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It is commonly assumed that our national security depends only on our capacity to project military power beyond our borders and has little to do with how we organize the internal business of the country. The nation’s armed strength and its “soft power” are necessary components of security, but they are not—and cannot be—the whole of it. A larger vision of security includes the internal resilience, health, and sustainability of the nation, that is to say its capacity for self-renewal. Real security, in other words, is inseparable from issues of energy policy; education; public health; preservation of soils, forests, and waters; and broadly based, sustainable prosperity.
From this perspective, America is less secure than at any time in its history, despite expenditures in excess of $1 trillion per year for the defense budget and war appropriations. The challenges of the twenty-first century are larger, more complex, and longer-lived than any we have faced before. Of these, the most salient is not terrorism or the ongoing global economic crisis, but rather the threat posed by rapid climate destabilization.1 What was a solvable problem when first presented to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 is approaching irreversible catastrophe. The heart of the problem is our failure to establish a coherent and farsighted energy policy despite the verbal commitments of every president since 1973 to raising energy efficiency and developing renewable energy sources. That failure, in turn, has amplified many other problems now grown into crises, including the unnecessary expenditure of trillions of dollars paid to unfriendly governments to secure oil resources that we waste because of inefficiency; foreign policy entanglements in politically unstable regions; the resulting military burdens—financial and human—of fighting wars to maintain access to energy that we otherwise would not need; and blowback from consequences that we fail to anticipate.
The failure to establish a farsighted energy policy also drives other problems. Cheap energy in the form of nitrogen fertilizers has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. In turn, the industrialized food industry has helped to create the current obesity epidemic. The same pattern holds true across many other areas: suburban sprawl necessitates our dependence on cheap oil for transportation, manufacturing systems average 3,200 pounds of waste for every pound of product placed on a store shelf, and our national energy system is only 13 percent efficient.2 In these and similar cases, there is a growing mismatch between the scale, seriousness, and long-term nature of problems and our willingness and capacity to act.
That policy paralysis is the outcome of 30 years of shortsighted and bitter partisanship, which has reduced our capacity to solve serious problems at the national level. Contrived scandals, lies, and scare tactics about higher energy prices and lost jobs have encouraged many politicians to dismiss threats such as climate change. Following the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United (2009), the power of secret and unaccountable money has become more pervasive than ever before. The Tea Party movement, funded by those with much to gain from public befuddlement, misdirected anger, and more deregulation, has changed the political landscape—at least for the time being—and effectively closed the window of opportunity for federal climate legislation that existed in early 2009. Too much money in politics, the power of an unaccountable extreme right-wing media, failed leadership, and too much power in the hands of senators representing more cows than people all add up to what Eric Alterman has called “Kabuki Democracy,” a system that is rigged to prevent solutions to public problems and seems incapable of repairing itself. And beneath the surface of U.S. politics, in particular, are deeply rooted beliefs that individual liberty trumps the public good and that government is almost always wrong, except when it endeavors to wither away.
For comparison, in the decade between 1940 and 1950, the country became the “arsenal of democracy,” fought and won wars in Europe and the Pacific, created the United Nations, passed the GI Bill to integrate returning servicemen into a growing economy, expanded Social Security, took the first faltering steps toward racial integration, contained the spread of Communism, and created the Marshall Plan to stabilize the societies and economies of Western Europe.
In today’s gridlocked political environment, however, we would have done none of these things. The underlying reasons are many, but two stand out. The first is simply the lack of an organizing principle for both domestic and foreign policy. The clear threats of Nazism and Communism once galvanized sufficient bipartisan consensus for action. Our present long-term threats, however, arise mostly from our own behavior, profligacy, and negligence, and from the growing complexity of the global economy, not from dependably loathsome external enemies. Cartoonist Walt Kelly long ago captured the essence of the problem in Pogo’s words: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.”
