All of us are participating in a great transition, whether we recognize
it or not. For more than 150 years, we have developed machines and
organizations aimed at producing an ever-increasing stream of physical
products. In the old language we called these "goods," and many of them
satisfied basic human needs and in that sense were genuinely good.
But in 1987 a remarkable change occurred. In that year a few world
leaders began to ask whether the industrial system is sustainable.
And the answer came back from many quarters, "No, definitely not."
It is not that we are running out of resources; when shortages develop,
we have a remarkable capacity to substitute new materials for those
that are scarce. For example, when we start to run out of copper for
making wires cheaply, we substitute glass fibers. By substitution, it
seems, we can keep the wolf from the door for some time.
It is waste disposal that is doing us in. As the economists like to
say, we have run out of "sinks" for our wastes. Everything has to go
somewhere, and we have run out of places to hide our poisonous wastes.
It used to be that we could send them to rural Alabama or to El
Salvador, or to Africa, but instant worldwide communication has closed
off those options. People everywhere know what's going on and are
refusing to accept boatloads of our wastes.
Furthermore, ocean currents and the wind have brought the wastes
themselves back from Africa and El Salvador. We are finding them now in
our air and water, and in our morning coffee. Toxics are literally
everywhere. Furthermore, every time we examine them, we find new ways
in which they are harming us. To any thoughtful person, it seems clear
that if we continue to dump "bads" into the environment as we make more
"goods," we will do ourselves in. That process is already well along.
Nevertheless, improving the situation is not easy because we have so
little experience to draw upon. The United States is one of the
toughest nations on earth when it comes to pollution control. I know
that's hard to believe, but it's true. There are few countries as
strict as the U.S. But even the U.S. had no pollution control laws
before 1948 when Congress passed a weak Water Pollution Control Act.
Real pollution control laws didn't begin until 1969. Therefore, our
human organizations (corporations and government) have less than 50
years' experience with ANY pollution controls and only about 20 years'
experience with real laws. On top of that, it has only been since 1985
(seven years ago) that the public could really comprehend the urgency
of our situation. It was 1985 when the public was told for the first
time that the Earth's protective ozone layer was being destroyed by
CFCs (chemicals used in refrigeration systems).
So we find ourselves VERY SUDDENLY faced with a situation we have
almost no experience handling: we have learned VERY SUDDENLY that our
technology is destroying our life-support system, and we have almost no
experience curbing our technological desires. The rule has always been,
if we CAN do it, we SHOULD do it. Now suddenly the rule is, if we CAN
do it, we must ask WILL IT COME BACK LATER TO KILL US? In other words,
IS IT SUSTAINABLE? This is a new ballgame indeed.
Since 1965, industry has developed one basic response to all new
regulations: delay the inevitable. Look at tobacco. Here is a product
which, when used as directed, kills roughly 390,000 Americans each
year. Sooner or later tobacco will be outlawed by governments, or
lawsuits brought by tobacco victims will force tobacco company
executives to get real jobs. Indeed, the tobacco companies began
branching into other lines of work a decade ago, preparing for the
inevitable while stalling for time. They merely wanted elbow room to
make the transition. Now they manufacture artificial cookies and
synthetic frozen pizzas so they don't need to sell tobacco, though of
course they're not going to abandon tobacco entirely without another
decade of fussing. They'll buy as much time as they can. It's the
tobacco strategy, and it's all they know to do. The basic idea is:
whenever your back is to the wall, delay three decades.
The tobacco strategy has been adopted by all large organizations,
corporate and governmental. Faced with a rising demand for tighter
regulations, they seek delay. They fudge and waffle, or they paw the
ground and snort fiercely. They hire scientists to reinterpret the
data. When absolutely necessary, they fabricate data; they lie. They
hire publicists to control spin. Then, when they've bought themselves
sufficient time to make the required changes, they shrug and go along.
(Eventually they pretend they invented the idea of change in the first
place and give themselves awards for good citizenship.)
But now the situation is quite different. At this juncture in history,
the tobacco strategy will bring great harm. Thirty years' delay will
severely damage the world environment.
The need for rapid change to "sustainable development" is widely
understood among the rich and powerful. In July, 1989, the "G7 Summit"
of the world's seven richest industrial nations called for "the early
adoption, worldwide, of policies based on sustainable development."
This was an explicit recognition, at the highest levels of political
power, that present development policies are not sustainable.
A group of business leaders, including the presidents of Chevron, Dow
and DuPont--published a book recently, in which they told us that the
industrial system is not sustainable:
WHEN THE ENVIRONMENT REEMERGED ON THE POLITICAL AGENDA IN THE 1980S,
THE MAIN CONCERNS HAD BECOME INTERNATIONAL: ACID RAIN, DEPLETION OF THE
OZONE LAYER, AND GLOBAL WARMING. ANALYSTS SOUGHT CAUSES NOT IN PIPES
AND STACKS BUT IN THE NATURE OF HUMAN ACTIVITIES. ONE REPORT AFTER
ANOTHER CONCLUDED THAT MUCH OF WHAT WE DO, MANY OF OUR ATTEMPTS TO
'MAKE PROGRESS,' ARE SIMPLY UNSUSTAINABLE. WE CANNOT CONTINUE IN OUR
PRESENT METHODS OF USING ENERGY, MANAGING FORESTS, FARMING, PROTECTING
PLANT AND ANIMAL SPECIES, MANAGING URBAN GROWTH, AND PRODUCING
INDUSTRIAL GOODS WE CERTAINLY CANNOT CONTINUE TO REPRODUCE OUR OWN
SPECIES AT THE PRESENT RATE
ENERGY PROVIDES A STRIKING EXAMPLE, OF PRESENT UNSUSTAINABILITY...
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT WILL OBVIOUSLY REQUIRE MORE THAN POLLUTION
PREVENTION AND TINKERING WITH ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS. GIVEN THAT
ORDINARY PEOPLE--CONSUMERS, BUSINESS PEOPLE, FARMERS--ARE THE REAL DAY-
TO-DAY ENVIRONMENTAL DECISION-MAKERS, IT REQUIRES POLITICAL AND
ECONOMIC SYSTEMS BASED ON THE EFFECTIVE PARTICIPATION OF ALL MEMBERS OF
SOCIETY IN DECISION MAKING. IT REQUIRES THAT ENVIRONMENTAL
CONSIDERATIONS BECOME A PART OF THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESSES OF ALL
GOVERNMENT AGENCIES, ALL BUSINESS ENTERPRISES, AND IN FACT ALL PEOPLE.
Who said this? Kenneth T. Derr, chairman of the board of Chevron Oil;
Shinroku Morohashi, president of Mitsubishi; Alex Krauer, president of
the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Ciga-Geigy; Frank Popoff, president of
Dow Chemical; William Ruckelshaus, president of Browning-Ferris
Industries; Edgar S. Woolard, president of DuPont. The list goes on.
So we have a situation in which the people at the top recognize that
they've built their house on sand, and that a radically different set
of priorities must be brought to bear fairly quickly.
So we must ask ourselves, where is the engine of change? Does it lie
with the rich and powerful? They say not. They say,
THE PAINFUL TRUTH IS THAT THE PRESENT IS A RELATIVELY COMFORTABLE PLACE
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE REACHED POSITIONS OF MAINSTREAM POLITICAL OR
BUSINESS LEADERSHIP. THAT IS THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM OF SUSTAINABLE
DEVELOPMENT, AND PERHAPS THE MAIN REASON WHY THERE HAS BEEN GREAT
ACCEPTANCE OF IT IN PRINCIPLE, BUT LESS CONCRETE ACTIONS TO PUT IT INTO
PRACTICE: MANY OF THOSE WITH THE POWERS TO EFFECT THE NECESSARY CHANGES
HAVE THE LEAST MOTIVATION TO ALTER THE STATUS QUO THAT GAVE THEM THAT
Worldwide, the engine for change is ordinary people. This is
particularly true in the U.S., where Constitutional freedoms allow
people to speak out, and to organize their communities.
A new report from a new organization has begun to catalog the ways in
which ordinary people are provoking change at the local level in the
U.S. The organization is called Environmental Exchange, and their first
report is called WHAT WORKS; AIR POLLUTION SOLUTIONS.
Here we read, "[The environmental movement's] impetus rests in people
who are angry about the contamination of their communities, people who
don't want their children to get cancer from a local factory's wastes,
people who value the richness of animal and plant life, people who
demand clean air and clean water and are willing to fight for it." (pg.
Next week we'll look into this report, to learn what works.
 Gro Harlem Brundtland and others, OUR COMMON FUTURE (NY and London:
Oxford University Press, 1987).
 For an eloquent presentation of this argument, see Robert Goodland,
Herman Daly, and Salah El Serafy, editors, ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT; BUILDING ON BRUNDTLAND [Environmental Working
Paper No. 46] (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, July, 1991). Available
free but only upon written request from: Environment Department, World
Bank, 1818 H St., NW, Washington, DC 20433.
 Stephen Schmidheiny and the Business Council for Sustainable
Development, CHANGING COURSE; A GLOBAL BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE ON
DEVELOPMENT AND THE ENVIRONMENT (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992),
 Schmidheiny, cited above, pg. 11.
 Mark Malaspina, Kristin Schafer, and Richard Wiles, WHAT WORKS
REPORT NO. 1; AIR POLLUTION SOLUTIONS (Washington, D.C.: Environmental
Exchange, June, 1992). 111 pgs. Available for $17.00 from:
Environmental Exchange, 1930 18th St., N.W., Washington, DC 20009.
Telephone (202) 387-2182.
Descriptor terms: tobacco strategy; sustainable development; g7 summit;
environmental exchange; tobacco industry; corporations;