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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.

* * * * * *

A Look at Sustainable Development in New Jersey: How Have We Done & What Are the Opportunities–If We Want Them?

Part 1

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.

This Series
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.

Sustainability Successes
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.

Sustainability Failures
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

*A White Paper and Report by ISE for state government which provided guidance and recommendations for a sustainable business-oriented economy, which have been ignored.

*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.

Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital.

These are my predictions for the hot sustainability topics of 2014.

The first, Ecosystem Services, helps you account for all the ways that the natural world benefits people. (A tree gives shade, timber, fuel, etc.)

The second, Natural Capital, puts a value on those things. (How much is that tree worth to you? What’s the one-time value of it as timber, fuel and materials? What’s the ongoing value to you while it stands for how it holds carbon, cleans the air, stores water, gives shade, offers habitat?)

And, keep an eye out for how conversations with these terms increasingly focus on two things:

1. A narrower focus on our choices impact humans, specifically. (And less about the bigger picture of protecting the environment and non-human species as well.)

2. How our choices about using natural resources have a measurable monetary cost.

Here are two new articles bearing these twinned themes out.

The first an op-ed is from former NJ governor and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman.

Via NJSpotlight.com:

Assessing the Long-Term Costs of Ignoring the Environment

Pundits and politicians tend to present economic development and environmental regulation as opponents in a zero-sum game. Such a view is shortsighted and foolish; we need to take a longer-term view of the affects that our actions toward our surroundings have on our health and our safety –- two resources that once lost cannot simply be repurchased.

Thankfully, we now have research and measurement tools we did not have at our disposal decades ago, and it behooves us to utilize those tools to view environmental protection through the lens of our future and our children’s future. In our benevolent mission to grow the economy, we should not be in too great a rush to ignore environmental testing and results. The price we pay at the end is much greater than we can afford, both in terms of dollars and human lives. [emphases added]

Note how Whitman focuses on humans’ well-being and the costs of our actions.

The second is an excellent long read by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs.

Via OZY.com:

Ian Khama and Placing a Value on Nature

Assigning a real economic value to nature is thus a vital piece of building a sustainable global economy. But the real leadership on the issue is not coming from the G-20, the nonprofit world or anywhere you might expect. It’s coming from Africa.

And valuing natural capital is not just about accounting for costs; it’s also about using the price mechanism to set an acceptable level of natural degradation and to prevent an intolerable level—the point at which the price should become essentially unaffordable or priceless, because we have reached a level of pollution or degradation that we are unwilling to cross as a society. As those wearing face masks in Beijing can attest, you don’t realize just how priceless clean air, water and food are until you lose them.

Whitman and Jobs agree on the value of being able to value nature more rigorously. But what I love about Jobs’ article is that she explicitly goes further. I believe that Whitman is good intentioned, but her words make me think she hasn’t come very far at all from a status quo, incremental changes mindset.

I see this in her words that some things, once lost, “cannot simply be repurchased.”

Once lost, human health and safety can’t be repurchased at all.

Because they never should have been sold to begin with.

Jobs hits the mark that Whitman misses: once we know the true cost of some actions, the right action might be not to do them at all.

London shows the world how to host a greener, more sustainable Olympics.

Via London2012.com:

Sustainability at the heart of the Games- ‘from brown to green’

From the outset of the project, the Olympic Park has set new standards in sustainability, including the delivery of lightweight venues, the recycling or reuse of waste materials, using concrete with a high recycled content, and delivering materials by rail or water. We have achieved new standards for a project of this size and scale and have raised the bar for the industry.

Via Environmental News Service:

London Olympics Clears Sustainability Hurdles

LONDON, UK, July 31, 2012 (ENS) – The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games has met the vast majority of its sustainability targets, says the United Nations official in charge of helping Olympic Games host cities produce events that protect the environment and make smart use of their resources.

Via TheTakeaway.org

London’s Temporary Olympic Stadium, Built for Change

The whole environmental sustainability agenda is incredibly important for these buildings,” [architect] Sheard says. Forty percent of the 80,000-seat venue’s concrete is recycled aggregate, and the stadium is one of the lightest of its size. “If you build less, you’ve got a smaller carbon footprint,” the architect says. Built with just over 10,000 tons of steel, the stadium is far lighter than similarly sized buildings, which normally require five to ten times as much.

 

There are none so blind as will not see.

A colleague in the Sustainability arena shared Gro Harlem Brundtland’s June 18 op-ed piece called “Earth Agonistes.”

Twenty-five years ago, she chaired the 1987 ground-breaking UN Brundtland Commission that created the Our Common Future report and brought Sustainable Development into global conversation.

Today, the op-ed’s title jumped out with its call-back to “Samson Agonistes,” John Milton’s later-life tragic play about the Greek hero who lost his way, his hair, his sight, and ultimately his life.

The word Agonistes means “One Who Struggles” or “Under Struggle.” But for modern readers who may not be familiar with the play, the word Agony serves the purpose.

Earth, in agony.

Unless we change now and start seeing things as they are.

We must choose to see the scientific truths of human-caused climate change and act decisively.

Via nytimes.com:

Earth Agonistes

Our central concern is that governments are currently refusing to make the transformative changes needed to resolve the global sustainability crisis.

The scientific evidence is clear that the environmental dangers are rising quickly. Based on current trends, we are likely to move toward a world warmer by 3 degrees, and we may well cross tipping points with potentially catastrophic consequences.

We are the first generation with scientific understanding of the new global risks facing humanity. We must respond decisively, equipped with the best available evidence as a basis for decisions.

So most people writing today think that Rio+20 will be long on talk, short on solutions.

Sigh. I still wish I were there.

Here’s the most final-final version of the Rio+20  negotiated text document for conference outcomes.

