State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


A Realistic Transition to Environmental Sustainability

It is clear to any objective observer that our planet’s resources and ecological well-being are under assault by the actions of the nearly eight billion people living here on earth. Those of us in the developed world have a far greater environmental impact than people in the developing world, but there is great political pressure in the developing world to increase material wealth. And that political pressure will lead to increased environmental impacts.  Our political stability and security depend on the maintenance of material wealth where it exists and economic growth where people are poor. But to achieve those goals, we must learn how to construct a high throughput economy that does not destroy our planet’s ecosystems. This is the topic of a book I have begun writing, and this piece summarizes the book’s main themes.

To achieve the transition to environmental sustainability, we must undertake the following five actions:

  1. Research, measure and understand the current state of environmental degradation.
  2. Understand the causes of environmental degradation.
  3. Develop a strategy for reducing pollution and growing a renewable-resource-based economy.
  4. Build public sector infrastructure to support environmental sustainability; and,
  5. Change the politics, advocacy, and communication of environmental sustainability.

Our current focus on climate change is essential, but it must not be allowed to crowd other critical environmental issues off the limited bandwidth of our political agenda. COVID-19 demonstrates that issues such as invasive species can disrupt our way of life and demonstrates that climate is not our only sustainability challenge. Since the United States Environmental Protection Agency was created back in 1970, we have made enormous progress in using new technologies to reduce our impact on the environment while allowing economic growth to continue. This suggests that we have the capacity to develop methods of production and consumption that are less damaging to the planet. We simply need to up our game and increase the amount of effort we devote to this task.

It all begins with understanding the current state of environmental degradation. We need to do more research on:

  • The impact of climate change.
  • The persistence of plastics and toxics in the ecosphere.
  • Deforestation and the loss of biodiversity.
  • Air, water, and soil pollution, and,
  • Invasive species and infectious diseases.

Next, we need to increase our understanding of the specific causes of environmental degradation. These include:

  • Under-regulated production technologies;
  • Mismanaged manufacturing operations- particularly the lack of producer responsibility and production processes designed without accounting for environmental impacts;
  • The absence of environmental values and ethics;
  • The political pressure for rapid economic development;
  • Underinvestment in environmental protection technologies;
  • Consumer demand for products that pollute growing from the seductiveness of our lifestyle, and;
  • Ignorance of science and environmental impacts and insufficient research on those impacts.

This ideological opposition to science is growing and deeply problematic. People are willing to accept the benefits of science and technology as if they are made from magic but resist science that identifies costs and proposes methods for mitigating those costs.

Once we understand the environmental conditions we have created and how and why they’ve been created, we then need a realistic, non-ideological strategy for reducing pollution and growing a renewable resource-based economy. Key elements of the strategy are providing public incentives for clean production and consumption. Of course, first, we need to clearly define a clean economy by developing generally accepted sustainability metrics. Once we know how to define and measure environmental success, we then need to:

  • Generate government support through grants and tax credits for research on green technologies such as batteries, waste sorting and re-use facilities.
  • Develop lease and buy-back business models that close the cycle of production and consumption.
  • Provide grants and tax incentives for utilities modernizing their grids and building renewable energy generation and storage facilities, and,
  • Build a structure of regulation and taxation that encourages and rewards renewable resource use, recycling, sharing, as well as understanding and mitigating environmental impacts.

In addition to these public incentives, we must turn away from the self-defeating message that sustainability requires sacrifice by articulating a positive vision of the transition to environmental sustainability. This would:

  • End communications that shame consumption.
  • Demonstrate that green technologies can provide the same benefits as those that pollute. Electric vehicles are a great example of a green technology that improves the products they replace, and,
  • Demonstrate the benefits of the sharing economy and lifestyles built on experiences rather than consumption

Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden have both connected environmental sustainability and economic growth. A sustainability-centered economic strategy must explain how it works in detail and use hard data to demonstrate the jobs created and the equity and environmental justice goals achieved. We need to communicate the opportunities created by a transition to a green economy. While many governments have set ambitious decarbonization targets, we need to move beyond this rhetoric to a focus on improving current levels of performance. We need to move away from symbols to operational reality. Government regulation should focus on rigorous and audited measurement of environmental sustainability indicators. Once baselines are established, decades-long efforts should be undertaken to improve and measure performance. Tax benefits should be provided for specific levels of environmental improvement. Tax penalties should be assessed on organizations not improving or allowing the deterioration of environmental performance.

The transition I am describing will mainly take place in the private sector. However, just as government built or partnered with the private sector to build the infrastructure needed to support the 20th-century economy, we need a massive infrastructure rebuild to ensure an environmentally sound 21st-century economy. We need public sector-funded infrastructure to support environmental sustainability. This begins with energy: solar, wind, geothermal, hydro generation, microgrids, distributed electricity generation and high voltage long-distance distribution.

