David A. Bainbridge
America has an army of over 1 million lawyers in practice with an additional 45,000 graduates added to their ranks each year. By comparison there are about 10,000 professionally trained ecologists in the U.S. and perhaps an additional 200 Ph.D’s are awarded each year. A growing but still small number of sustainability specialists are also graduating with Green MBAs and degrees in industrial ecology and sustainable management and engineering.
If our priorities were more properly ordered to promote sustained abundance the balance between new ecology graduates and lawyers would be reversed. I can envision a day where 30,000 ecologists and sustainability specialists will graduate each year — and only 100 lawyers. This sounds outrageous I know, but unraveling the complexities of America’s many varied ecosystems and developing cradle-to-cradle industrial ecosystems that will be good for people and the environment could easily absorb this many greentech specialists and scientists.
Sustainability programs need the same priority as the “Man on the Moon” push in the 1960’s (project Apollo $25 billion) or the National Institute of Health ($31 billon per year). With adequate funding much needed progress could be made on four fronts:
1. Baseline studies, inventory, and analysis of existing and past conditions and interactions of America’s environments and communities. Much of this research is low cost, requiring little more than a careful observer and time. The National Science Foundations excellent Long Term Ecological Research program Network’s 26 sites have budgets that are often only $1-3 million a year. We need 200 more of them, including more urban and rural resource management and restoration project sites.
2. Detailed applied research into options and techniques for resource management, environ-mental rehabilitation, and refinement of economic analysis to include true cost analysis. The Agriculture Sustainability Institute at the University of California at Davis has a budget of about $5 million a year. We need a hundred more just like it. And we need support for groups like the Environmental and Social Management Accounting Network that are improving our understanding of true cost accounting.
3. Development and adoption of ecological and sustainability literacy requirements and supporting curricula for kindergarten to college.
4. Development of strategies and systems for developing sustainable industrial ecosystems with products that are healthful, fun and easy to recycle, reuse, or return to nature.
These four programs are of vital importance, yet little progress has been made on any of them. Only a very few small ecosystems have been studied with the long-term, multidisciplinary analysis needed to unravel the complex interactions that occur. Little work on ecosystem level sustainable resource management on farms and forests has been done. Few studies have been done of opportunities for ecological restoration and rehabilitation and only a small number of these have led to actual restoration programs. Developing industrial ecosystems and sustainable communities and cities remains in its infancy. And true cost accounting is just starting to get to task.
Every corporation will need an ongoing sustainability program, just as they now have legal services and accounting. The sustainability staff would advise management on social and environmental issues affecting company operations and would help develop more ecologically sound products and services, better production methods, wiser waste management, and more appropriate property management, from building design to landscaping. They would also focus on risk reduction and opportunities for new products and services. This would often provide immediate monetary benefits and would certainly yield long-term benefits. Just to service companies with annual sales over one million dollars would require more than 250,000 sustainability specialists.
Increased funding for sustainability research and management is also essential. To properly complete this work I would suggest the creation of State, County, and City sustainability specialist positions. This will require a minimum of 22,000 ecologists, ecodesigners, and sustainability specialists. In addition every school system should also have at least one sustainability specialist for educational support, inventory work, food system oversight, facilities renovation, research, restoration, and interpretive work.
If we are ever to achieve a future of sustained abundance we will have to drastically reorder our priorities. We must begin to use our best and brightest students and vast resources to understand, restore, and protect our environment and communities while working toward the establishment of an economy and society that is not burning up its capital like a profligate son but cautiously and carefully investing for a future of sustained abundance. If we do it right we can flourish, if we continue on our wasteful ways we will face increasing problems and crises.
“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it…. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seeming useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Aldo Leopold. The Round River (1953) Oxford University Press