Widener Law and the Environment Series: Measuring U.S. Progress Towards Sustainable Development
Web Editor - Published: September 5, 2008

widenerLawEnvironmentThis story is the first in a series of articles looking at environmental law efforts by Widener Law’s faculty.

“Environmentally friendly rarely means restorative, but rather, less damaging,” notes Professor John C. Dernbach as he discusses the effort to achieve sustainable development. “A sustainable America,” he explains, “would be more prosperous, healthier, and more secure, with a higher quality environment. This would be true not just for our generation, but also for those that come after us.”

“My project is about using law and policy to move the United States in a more sustainable direction,” he says of Agenda for a Sustainable America, a volume he is editing that examines U.S. progress in achieving sustainable development. Agenda for a Sustainable America scrutinizes the efforts of the United States to achieve sustainable development since the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002. The book’s 41 contributing authors also offer recommendations for the next five to ten years.

Agenda is the most recent of Dernbach’s efforts to look at progress toward sustainability in the United States.  They began with the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. “The United States and other countries agreed at the Earth Summit to work toward sustainability,” he says.  “Instead of making progress on economic, security, and social goals at the expense of the environment, they decided to do something that has never been done. They agreed to make progress on the environment and on these other goals at the same time. Instead of the environment vs. the economy, sustainability is about the environment and the economy.”

His first review of U.S. efforts came with an article in 1997 that he prepared with students in a seminar. It looked at U.S. efforts in the first five years after the Earth Summit.  In 2002, for the ten-year anniversary of the Earth Summit, he edited a book called Stumbling Toward Sustainability, which reviewed progress over the previous ten years and made recommendations for the next decade. Experts in particular fields wrote the book’s 32 chapters.

“There is good news and bad news” in Agenda for a Sustainable America, says Professor Dernbach. “The good news is that we are near a tipping point on awareness of sustainability. We are recognizing that environmental problems also limit economic opportunity, job creation and social wellbeing, and even compromise our national security. It is also increasingly evident that we can build a more robust economy, improve national security, and create good new jobs by protecting and restoring the environment.  Among the leaders in efforts toward sustainability are many colleges and universities, local governments, religious organizations, and corporations.”  

“The bad news is that we continue to move in the wrong direction - toward greater consumption of energy, materials, land and other resources, and toward greater greenhouse gas emissions and more negative environmental impacts. All of this has or will have unhappy consequences, not just to the environment but also to our security and welfare. With the world population expected to grow by 3 billion by mid-century, the world cannot sustain a situation in which everyone is consuming resources at the same level as the average American,” points out Professor Dernbach.

The central message of the book is that there is a way for the United States to achieve sustainability. The agenda for sustainability contained in the book is based on more than 100 recommendations by the book’s 40 contributing authors. “A major obstacle for many people is their lack of awareness of how we should proceed, and their fear that good choices don’t exist,” Dernbach says. Yet the recommendations contained in the book would create more opportunities for more people, reduce pollution, create new jobs and new technologies, and provide a better quality of life for Americans.

“If the challenges are great,” he concludes, “so are the opportunities.”