Sustainability, Part II: A Proposal to Foundations


One can hardly expect the politicians to get much ahead of political realities, as they see them.  If we cannot convert them immediately into advocates of demographic restraint, perhaps we can eventually convert them by asking, in the context of one policy decision after another:  “What are the consequences of the proposed policy?”

This process is usually referred to as “foresight.”   It is not simply a concept.  It requires institutional machinery to provide a systematic multidisciplinary evaluation of the probable consequences of trends or of anticipated actions.It needs

  • an organizational structure to bring disciplines together,
  • an ongoing review of environmental, social and demographic trends and their probable consequences, and
  • perhaps most important, a means of bringing those conclusions to bear in the decision process.

It is, in other words, a dedicated “think tank” located at the key intersection of decision making in government.  If government will not create such a mechanism (which so far it has not), perhaps the non-profit sector can.  I will come back to that point.

The Stalled Decision Process

These ideas are far from new.  Various governmental and private initiatives have been directed toward identifying the issues that confront us.  There have even been ephemeral efforts to create a systematic foresight process to inform national decisions, but they have foundered on bureaucratic resistance to change, the lack of a public consensus on the need for action, and simple inertia.

Let me briefly survey recent government foresight projects.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA).  Anybody interested in sustainability should reread NEPA.  It begins with these eloquent words:

The purposes of this Act are: To declare a national policy which will encourage a productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; …. The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the … natural environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth, high density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and new and expanding technological advances … declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government … to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.

 — a beautiful statement of the idea of sustainability, before the word itself came into use. The Act then goes on to spell out a process — the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — to enable the government to examine proposed governmental actions to see whether they meet those goals.

The Act does not tell the government what it can or cannot do. It was conceived as a “process bill.”  It tells the government that it must consider the potential environmental consequences of proposed actions, and it provides for public participation.  The problem is that the law has been used for limited projects such as interstate highway intersections but never really applied to major national decisions.

Anybody who wishes to bring long term goals back into the national dialogue could hardly find a better place to start than demanding that NEPA be followed.  Ignored though it is, it is still the law of the land.

Lindsey Grant

Lindsey Grant is a retired Foreign Service Officer; he was a China specialist and served as Director of the Office of Asian Communist Affairs, National Security Council staff member, and Department of State policy Planning staff member. As Deputy Secretary of State for Environmental and Population Affairs, he was Department of State coordinator for the Global 2000 Report to the President, Chairman of the interagency committee on Int'l Environmental Committee and US member of the UN ECE Committee of Experts on the Environment. His books include: Too Many People, Juggernaut, The Horseman and the Bureaucrat, Elephants in Volkswagen, How Many Americans?

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