This guest post is by my friend and colleague Matt Polsky.
Matt Polsky is a sustainability change agent, a Montclair State University professor and a Senior Fellow at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise.
What I find immensely valuable about this post is Matt’s list of sustainable development successes and failures in our state.
The initiatives that are going well deserve our support.
The failures deserve our attention because most of them were great programs that failed because they weren’t in the right place at the right time–politically, economically, or because of a lack of vision.
I believe that all the hard work that brought them into being once can be re-vitalized once we’re in greener political, economic, and social pastures.
One specific example is the report Matt mentions that offers guidance and recommendations for a sustainable business-oriented economy.
It got shelved. And it can be un-shelved.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And we won’t be starting from scratch.
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A Look at Sustainable Development in New Jersey: How Have We Done & What Are the Opportunities–If We Want Them?
By: Matt Polsky
“Achieving sustainable development is the overriding challenge of the 21st century,” according to the United Nations General Assembly President, Vuk Jeremic, although to this day most have never heard of it or know little about it. Here in New Jersey, we have had a blotchy past with it, with some success stories, but with many I’d have to say blown opportunities.
This may be due to a widely shared and thoroughly bi-partisan attitude: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” This mindset precludes curiosity among policy-makers to learn about emerging global threats, as well as new ways to address them, such as green economic development.
It could be that the stream of always-ready-to-take-the-stage, attention-absorbing controversies such as “Bridge-gate;” the perceived need for continual updates to changing political horseraces; as well as some serious events like 9/11, the financial melt-down, and Sandy–by their nature, drown out more subtle and nuanced topics.
Or it could be that the growing number of citizens actually interested in and involved with sustainability have just given up on government and public policy as a means to get there, and prefer to work things out in quieter corners.
I offer this three-parter hoping we (government included) have it within ourselves to be able to break through the “we don’t know what we don’t know” mental trap, are willing to tackle some serious longer term global and other difficult issues (and some no longer so long term) to which we’re not as immune as we might like to think, and take advantage of some of the beneficial properties offered by sustainability.
If we could at least suspend those cynical outlooks, find a little time to be reflective, and are willing to remember that most of us probably once enjoyed learning new things and being challenged, we just might find some useful directions for the future.
Benefits of a Sustainability Approach
Sustainability offers insights from newer fields with which we might not be familiar, including hybrids of traditional fields we tend to miss, such as social entrepreneurship; and the deepening convergence between the economic and environmental sides of what might seem the oxymoronic sustainable business sector. We could take better advantage of promising ideas from around the world, and certainly could be more creative in encouraging and looking for new approaches in places where we might not think to find them. But these are only available to us if we are willing to go outside our collective comfort zones.
Most of the rest of this piece describes the often one-step forward-one-step backwards pattern of our state’s historical involvement with sustainable development.
Part 2 will describe the emerging sustainable business field, a major part of and development within sustainability, with an increasing number of companies now ready to hear more than the constrained message: “I’m willing to do something sustainable but only if it saves me money.” This supports this field’s larger potential, which could be taken advantage of and made the theme of our overall state economic development strategy. But, as things stand, it won’t be.
The series will end in Part 3 with a discussion of the soon-to-to be publicly launched NJDEP Sustainable Business Initiative. This Initiative, while improved from its early conception through stakeholder participation and a considerable willingness of agency staffers to listen, could be expanded further and made the centerpiece upon which to build this integrated environmental/economic strategy.
The Checkered New Jersey Past
A history lesson shows both the successes and self-inflicted failures of sustainability efforts in New Jersey.
The failures list is, unfortunately, more heavily weighted, and shows the sheer number of opportunities and initiatives we simply gave away.
At the risk of appearing negative, as I could get hit by a bus tomorrow it is important to generate this historical record for those becoming interested in sustainability, and possibly as a way to capture “lessons learned,” in order to accelerate the learning curves of any future do-overs.
For instance, I was recently asked by a Rutgers student for the lessons from a failed eco-industrial park project in Trenton several years ago. This is the idea, pioneered in Denmark, of a near-Zero pollution-generating cluster of co-located businesses, that link each participant’s waste with another’s raw material needs, in order to save at both ends. While it was a little bitter to reflect on a “failure,” I was happy to be able to inform students how they might avoid some unanticipated and annoying problems should they wish to try again. Perhaps even historical “failures” don’t have to stay that way.
