NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
Wind turbines image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.
The environmental movement had a lot to brag about. In a mere ten-year span in the 1960s and early 1970s, a relatively small community of student activists, along with crusading scientists, from Rachel Carson to Barry Commoner, managed to bring widespread attention to the need for greater environmental protection. The legislative successes flowed like kombucha at a farmers market. All the books and protests and far-out happenings actually resulted in real, tangible progress, which citizens in the United States and other parts of the world could chart over time, like marking a child’s height against the wall.
A rapid-fire series of federal acts ushered in an unprecedented level of environmental regulation and protection. First came the Clean Air Act of 1963 (amended in 1970) that regulates air pollution across the country; then the Wilderness Act of 1964 that protects millions of acres of natural places; and then the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965. Next came the Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966), the Wild Scenic Rivers Act (1968), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), which requires environmental impact assessments on all federal development projects, and the hugely important Clean Water Act (1972).
Nixon, a Republican, played midwife to some of this legislation, and also created the Environmental Protection Agency “to protect human health and the environment.” Earth Day was celebrated for the first time in 1970. Recycling became a standard practice in many parts of the US, DDT and other harmful chemical and pesticides were banned, and a regulatory market for sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants was created, becoming the world’s first cap-and-trade system.
The environmentalists lost a lot of battles, too. But the successes were obvious.
So what has the sustainability movement achieved? Sustainable development has been a buzzword in international politics since the mid-1980s, and a self-defined sustainability movement has been active since at least the early 90s. The idea of living within available biophysical limits, privileging wellbeing over growth, and running our society on renewables have all become hot-button topics for engaged citizens.
But where are the legislative acts to prove the influence? Why has the sustainability movement taken longer than the classic environmental movement to enact change? Perhaps its because those in the world of sustainability have set their aims too high. Or perhaps it’s because the problems addressed by the sustainability movement are more difficult to address. It’s one thing to protect scenic rivers, and quite another to end reliance on fossil fuels. Witness, for instance, the ongoing stalemate at the international level to reach a meaningful consensus on climate change abatement policy.
That said, what are some of the successes of the sustainability movement? What exactly can sustainists hang their hats on? Here’s my list, which draws on examples from the US and other parts of the developed world.
1. Feed-In Tariffs and the Growth of the Renewable Energy Sector
Feed-in tariffs pay small-scale energy producers, such as houses with grid-connected solar panels, a fee above market rates for energy that it supplies back to the grid. Germany has used feed-in tariffs extensively, as have some US states and other parts of the world. In Germany, they’ve been one of the main reasons that homeowners have gone crazy for solar panels. On a particularly windy and sunny day this past July, Germany’s grid produced a whopping 78% of its electricity from renewables, although most of the time renewables are closer to a quarter of the energy supply—a number that’s growing every year. Also growing is the renewable energy sector. Over the past decade, about half of all new electricity generated globally comes from renewables. Wind energy grew by 32% in 2009, and solar power grew by 53%. Even though renewables make up only around 15% of the total primary energy supply worldwide, they are making steady gains on fossils fuels and nuclear power. Feed-in tariffs, subsides, and rebates for installing solar PV have played an important role.
2. Keystone Pipeline Defeated
In November of 2014, Senate Democrats narrowly blocked legislation that would have allowed for the construction of the Keystone Pipeline System. The idea was to connect the Tar Sands of Alberta to refineries in the US and oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the issue might not be totally dead, the project is indefinitely stalled. It was billed in the media as a squabble between environmentalists and Republicans, but the stakes were much higher, and the divisions much broader. In a sense, what was rejected was an ongoing reliance on the fossil fuel paradigm in favor a more diversified, cleaner, and more renewable energy regime. It also signaled growing concerns about emissions and climate change, and overreliance on foreign energy resources. All of these issues have long been discussed in the sustainability movement, the lessons of which are filtering into public consciousness and the backrooms of Washington politics.
3. The Revival of Local Food, Farmers Markets, and the Organic Sector
The sustainability movement has long viewed sustainable farming practices, gardening, and the local economy as crucial for the hopes of building a resilient and stable society. Concerns over chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and the GMO crops that have been modified to survive this chemical assault have pushed many consumers toward organic food. The organic sector has grown at an astounding rate, increasing by about 20% annually since 1990. Local foods are back in a big way, too, amidst concerns over transport emissions and the scary realization that many countries rely on distant elsewheres for their essential nourishment. Local, often organic, food is now widely available in the US and elsewhere. The local food market more than doubled from 1997 to 2007, and, tellingly, the number of farmers markets—once a mainstay of very town in America—has returned from the edge, more than quadrupling in number since 1994.
4. The Banning of Plastic Bottles and Styrofoam
An increasing number of cities and university campuses in North America are taking aim at non-biodegradable and/or non-recyclable food containers. In 2008, Seattle banned polystyrene and Styrofoam from the food-services industry, forcing take-out restaurants to switch to biodegradable containers. New York followed suit this year, recognizing that polystyrene jams up landfills, kills marine wildlife, and threatens the city’s organics program. The University of Winnipeg banned plastic water bottles from its campus in 2009, and the University of Vermont did the same in 2013. Both schools installed new, public water refilling stations for reusable containers. Further, the world has witnessed the growth of “industrial ecology” in recent years, which seeks to green industrial processes and products, using new methods, such as life-cycle analysis and environmental impact assessment.
