Sustainability’s Bottom Line

A Venn diagram, drawn in green circles with blue type. The three circles are Society, Environment, and Economy. The central area where they overlap is Sustainable State. The terms that appear in the partially overlapping circles are Healthy, Just, and Efficient.
File image

Are our presidential candidates (yes, including vice presidential candidate Clinton) thinking about sustainable initiatives for environmental improvement, city vitality, and sound fiscal order? Or is the sustainability movement still regarded by the mainstream as a pie-in-the-sky set of objectives advanced by the environmental elite?

Well, if you take a look at what John McCain and Hillary Clinton were proposing in creating a gas tax holiday, it seems clear that some candidates are looking at the short-term bottom line, while other candidates, like Barack Obama, tend to take the long view. This is by no means a tacit endorsement of Obama, because the verdict is still out on how he would implement national sustainable policy, but in acknowledging what we already know — that the rising price of gas calls for long-term solutions — it does show that he is able to examine alternatives to the quick fix.

That said, on the official Obama Web site, under the “Issues” tab, Energy/Environment and Urban Policy are two separate issues. Those two subjects need to be cross-referenced at some point. Clinton and Obama are the same on greenhouse gas emissions (80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050; McCain proposes a 60 percent reduction), and both Democrats have on their platforms plans of boosting the so-called green economy. Only Obama, however, has explicitly called for an investment in green job training programs for disadvantaged youth.

In the upcoming Summer 2008 issue of Shelterforce, Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, says none of the remaining presidential candidates has exhibited a public comprehension of sustainable policy, particularly when it comes to community development.

And she makes sense: with all of this talk about jobs created through the green economy, whoever ends up being president needs to start thinking about sustainability in a long-term context. Our next president needs to understand that sustainability is not just for the hybrid-driving, arugula-eating, Whole Foods customer. Our next president needs to market sustainability in a way that appeals to a vastly wider audience. Our next president needs to talk to people like Majora Carter, whose vigorous efforts in “greening the ghetto” will have long-term community and societal effects that include, but are not limited to: increased workforce, leading to lower unemployment numbers; more money pumped into the economy; improved health care, leading to fewer health care costs; community vitality, leading to overall better quality of life; and so on, and so on, and so on.

Our next president needs to understand those things, and fiercely push policy that reflects that understanding. As it stands, if you are of means, sustainability is largely a luxury, like recycling, that you can either opt in or opt out of basically depending on your personal beliefs. But in getting the message out to all of those disaffected voters in West Virginia, Kentucky, the South Bronx, and the rest of the country, for that matter, our next president needs to appeal to the non-environmentalists where it matters most: in the wallet. It’s like what Carter says: the human race struggles in the species preservation department, but individuals, well, that’s a different story. Individuals will go out of their way to preserve the “me, myself, and I.”

Sustainability can also be short for financial sustainability, meaning, long-term financial planning (just like you do with your checkbook), be it in community building, agriculture, transportation, and, yes, driving fuel-efficient vehicles and putting in those seven-year light bulbs (they work and save a lot of money over time). Cutting the federal gas tax, per se, basically places a comfy cushion on an already shaky chair, but what folks like Carter have done is first start with the legs, making a sturdy foundation for generations to come.

Let’s hope our next president understands that short-term solutions are not only not addressing the larger problem at hand, but, more often than not, have damaging effects on the long-term in creating a sustainable nation.

Editor’s note, 2022: Some of the links in this post have been archived on the former candidates’ sites and are no longer available.

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.