Probably the largest sustainability success story in New Jersey has been the involvement now of 410 municipalities in becoming certified by Sustainable Jersey, including emerging and now emerged stars such as Montclair, Woodbridge, Highland Park, and Morristown.
I was initially more skeptic than proponent, but they won me over by:
*their development of an increasing range of activities from which towns could choose in their pursuit of certification;
*the use of tiers to distinguish a minimum level of sustainability actions from the strivers;
*its unarguable immense popularity; and
*their reach-out to teach and learn from another country, Taiwan, demonstrating the feasibility of overcoming a common limitation of a sustainable communities mindset that only the local municipality is relevant to sustainability.
More recently, they displayed a willingness to go into the unknown and try to figure out what “Gold-level” certification would mean in practice. That is, what would a truly sustainable municipality look like-a very difficult if necessary stretch if we truly take sustainability seriously.
There certainly have been some other successes, such as:
*the Dodge Foundation’s support of Sustainable Jersey;
*the longevity of, and green buildings manuals produced by, the New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability, and some of its member college’s relatively new educational offerings;
*the cutting edge lectures on sustainable business ideas at my institution, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE), and the occasional conferences by Ramapo College;
*the more localized efforts, such as Transition Jersey’s lectures in Newton;
*the growing number of farmer’s markets throughout the state;
*the interfaith group, GreenFaith’s, efforts to bring sustainability to houses of worship;
*the re-missioning of Duke Gardens to become a showcase of sustainable practice;
*the efforts of some K-12 educators, architects and planners and their organizations to add their orientations to the field; and
*the better-known overall solar power performance of the state.
The self-inflicted tragedies include:
*The demise of the pioneering Office of Sustainable Business within state government, which had begun to help very green businesses and develop policies to support them.
*A past NJDEP Administrative Order, and then a Governor’s Executive Order to make the agency’s, and then the State’s policies, consistent with sustainability.
*These led to a series of recommendations generated by staff and some outside stakeholders, and subsequently accepted by senior management, first within NJDEP, and then by all state agencies, for new or revised sustainability policies and actions. These were published, but subsequently ignored by succeeding NJDEP Commissioners and Governors, respectively. The press missed the story, and neither the Legislature or the environmental community showed any interest in their traditional roles of ensuring government accountability.
*The establishment of a Sustainable State Institute at Rutgers to guide state-wide sustainability thinking and issue updates of the state’s performance on a range of sustainability indicators, which Rutgers, for some reason, ended a few years later
*My own Institute’s discontinuance of a new graduate Certificate program for managing sustainably lauded by the pioneering (as well as final) class.
*The near-ending of thinking about how New Jersey could be both a model for, as well as learn from worthy international sustainability actions, such as Netherlands-style covenants between government and businesses, which involved long term very ambitious environmental goal-setting, to which both would mutually commit.
*Environmental/business partnerships, such as the Green and Gold Task Force, to try to cooperatively address some regulatory issues.
*State actions to mitigate climate change, itself with a looping start-stop-start-now stop historic pattern.
*Repeated efforts over the years to alert Legislators of both parties, including some of the environmental leading lights, succeeding Governors’ Offices and NJDEP Commissioners of the possibilities have been ignored-to this day. Most have not even responded.
*This lack of interest is unfortunately shared by the media (with very few exceptions, such as the “GrassRoots” section of The Daily Record), possibly not seeing any of this as newsworthy.
*Even the environmental community has not been overly interested in integrating green economy ideas into their work, or perhaps continues to see it as impossible. They have not, by and large, undertook the ambitious partnerships with businesses seen elsewhere, including working with companies to understand and value the latter’s economic dependence on healthy ecosystems, thus missing out on opening an entirely new front in protecting the environment.
I’m surely missing some in both the successes and failures columns.
In the next Part I will look at “something new under the sun” possibilities for a green economy, and discuss some opportunities that could still be seized-if that’s what someday we choose to do.
Regaining real leadership won’t be easy, will require rare vision, and won’t be feasible at all with fleeting attention spans.