A second reason for our inability to respond to complex and long-term issues is the lingering power of obsolete laws, policies, organizations, and worldviews that were designed to manage the industrial and agrarian economies of previous centuries. In the industrial era, governments, corporations, and civic organizations were organized hierarchically. Cause and effect were presumed to be transparent and linear, and problems could be broken into their components much like mass production on a factory assembly line. That system worked miracles measured in gross material output, the expansion of the consumer economy, and the transformation of rural societies into mass urban industrial nations. As circumstances and technology changed, however, the flaws of hierarchical organization, such as “groupthink,” rigidity, fragmentation, and lack of foresight, became more costly and often proved fatal to organizations that could not adapt. In the faster world of seven billion people and tens of thousands of nongovernmental organizations and global corporations networked by the Internet, hierarchy and centralized control are often counterproductive. In other words, where information, capacity, and organizational structure are distributed through networks, hierarchical systems prove less and less effective. Successful organizations of the future will be flexible, disaggregated, hyper-efficient in their use of energy and resources, and capable of learning and foresight.
The result of these changes is a backlog of unsolved problems that include an exorbitant national debt, looming fiscal insolvency, waning global influence, and a wasteful, hence unsustainable national lifestyle. The U.S. is ceding entire emergent industries, including advanced renewable energy technology, to China, Japan, India, and Germany. We are increasingly vulnerable to rapid climate destabilization as well as to economic shocks, terrorism, cyber-terrorism, environmental degradation, and combinations of any or all of the above.
These problems will be amplified by sudden and unpredictable events similar to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the financial collapse of 2008.3-6 Such occurrences are the by-product of complexity, global scale, and the sheer velocity of events that defy prediction. And they are becoming more frequent and more powerful with the increasing complexity of the global system. In the words of one analyst, “we must squarely face the awful fact that our security will become ever more perilous.”5
To achieve security, therefore, requires that we move beyond over-reliance on military force and even “soft power” to goals promoting long-term sustainability and resilience. For the twenty-first century, the concept of sustainability should be the new organizing principle for both domestic and foreign policy, just as the doctrine of containment against the Soviet threat served in the previous century. The idea of sustainability first came to prominence in the writings of Lester Brown in the early 1980s and in the Brundtland Commission report of 1987, entitled Our Common Future. The term implies many things including a rapid transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources as well as management of soils and forests for long-term health, elimination of waste, and changes in economic accounting necessary to preserve “natural capital” so that each generation leaves “as much and as good” for succeeding generations. Sustainability requires that we (a) see the world in all of its social, economic, and ecological complexity as one interactive system and (b) extend our time horizons sufficiently far into the future to foresee and forestall outcomes that would otherwise compromise the well-being of future generations. In other words, the adoption and development of a sustainable society requires that we apply the science of systems thinking to governance, infrastructure, economy, and natural resources over the long haul.
The chief characteristic of sustainable systems is resilience, or the capacity of the system to “absorb disturbance, to undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, and feedbacks.”7-9 It is a concept long familiar to engineers, mathematicians, ecologists, designers, and military planners. Resilient systems are characterized by redundancy so that failure of any one component does not cause the entire system to crash. They consist of diverse components that are easily repairable, widely distributed, cheap, locally supplied, durable, and loosely coupled. However, resilience differs from sustainable development in one critical respect. Sustainability is sometimes described as an end-state as if it could be achieved once and for all. The goal of resilience, on the other hand, implies the capacity to make ongoing adjustments to changing political, economic, and ecological conditions. In practical terms, resilience is a design strategy that aims to reduce vulnerabilities by shortening supply lines, improving redundancy in critical areas, bolstering local capacity, and solving for a deeper pattern of dependence and disability. The less resilient the country, the more military power is needed to protect its far-flung interests and client states, hence the greater the likelihood of wars fought for natural resources. Resilient societies, on the other hand, do not send their young to fight and die in far-away battlefields because they lack wit, foresight, and design intelligence.
At the national level, adoption of sustainability as an organizing concept would require fundamental changes in policy, law, and the organization of federal agencies. A National Sustainability Act, a modern day equivalent of the National Security Act of 1947 or the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 is needed to (a) integrate policy across agencies and departments of the federal government; (b) upgrade the capacity for foresight throughout all government departments and agencies; and (c) align federal policies, taxation, and research and development expenditures to coincide with the goals of sustainability.