Next, we need a water system built for a warming planet. We need investment in desalination and in the construction of new water filtration and distribution systems. Next, we need to reimagine our waste system to mine it for resources. This requires investment in waste-to-energy facilities, automatic methods of sorting waste, recycling, waste reduction and developing advanced anaerobic digestion technologies to take food waste and return it to farms as fertilizer. We need to do the same with sewage treatment: develop and utilize sewage as a resource for growing food.

In addition to energy and waste, we need infrastructure for transportation. This includes traditional roads and bridges but also includes mass transit construction, operation, and maintenance. We need public and private electric vehicle charging infrastructure. We also need research and development of environmentally sound air and high-speed rail travel.

Another key area of infrastructure is communications technology- rural broadband, urban wireless and advanced cellular communication must be encouraged and subsidized when necessary. These technologies enable the consumption of ideas, entertainment, and social interaction with very low environmental impacts.

Finally, as the COVID crisis has taught us, public health institutions must be rebuilt at the local, national, and global level. We will see additional pandemics if we do not act now. We need:

  • Global virus tracking and reporting,
  • Creation of local contact tracing and isolation organizational capacity and facilities,
  • Enhanced health condition monitoring and communication, and,
  • Research on virus cures and treatments

Unfortunately, none of this will happen unless we change the politics and communication of environmental sustainability. The negativity and arrogance of some environmental advocates contribute to a cultural and ideological divide that reduces support for environmental protection. We need to articulate a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable lifestyle and promote these images through the media, culture, and entertainment. Environmental sustainability advocates need to create and disseminate positive role models and reduce the focus on environmental symbolism and the emphasis on enemies. People that work for fossil fuel companies are not evil. They are simply trying to support their families. We need to persuade and cultivate rather than shame those holding different views.

Our focus should be on sustainability successes rather than on “evil polluters.” Advocates should articulate the attraction of wellness and the health benefits of a clean environment rather than the dangers of illness from toxics. Scare tactics get attention, and the media loves them, but they are ultimately negative and divisive.  Our goal should be to build a wide political consensus rather than insist on a single view of the causes of damage to the planet. Urban environmentalists should restore the traditional alliances with people who hunt and fish. We should also provide natural experiences and images to our increasingly urban population. Some natural experiences should be outside the city, but some should be in restored urban parks and wetlands.

We should work to promote environmental values and ethics. Alliances with religious groups can be used to connect environmental quality to religion and religious institutions. Even if we differ on other issues, everyone likes to breathe clean air, drink safe water, and eat food free of poison.

A realistic transition to environmental sustainability will be a long and gradual process where we change the definition of the political center and anti-pollution policies will be as accepted as policies that seek to prevent violence. Its speed will resemble the slow pace of change as we transitioned from cities that traded natural resources to manufacturing cities and from industrial cities to the service-oriented urban places we now call home.  The floods, winds and fires of climate change and the horrific health and economic impacts of COVID have caused many people to question our ability to dominate nature. This makes a new environmental politics possible. We need to understand nature better to both live within its boundaries and maintain our current way of life. As I often say, “our species is ingenious and is not suicidal,” so I suspect we will somehow manage the difficult transition to environmental sustainability.


Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Phoebe Coyne
Phoebe Coyne
2 years ago

“Sustainability” is extinct “Dead Language” we are flogging WELL into the 21st Century, that died by definition in about 1996…
The 1987 Brundtland definition was ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, and we are SO FAR PAST SO MANY tipping points it’s JUST not funny- Planetary Overshoot day 29 July this year (less than HALFWAY through year we have used bio regenerative capacity of year), today is 413.49 ppm (we want less than 350ppm), peak Nitrogen, peak phosphorous… this published today:
to persist to use the redundant oxymoron “Sustainability” is to remain in the toxic positivity, planetary paralysis and delusion that we are doing “Enough”. We aren’t doing anywhere NEAR enough- as if it hasn’t taken 26 failed Councils of Parliaments to establish that, at least 51 years behind the mandates and establishments of the Club of Rome… Perpetuating use of the technically inaccurate word “Sustainability” just adds to the manufacturing of corporate greenwashing. Actually calling the state of the world is conflated when COPs fail, and the US has just implemented it’s first National Recycling program, when Australia has only recycled 60% of it’s recycling in last calendar year.
Everything is worse than we imagined, and geopolitical decision makers are still in the palms of corporate lobbyists, as Right Wing fundamentalism feeds “Antienvironmentalism” agendas, the International Criminal Court will not ratify Ecocide in Law, so governments (such as Australia’s ranking last of 60 on climate action) are totally complicit in ecocidal, ecovandalism, while victim blaming activists (indeed, when the homicide of environmental activists is at an all time high
Language Matters! So I can’t understand why an Author like Steve Cohen might be perpetuating scientifically incorrect publication based on 20th Century vocabulary. Technically appropriate and responsible language includes Regenerative systems, Ecological viability, Circular Economics and (systems) Resilience, based on Gunderson and Holling’s Four Phase Adaptive Cycle

Phoebe Coyne
Phoebe Coyne
Reply to  Phoebe Coyne
2 years ago