New Book Describes Ways To Accelerate US Transition To Sustainability-Including A Greater Emphasis On Ethics.

As the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro in June in an attempt to make global course corrections needed to move the world to sustainable future, a new book was published that rigorously examines what has happened and failed to happen on sustainability in the United States. In Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Professor John Dernbach, with the input from 51 contributing authors, including this author, after looking closely at US sustainability successes and failures, deduces from this experience a strategy to rapidly improve US sustainability performance. (Dernbach et al, 2012)

The idea of sustainable development was placed on the front burner internationally at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. As most educated citizens know, this concept called for the integration of economic, environmental, and social justice goals in policy formation and human practices at international, national, regional, and local scales around the world. The idea of sustainable development was a positive step forward in human history because humans frequently have pursued either economic, environmental, or social goals individually in isolation from each other. That is, for instance, governments at all scales have frequently pursued economic development without regard to how new economic activity might affect the environment or social justice. The great wisdom of the concept of sustainable development is this insight that pursuit of economic, environmental, or social justice goals in isolation from each other will likely have adverse impacts on the goals not considered.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters rigorously describes what has happened or failed to happen in the United States in the 20 years since the idea of sustainability got widespread international attention at Rio. To seriously examine what needs to be done to move the world on a sustainability path there is no shortcut to a thorough, ambitious, and rigorous analysis of what has happened and failed to happen. This is particularly true of a concept like sustainable development that creates immense policy challenges because of the ambitiousness of this idea’s scope. And so, if one wants to know what has happened on sustainability, there is no escaping the need to go deep on matters that are both wide ranging and complex and that have been unfolding for 20 years.

Because of the sheer complexity of the idea of sustainable development any serious analysis of progress must rely on experts and analysis beyond the disciplinary kens of most individual human beings. One of the most significant contributions of this new book is to make even veteran sustainability watchers aware of sustainability developments in areas that they have not been following. No one person can be an expert on even the major developments in environmental protection, economic development, and human flourishing. There is simply too much to follow. And so, another virtue of this book is that Professor Dernbach has obtained the cooperation of 51 renowned experts to compile the synthesis of US sustainability successes and failures.

This new book examines progress in such diverse policy subjects as: (a) links between environmental protection and public health outcomes, (b) relationships between consumption and population, (c) connections between poverty and unemployment, (d) links between the built environment and sustainability outcomes, (e) national, regional, and local governments successes on sustainability, and (f)  achievements in sustainability education, just to name a few.

Even sustainability experts, including myself, who  have been deeply been immersed in sustainable development issues since the Earth Summit in 1992 will learn from this book about sustainability progress and failures of which they were unaware .  Therefore, perhaps the greatest contribution of this new book is to make those working to make sustainability a reality aware for the first time of achievements, failures, and case studies relevant to sustainability’s future progress. I, for instance was unaware of many sustainability developments discussed in this book such as: (a) the fact that some US states now require that climate change impacts be described in any environmental impact study, (b) the impressive number of programs or projects on sustainability at the local government level in the United States, (c) that 1000 US mayors have joined a mayors’ climate change prevention program, and (d) that the city of Chicago has over 400 green roofs.  And so even the most experienced sustainability expert will get ideas from this book about how to improve the US sustainability performance.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters not only describes progress on sustainability, it makes it clear that US performance on many sustainability issues has been a dismal failure on some matters. In fact, another virtue of this book is that in describing obstacles to sustainability it does not pull punches. The book makes clear that despite modest success on some sustainability issues, the US has failed to adequately implement the concept because of some persistent obstacles that have been blocking US progress. In this regard, the book discusses the following barriers to US progress: habits, lack of urgency, confusion about sustainability options, unsupportive law and governance, and perhaps most importantly strong political opposition to sustainability policy proposals.

The book also makes recommendations on how to overcome these obstacles including developing better sustainability choices, improving law for sustainability, and perhaps most importantly, the need for a new sustainability social movement.

Woven throughout the book are implicit and express claims that sustainable development must be understood essentially as an ethical and moral matter because what is at stake is the very future of the quality of life on earth. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to morality and ethics including discussions of  religious and moral leaders who have been provoking wider public discussion of the ethical dimensions of sustainability.   This inclusion of ethics in what is otherwise a policy book makes it unique among serious analyses of sustainability achievements and failures.

The importance of seeing sustainability problems as ethical matters becomes apparent when one considers the comments of some observers that have criticized the very idea of sustainable development because there is no precise definition of the idea that would allow for its unambiguous implementation when there are conflicts between environmental, economic, and social goals. Yet this is where ethics and morality become so very important.

In this regard, one minor suggestion for improvement of the conclusions in this excellent book is to call for even greater acknowledgement of the need to stress the importance of the ethical dimensions of sustainability. This is so because the implementation of the concept of sustainable development needs to look to other ethical principles to resolve conflicts among environmental, economic and social goals.  For instance:

  •  During a 30 year debate about climate change policy action the United States’ opponents of domestic legislative action have objected on the grounds that new climate change policies will unacceptably increase costs to some industries, reduce US GDP,  or make US industry non-competitive compared to other global players. Yet these arguments completely ignore US ethical obligations to the victims of climate change to refrain from harming them, creating human rights violations, or destroying ecological systems on which life depends. To resolve conflicts between increased economic costs of climate change policies and protection of the most vulnerable, ethical principles need to be consulted.
  • When questions of scientific uncertainty have arisen in opposition to sustainability policymaking ethical considerations about who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof need to be considered. Yet policy debates have almost always ignored these ethical questions about scientific uncertainty that policy-makers must face in decision-making.
  •  Cost-benefit analyses of sustainability programs almost always ignore questions of distributive and procedural justice that are particularly important for poor, vulnerable people around the world. Ethics demands that these justice issues be considered in policy-making.


And so, in some controversial sustainability matters, ethical considerations have been the key missing element in policy disputes. For this reason, applied ethical analyses should be at the tip of the spear of the new sustainability social movement called for in this book.  Any sustainability social movement should follow actual concrete sustainability issues to identify the ethical issues that need to be considered to move forward on the sustainability path.

And so Acting As If Tomorrow Matters makes a significant contribution to moving the United States forward on the path toward sustainable development. Following perhaps the key recommendation in this book, interested sustainability advocates should work together to create a new social movement on sustainability armed with what we can learn from the sustainability successes and failures discussed in this book.

Those interested in the book can find more information at the book’s website:


 Dernbach, J. (2012) Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Environmental Law Institute Press, Washington, D.C.



Donald A. Brown,

Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s