As one who has often endured the seven hells of the corporate iterative editing process, this could not have been any fun.

Via Grist.org and author Matt McDermott:

Rio+20 Final Draft Text Recognizes Our Problem, Proposes Scant Few Concrete Solutions

After going through all 283 points of the document my initial impression is that the whole thing correctly “recognizes” the problems—or “acknowledges,” or “notes” them—but does precious little to actually lay down concrete actions to solve them, or even, really, attempt to meaningfully change the underlying economic, social, and environmental thinking that has gotten us to this point.

Still, pathological optimist that I am, I’m positive good will come of it. Perhaps from here?

That didn’t take long. Here you go.

Not attending this week’s Rio+20 UN Sustainable Development conference?

Me either.

So I was especially glad to attend the June 15 Institute for Sustainable Enterprise breakfast seminar at Fairleigh Dickinson University for an informative, engaging conversation with three speakers about what’s happening in Rio and the likely outcomes from it.

The Rio+20 conference brings together participants from government, business and civil society worldwide. The goal is to create “The Future we Want” through building green economies and eliminating world poverty.

Host and ISE Senior Advisor Jeana Wirtenberg welcomed the full  room of attendees by saying that “we have an historic opportunity to get it right” and asking the room to commit to Sustainable action in our personal and work lives.

First up was Ira Feldman, president of Greentrack Strategies. He gave an overview of  what Rio+20 is all about and what key stakeholders bring to the table.

He cited three key reasons UN-watchers and the Sustainable Business community have generally low expectations for this year’s event, compared to the inaugural Sustainable Development conference 20 years ago in Rio and the follow-up meeting he attended 10 years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa. These reasons are: the world’s gloomy economic state, the slow and noncommittal progress pre-conference on the policy-oriented Negotiated Outcome Document, and a sense from business and industry participants of weak governmental leadership.

Ira aptly described the challenge of concurrent policy negotiations, 560 side events (which he likened to a World’s Fair), and protests, all packed into three days, as a three-ring circus. The challenge, he said, “Is how do you think about all the Sustainability issues, what is the mental map, with everything in play?”

As a partial answer to this question, Ira explained how Sustainability has evolved in the past 20 years from philanthropic action to a core business strategy, and is now poised to transform into “Sustainability to Scale.” (Ira referenced the World Business Council for Sustainable Development‘s work on this idea.)

Realistically, Ira said, conference outcomes will include negotiated and specific language on GDP alternatives that will be used to guide future discussions.

Next up to speak was Amanda Nesheiwat, who will attend the Rio+20 conference as a UN Youth Delegate representing young people. (Her other hats include being a student representative for the Foundation for Post Conflict Development and a founder of the NJ Sustainable Collegiate Partners.) During pre-conference negotiations at the UN, she said one of her frustrations was repeatedly hearing the words”We cannot commit to…” from delegates.

In Rio, she said she will bring the youth’s perspective that world leaders must move beyond short-term thinking and lack of creativity, commit to “more action, less talking,” and move on Climate Change. I have no doubt she will be a powerful, insistent voice for change in Rio and continue this work when she returns home.

(As a side note, I found it refreshing that Amanda mentioned the need for creating and living with “sustainable consumption.” I personally believe that Sustainability means using less as well as using the world’s resources more efficiently.)

ISE Research Fellow Bill Russell capped the presentations with his thoughts on engaging citizens to meaningful action. He talked about attending the March 2012 Citizens’ Summit to Address Sustainability held at Yale University and his dismay at seeing Old Guard Thinking on stage instead of new participants with new ideas. Bill echoed the low expectations for Rio+20, offering his viewpoint that dominant government players are not working interdependently with business, NGO and citizen stakeholders. His call-to-action for himself and breakfast seminar attendees was to commit to staying engaged.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations, ISE Fellow Matt Polsky touched on Sustainable Business in New Jersey with a reminder about the 2010 policy brief prepared by ISE for the Christie Administration called Developing and Implementing a Sustainable Growth Strategy for New Jersey.

The event ended on a positive note with audience contributions about restoring  equity to the Sustainability conversation; the emergence of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) and sustainable accounting; the work of ecological economist Herman Daly; and innovation as a new mindset.

I was extremely sorry to miss the post-seminar roundtable discussion. Thanks to the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise for hosting this year’s breakfast seminars and I look forward to the series’ return in the fall.

Wish I were in Rio.

Not for the beaches or the music or Carnival.

I wish I were in Rio to hear the world’s economic, government and industry leaders talk about Sustainable Development.

It’s called Rio+20, marking 20 years since the UN hosted a worldwide conversation on Sustainable Development in Rio de  Janeiro and the the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

Whether you care about climate change, or ending poverty, or eliminating health disparities, or protecting biodiversity, or innovating renewable energy, or bringing peace to the world’s conflicts, or just care about your kids and grandkids having a healthy world to inherit, this is the place to be.

From the Rio+20 site:

Sustainable development emphasizes a holistic, equitable and far-sighted approach to decision-making at all levels. It emphasizes not just strong economic performance but intragenerational and intergenerational equity

At the Rio+20 Conference, world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups, will come together to shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.

Via Forbes.com:

A Global Dialogue on Sustainability: Rio+20 Kicks Off This Week

For the next two weeks, the city of Rio de Janeiro will host a truly global dialogue on sustainability. Though the main official event will not start until Wednesday, June 20, a 3rd ‘Prep Com’ begins this Wednesday. It aims to finish the negotiations on a draft outcome document which is to be adopted by our governments at next week’s official UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Major themes are the transition to a ‘green’ economy and global environmental governance, but the draft document also includes a wide array of sub-themes, many of which are relevant to biodiversity.