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Sustainability as a Founding Principle of the United States

Although brilliant for their time, the nation’s founders did not make provisions for the challenges of strained natural resources.

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),

Posted: 10/22/2013 10:56:57 AM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

Goodbye Nukes, Hello Solar?



The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami that killed 19,000 people in Japan in March 2011 also inflicted massive damage on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Power outages caused by the tsunami stopped the flow of critical cooling water, which led to meltdowns in three of the plant’s reactors. The resulting radiation leaks rank the Fukushima incident as the second-worst nuclear disaster in history, superseded only by Chernobyl. And the damage continues: in August of this year, it was announced that barriers intended to contain radioactive water had failed, allowing tons of contaminated water to pour into the Pacific every day. The cleanup is expected to take 40 years and cost $11 billion.

Not surprisingly, this tragedy has prompted the Japanese people to think about alternative sources of energy. Prior to the disaster, Japan generated 30% of its electricity with nuclear power, and was planning to add more. Now, nearly all of the country’s 50 reactors are shut down. This has led to a worrisome spike in carbon emissions, as coal and natural gas take up the slack, but polls show that 70% of Japanese people favor a complete nuclear phase-out.

Whether or not it is completely eliminated, nuclear power appears destined for a diminished role in Japan. The challenge is to find carbon-free alternatives that can take its place. It was with this in mind that in July of 2012, the Japanese government instituted a generous incentive program for renewable energy. Modeled on the feed-in tariffs popularized in Europe, the program provides generators of renewable power with a guaranteed market and a healthy profit margin. The results so far have been dramatic. In the past year, Japan has rocketed to the forefront of renewable energy development worldwide.

The new incentives cover many technologies, but the impact so far has been especially profound in the area of solar power. Long a leading developer of cutting-edge solar technologies, Japan has now become one of the world’s largest consumers, as well. The country is on track to be the number two market for solar power in the world in 2013, trailing only China, and doubling its installed capacity in a single year.

Other renewable energy technologies are receiving investor attention as well, including offshore wind, ocean wave power and geothermal. Part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” seismically active Japan sits on top of enormous geothermal resources that have barely been tapped. Some experts believe there is enough accessible geothermal energy in Japan to displace 25 nuclear power plants.

Proponents of nuclear power argue the technology can be made safe, that future Fukushimas can be prevented through better design, and that nuclear is an essential source of carbon-free power in a world threatened by climate change. Yet, however that debate is ultimately resolved, for Japan it may be beside the point. Fukushima left permanent scars, not just on the land, but also on the people. As a result—for now at least—the country is exploring alternative paths to a low-carbon future.


Contributed by Wyatt C. King, Director, Albright Stonebridge Group

Posted: 10/18/2013 12:12:03 PM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

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