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Building a Green, Sustainable Regional Economy

November 12, 2012 By Timothy Nolan, Guest Commentary

Seven Generations sustainability is an ecological concept that admonishes the current generation of humans to be working for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future.

In an ongoing series with long-time MPCA sustainable industrial development planner Timothy Nolan, Minnesota 2020 will present evidence and arguments for why, and in general how, this region should design and engage in a strategic, comprehensive, and integrated approach, to advance the clean, green, sustainable regional economy. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the terms and concepts used in this series. 

The series includes:

• The argument for an integrated approach
• The truth about green jobs 
• Creating energy, water, food and waste systems to solve environmental challenges
• Opportunities for 21st century infrastructure


The Challenges Driving Transformation

After nearly three decades working at the forefront of sustainable development and what is referred to as the green economy, it has become evident there is need for transformation and exponential change to evolve to more sustainable systems ecologically, economically and socially, the pillars of sustainability.

Terms like clean, green, and sustainability are not about vague definitions, often interpreted superficially, or the rhetoric of a left-wing insurrection. Rather, this movement is about what we do in the present to mitigate the vast impacts of the last century’s industrial economy, one built on huge resource intensity and inefficiency, resulting in the depletion of natural assets and degradation of ecosystem services that support life, and are the foundation of all economies. It is how we prepare for the future. 

Looming impacts of climate change – compounded by other environmental challenges ranging from depleting material resources, water availability and quality, toxics in the environment, and over consumption patterns – are escalating ecosystem stresses. The growing weight of evidence surrounding these challenges indicates that globally, nationally, and regionally long-term solutions have not been achieved.

"Climate scientists emphasize that Sandy, whatever its causes, should be seen as a foretaste of trouble to come as the sea rises faster, the risks of climate change accumulate and the political system fails to respond. Scientists say that most of the rise [in sea levels] is a direct consequence of human-induced climate change." -- NY Times, 10/31/12.

The premise of our 20th century industrial economy – that we can over consume our natural capital for the benefit of the present and short-term interests – is waning. Environmental conditions and resource constraints indicate we are putting pressure on our natural, economic, and socio-political systems like never before in human history. The consequences of this will burden generations to come. Metaphorically, Atlas won’t be shrugging anymore because the immense stresses on the Earth’s life supporting, economic, and socio-political systems will crush him.

The truth is, our economic systems have been based on resource intensity producing high levels of wastes and emissions, and an economic structure that does not account for the true cost of vast resource depletion and negative human and ecological health impacts. Prices in this market place do not reflect the externalities of producing or consuming a good. Our disingenuously labeled free-market economy does not exist in pure form, since it doesn’t recognize these externalities. It is simply not sustainable to defer costs by subsidizing systems that are inefficient, polluting, and resource intensive. We need a more responsible full cost accounting approach – factoring all direct and indirect environmental, social, and economic costs and benefits – integrated into the planning, design, and investments in our infrastructure and systems of the future.

Socio-economic volatility along with the growing weight of evidence of ecosystems’ decline is driving a transition to both global and localized solutions. Fueled by the rapid economic growth of China, India, and other developing nations, pressure to develop more sustainable human systems is mounting. When we look at China and India as driving the global economy in coming decades, and really understand the vast and direct environmental challenges they face, competing with those economies becomes less about low-cost, and much more about sustainability solutions. Associated upheaval will force major change in industrial production and other development patterns.

This new reality will manifest in local, national, and global economies, and requires a transformation away from our current means of production systems to clean production systems in order to provide and sustain future prosperity. The foundation for accomplishing this is to radically diminish intensities in material, energy, and water systems, toxics in the environment, land-use inefficiency, and economic disparity. In response to this challenge, an array of research, development and commercial activities are underway. This presents a pivot point for a transition to more clean, green, and sustainable economies.

"A world that is highly leveraged is borrowing on the future. We cannot solve the vast sustainability problems, which are bigger than all of us, without working together and acting collectively. Issues need to be merged not separated. We are at a critical juncture, especially since we are moving to a scenario of crisis. There is movement but not at the pace and scale necessary to overcome challenges. We cannot play by the same rules we have now, and need to set standards and change the rules." --Fresh Water Society Forum, Feb 2012 U of MN Mindy Lubber President, CERES

Tomorrow's column will begin addressing integrated solutions. 

Timothy Nolan is Principal Planner of  Sustainable Industrial Development at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He's spent more than 25 years at the forefront of Minnesota’s efforts to implement progressive public and private sector sustainable development initiatives. 

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