the small farmer? Do we need to subsidize dirty energy or subsidize green energy? It is not about building more government. Instead it is getting our governments to refocus resources on the issues that will allow us to have a more sustainable future.

I also want to stress that it's not all about government. It is about changing our lifestyle from the hyper consumer world we live in into a more intentional thoughtful life that examines our role in the world and the impacts of our choices.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.