In neither the Constitution nor the basic principles of capitalism, as best represented by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, is there evidence of any meaningful awareness of the fact that the natural systems of the Earth and our constructs and designs as humans must advance in sustainable ways. An appreciation of the interrelationship between natural processes and human design is a prerequisite for any adequate conception of sustainability. This hybrid concept can be summarily defined as the stewardship of natural capital for future generations, but its implications are far broader than any of these terms—embracing not only the environment and economic development, but also health care, urbanization, energy, materials, agriculture, business practices, social services and government.
Not surprisingly, then, the new economic order of the eighteenth century and the new political order being realized in the United States at the same time were so powerful in their transformative effect that only now can we look back in both awe and fear at what these revolutions have wrought.
Two-hundred-plus years into this new political and economic order, for all its vicissitudes, the world has advanced in many positive and constructive ways. The pre-Industrial Revolution economies of subsistence agriculture and the long-term persistence of poverty endured by all but an elite handful have largely passed from the social order. The masses, formerly voiceless and without any political power, now speak loudly and often, and can be heard in many new settings. Yet, at the same time, we sit on the edge of a precipice of a significant failing. Because neither our economic nor our political models have factored in the natural limits of the Earth, and because the Constitution outlines neither aspirations nor outcomes relative to man’s relationship with the natural world, we are at this very moment in time on a path toward a condition where the natural rights of man and national laws of economics collide with the natural systems of the Earth—to the ruinous long-term detriment of us all.
Both our economic and political designs are at once too limited and too simplistic to address the complex problems intrinsic to the discourse of sustainability, such as intergenerational equity, biodesign, adaptive management, industrial ecology and natural capital conservation–new principles for organizing knowledge production and application. These inherent limitations are a consequence of not only the relative immaturity of our economic and political tools but also, and more importantly, the implicit “aspiration of self” that the Constitution endorses. We all operate out of self-interest to some extent, which is entirely rational, but the parameters that our foundational national document establishes in many ways simply constitute a justification for us to indulge in selfish, or let us say at least nakedly self-interested, pursuits and therefore might be just too simplistic to be a completely successful design for long-term societal success. As a consequence of our economic and political system, the individual perspective has inevitably outweighed the collective, with the result that adequate protection for the collective has lost out. In part because of the inevitable limitations of a document drafted in the eighteenth century—however brilliant and visionary it may have been—efforts to advance the long-term interests of the whole by controlling the short-term behavior of the individual are doomed to failure.
In an effort to redeem ourselves, let us at last reconsider our design, derived from the framers of the Constitution in the eighteenth century. However belatedly, it is at long last time to add one more value to the concept of the self as expressed by the Constitution. To provide for the common good, we cannot only consider justice for those of us present—we must also conceptualize and enact into law provisions for justice for future generations.
It is time for America to take yet another first step, just as we took a first step in 1789. In the twenty-first century we must at last declare sustainability a core aspirational value of the American people, on the same level as liberty and justice and equality. With such a declaration we would see changes in law, changes in behavior, changes in teaching and learning, and, yes, even changes in economics. With such a declaration, we would fulfill the expectations of the visionary framers of the Constitution of the United States of America.
Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University. He played the lead role in the creation of the Columbia Earth Institute and helped found the Center for Science, Policy, and Outcomes in Washington D.C.
Abridged text excerpted with permission from Moral Ground: Ethical Action For a Planet in Peril, Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson (2010), www.moralground.com.
Posted: 10/22/2013 10:56:57 AM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments