Energy Summit Reveals Sustainability Contradiction

Last week, July 10-12, I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the amazing Appalachian Energy Summit: Perspectives, Policy & Practice.  As with previous summits, we learned incredible information from Amory Lovins co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute and David Orr, Special Assistant to the President of Oberlin College on Sustainability and the Environment.

Beyond their great contributions, the summit had other powerful speakers.  The summit’s opening Keynote was by Gina McCarthy, former head of the EPA under President Obama and now at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  She provided common sense strategies and information about how to create a better world for all.  She also reminded us of the importance of using science because, “…it provides facts and discovers the truth, regardless of personal beliefs.”

Later Leith Sharp, Director of Executive Education for Sustainability at Harvard helped us understand the difference between reality and what we are told.  She demonstrated how the process is messy, takes many turns, squiggles she called it, and then in hindsight seems logical and straightforward.  This relates to Kahneman and Tversky’s classic work. They called hindsight a type of mental illusion because what was confusing in real-time, seems to appear logical and straightforward in hindsight. I also understood her to say that despite the confusing and sometimes overwhelming process, it was important to keep moving forward because setbacks are part of the process.

The last Keynote by Majora Carter was powerful.  She not only demonstrated how to create a sustainable environment, she explained how to turn a neighborhood, the South Bronx, into a place people want to live, work and  play.  For me, and I think for most, that is what sustainability should be about, creating a better world. It also needs to be a world that has the potential for an even brighter future, not just one that can exist. She explained how, with her team, they worked to create something of pride so community members want to contribute to making it even better.

It seems Marjora Carter is helping to create what we all should be contributing to creating in our shared community – the earth.  Much can be learned from her explanations in clips below about how she has led and continues to lead a team in the transformation of the South Bronx.

After her presentation and in our working groups, a contradiction seemed to emerge. During the conference, we break into working groups to develop action plans.  These working groups included Campus Based Energy Efficiency, Academic Integration, High Performance Campus Design, Transportation – Oriented Opportunities, Finance, Regulatory and Energy Generation, and Zero Waste/Waste Reduction.

The contradiction or what seemed inconsistent was the discussion about sustainability and how sustainability has been defined.  Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from the UN Bruntland’s Commission report, “Our Common Future”, that suggested “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The contradiction was that we were not working to just meet needs but in how to make things better.  Better is needed, not just maintenance of the status quo.

The riskiest  thing we can do is maintain the status quo. – Bob Iger

We must create better because according to science, we have passed several tipping points related to climate change.  According to Will Steffan, as published in Science February 3, 2015, we have passed these tipping points:

  1. More than 350PPM CO2 so we will likely breach a 2°C rise
  2. Biodiversity should be at 90% preindustrial levels but instead is at 84%
  3. Deforestation should be at 75% of original forests but is now at 62%
  4. Overuse of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides should be at 25% of current use.

To me this means we must restore, not just sustain to have a better life and the potential for a better future.  Ironically, despite being about creating a future that would enable future generations to survive, The Brundtland Commission officially dissolved in December 1987 after releasing “Our Common Future”, a document which coined, and defined the meaning of the term “Sustainable Development”

Evidence indicates sustainability is not enough, we must seek to create not just less bad ways, but better ways.  With this view our efforts should be to generate comprehensive improvements by creating pervasive, reciprocal, selfish, selfless, synergistic interactions so everyone and everything benefits.

Please share how you are helping everyone and everything benefit!

Choose to Be Well’r,
Craig Becker

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