Sustainability as an Imperative in Public Policy

beach.JPGComplaining about government waste is almost a cliche. From the excessive use of Police ATVs patrolling our completely safe beaches, to the general inefficiency at all levels, governments seem to be avoiding the environmental crisis in their day to day operations. At very least, sustainability does not seem to be on their checklist of mandatory considerations before making most decisions. Everything from policy to the execution of initiatives often misses the mark on the dire need to transition our society to one that is in alignment with nature, rather than at odds with it.
While governments are supporting the development of renewable energy, public policy does not holistically factor in sustainable practices that yield real efficiencies in resource management and care. The result is vast amounts of unnecessary carbon compounding our environmental troubles and furthering resource depletion.
Building renewable energy sources takes years of research and development, but reducing inefficiencies in the operation of governmental entities can often be done in the short term. Or at least soon enough for the political value to reach voting constituents. In fact, many of these re-workings cost little to nothing in financial terms, and are predominantly about creative thinking. In light of growing energy costs and budget deficits, sustainable-minded policy decisions are crucial to curtailing the current crisis.

Public policy must make sustainability a mandatory mission in its decision-making process, rather than an afterthought or minority position. For example, Arizona’s recent switch to a 4-day work week for most state employees allows for the government entities to render adequate citizen services, while reducing the resources used by state agencies by a hefty 20%. As a further step, Arizona has made more than 800 state services available online, eliminating almost all of the resources used in to the brick and mortar services. Of course, this likely cost some people their jobs, but at this crucial stage of crisis, the savings in emissions and energy is far more important that the pink slips.
The mental shift probably originates in government officials believing that sustainability only compromises a government’s ability to operate freely. Instead, business people who have proven that sustainable models yield a more efficient way of operating an entity in general need to come to the fore and preach the truth. Once this understanding is fully accepted, governments will recognize that sustainability is an imperative to every policy decision.
Since the legislative process is an arduous process, structured to facilitate compromise, individual agency policy decisions offer an immediate impact. Agency policy is dictated by the heads of departments without a long legislative process. This is a convenient manner of incorporating sustainability into government practices.
On a grander scale, federal, state, and local legislation and public policy should reflect sustainable thinking. This includes the obvious mandates to build clean energy sources and mandatory LEED certification on all new government buildings, but also that every piece of legislation must include the impact it has on resource use and the environment. Almost all public policy decisions will have an impact on resource use. In turn, legislative processes must take this into account, openly and thoroughly.
Without going into the specific policy underpinnings, here are some guiding lights to local, state, and federal entities seeking to reduce their environmental impact.
Optimization involves the basic notions of good business practices that result in financial stability. Conserve, reuse, and make your operations run smoother. Often times waste materials are someone else’s raw materials, so sell them rather than stack them in a landfill.
For example, parked law enforcement vehicles are always left with the engine idling. Police departments must adopt programs to mandate employees to stop idling their vehicles when parked. City of Batavia, Illinois has enacted such a measure.
Optimization encompasses every resource an entity uses. This can be as simple as mandating double sided printing, e-filing or installing rain water systems. The resources and information are out there, governments just need to seek out advice and enact the policies.
Prioritization involves allocating resources to the most effective uses. Climate change and resource depletion are by far the biggest problems we face as a nation and as a species. The number one priority in any debate over policy should be centered around its ecological impact and its effectiveness in terms of resources.
Each local and state government must start educating its employees on what the effects of their actions are. It’s amazing how much people start caring about resource depletion when you just tell them the facts. Educate them that wasting water uses both water and electricity. Educate them that turning down the thermostat saves 2,000lbs of CO2 a year. There are thousands of such factoids that will motivate government employees to conserve, especially if you incentivize their actions with real rewards like bonuses or time off.
While these are three main guiding lights for governmental policy, there are a multitude of tangible policy changes that can be enacted immediately. We are only limited by our own creativity and the willingness to seek out the solutions.
Argam DerHartunian & Scott Badenoch are co-founders of, the wiki for green living, where you can find over 500 Creative Solutions for living more environmentally friendly lives. Argam and Scott also consult businesses and government entities about sustainability. They can be reached at and

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