5. The Return of Mass Transit
Virtually every city in North America once had subways, streetcars, or cable cars that ran on electricity. Some of the subway systems remain, such as the one in New York City, but many trains systems were shut down and torn out in the 1960s. Automobile manufacturers and the oil industry lobbied hard for cities to build highways, ditch public transit, and embrace cars. It took several decades for cities to realize that they had made a mistake. Since the 90s, many municipalities have built light-rail or metro networks to reduce emissions and ease traffic congestion. These new systems can be seen in cities such as Seattle, Portland, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Phoenix.
Subway image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.
6. Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops Banned or Regulated
A growing body of scientific data has shown that GE crops doused with the herbicide RoundUp (i.e. glyphosate) inevitably absorb the applied chemicals into their tissue which, when consumed by humans, affects the microbiome in our intestines and reduces the mineral content in the sprayed foods. Equally troubling is the fact that GE crops are part of a conventional agricultural system that relies on artificial fertilizers, which harm soils and concentrate in waterways, creating hypoxic dead zones in lakes and deltas, and a growing list of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, many of which are effective for only one season, as pests quickly adapt to the chemical onslaught. This year, the World Health Organization deemed that Monsanto’s patented glyphosate—which most GE crops are designed to withstand—is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In the US alone, in 2007, about 200 million pounds of glyphosate was dumped onto crops. Although there are ongoing battles between the corporations who produce these crops and chemicals, and a diverse anti-GE community, many regions and countries have already taken action. Many parts of the European Union, including four regions in Italy, have banned the production of GE crops, and 64 countries around the world now require that products containing GE foods at least be clearly labeled.
7. Creation of New Economic Metrics
Ecological economists and backers of sustainable development have long criticized conventional economic metrics, such as the GDP and GNP, since they fail to measure human wellbeing or life satisfaction, they discount pollution, resource depletion, and environmental destruction, and they fetishize growth, assuming that a bigger economy is necessarily a better one. In recent years, new metrics have been devised, which bring qualitative and environmental factors in to the mix. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare has been used of late by the European Commission to measure economic sustainability in Europe. In the United Kingdom, the government is now using a set of 68 social, economic, and environmental indicators to measure progress toward its Sustainable Development Strategy. More well known is the use of a Gross National Happiness Index in the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan. Bhutan now uses a range of qualitative and quantitative indicators to measure life satisfaction, income equality, environmental integrity, and more. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 has brought increased attention to these metrics, given the market failures that the world has endured.
8. The Institutionalization of Sustainability
Sustainability has found a home in a broad range of institutions, from municipalities and federal governments, to corporations, NGOs, and universities. Most self-respecting cities in North America have offices or departments of sustainability, which generate and manage sustainability related policies. Many corporations and NGOs have done the same. Likewise, most colleges and universities now have influential offices of sustainability. Membership in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) is fast approaching 1,000 schools in the US and Canada. AASHE lists around 1,500 sustainability-focused academic programs, meaning that students have unprecedented access to courses, methods, and degree programs that foster sustainability.
9. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Have Made an Impact
The UN sought to learn from the failures of top-down development schemes from the 1970s and 1980s that ignored the input of aid recipients in poor countries, and discounted cultural and ecological realities. The MDGs have become the new model of sustainable development. The program ran from 2000 to 2015, aiming to eradicate extreme poverty, combat malaria, reduce child mortality rates, and so on. The initial data shows that, while not all the lofty goals were reached, the MDGs were often successful. Extreme poverty has dropped by more than 50%, primary education is now nearly universal, and malaria-specific mortality rates dropped by a quarter. Of equal importance is the fact that the MDGs have set the tone for a new, more collaborative and effective approach to development in the Global South.
10. Phasing out Fossil Fuels by 2100: A Success?
In June of this year, the leaders of the G7 agreed to phase out fossil fuels by 2100, as part of an effort to meet reduction targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The decision was roundly mocked in the press since, well, 2100 is a long time from now, and since climate scientists tell us that GHG emissions need to fall by 80% in the next few decades. It seemed to many to be a case of “too little, too late.” But I see it differently. The 2100 target created, for the first time, an actual timeline for the phase out of fossil fuels, and with more pressure on politicians, this date can and should be moved up. The first rule of politics is to learn how to transform a setback into an advantage, and this timeline allows for such an opportunity.
All of these successes are limited in scope. None will magically transform our society into a sustainable utopia. The world still faces a host of complex problems, from our ever-expanding population, which places manifold stresses on the natural environment, to the stubborn growth of GHG emissions in our atmosphere.
Yet however small and insufficient these achievements have been, the sustainability movement has had successes—successes that can serve as inspiration and a basis for meeting bigger goals.