In the absence of federal leadership, states and regions have created policies on specific issues, such as carbon emissions (see, for example, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative developed by the Western Governors’ Association and the New England governors). Similarly, ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability has organized cities to take climate action at the municipal level and to develop broader policies to encourage sustainability on a larger scale. Others, like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), are working to develop economic alternatives. Within different sectors of the economy, there have also been important innovations: renewable energy technologies are increasingly cost-competitive, agriculture and manufacturing are increasingly imitating natural systems in order to reduce waste, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s design standards have improved the energy efficiency of new building projects.
Each of these and similar efforts is promising but, again, limited in focus and scope. Although sustainability is by definition a systems concept, it has been attempted mostly as a series of one-off projects in which each part functions in isolation from the others. As a result, we’ve made disconnected efforts where the total is less than the sum of the parts. Sustainable development still requires a more complex strategy on a scale where the parts are designed to reinforce the integrity, resilience, and prosperity of the whole. As Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry once put it, our goal is to advance models that “solve for pattern,” so that every solution solves multiple problems, while causing no new ones.
The challenge is, of course, to translate local and regional interest into national action. Faced with paralysis at the federal level and catastrophe dead ahead, a small group of us, representing Oberlin College, the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the New America Foundation, and others, has been meeting for the past year to explore the feasibility of creating a National Sustainable Communities Coalition that builds on years of rapid advances in the art and science of applied sustainability. We do not propose a single model or one-size-fits-all approach. To the contrary, the particular priorities of member organizations will vary with local circumstances, scale, ecology, topography, and culture.
We have two overriding goals, the first of which is to promote local and regional catalysts for integrated responses to probable disturbances in the years ahead. In doing so, we propose to take the words sustainable and resilience out of the realm of abstraction and make them Main Street realities, the default approach for how things are done in communities across the country.
Our second goal is to join sustainability with a larger national dialogue about strategy, security, and the American future that moves the political discussion beyond the present liberal versus conservative impasse. For three decades, we have been talking past each other and, in the meantime, we have become more vulnerable to a wider array of threats than ever before. We believe that heading off the worst of climate change and building resilient and fair societies are two sides of the same coin. Together, they lead to genuine security. The network we propose will integrate models of sustainability into a larger national narrative about our highest values. At the same time, it would foster new initiatives, amplify existing efforts, accelerate momentum, spread best practices, link otherwise separate endeavors, and mobilize popular support for a new and better direction for the United States.
One possible objection is that the scale of funding required is prohibitively large. But, as policy analyst Patrick Doherty notes, there is a third way between austerity on one hand and deficit spending on the other. It requires that we eliminate avoidable costs endemic to unsustainable development and terminate tens of billions of dollars that we pay each year to subsidize things we don’t need and don’t want.
Another objection is that the scope and scale of a national network is too large. But the fact is that, if we are to secure the nation’s future, we will have to learn how to do integrated local planning. And we cannot wait for the federal government to catch up. If we wait, we will do it badly, expensively, and ineffectively as a series of one-off projects. If we act now, we can build national resilience systematically and effectively.
The core ideas in this essay go back at least as far as the writings of George Kennan, the visionary diplomat who developed the conceptual framework for what became our national Cold War strategy of containment. In 1954 he wrote, “I think we can no longer permit the economic advance of our country to take place so extensively at the cost of the devastation of its natural resources and its natural beauty. I think that we shall have to take stock in the most careful manner of what is still left to us out of the original fund of topsoil and mineral resources and water tables and forests and wildlife.”10
Sixteen years later, Kennan went further to propose “a new and more promising focus of attention . . . a major international effort to restore the hope, the beauty, and the salubriousness of the natural environment.”11 The difference from his time to our own is the awareness of both the scope, scale, and duration of the problems we face and the growing capacity to build a resilient, fair, prosperous, and sustainable America. We have wasted much of any margin for error that we once had. We must now act with unprecedented ingenuity, discipline, and speed. The choice is ours.
David Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, Oberlin College, and the Executive Director of the Oberlin Project. He is the author of seven books including Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (2009) and Hope is an Imperative (2010).
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