William Clark on Sustainable Development

by Doug Gavel, interviewed on June 11, 2009

Sustainable development, as characterized more than 20 years ago by the World Commission on Environment and Development, seeks to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability science has emerged over the last decade as a diverse set of interdisciplinary research and innovation activities pursued in support of society’s efforts to navigate a transition toward sustainability. Today, it has developed elements of a shared conceptual framework, sketched a core research agenda and set of associated methods, and is producing a steadily growing flow of results.
William Clark, Harvey Brooks professor of international science, public policy and human development, is an ecologist who co-directs the Sustainability Science Program at the Center for International Development.
Q: Please explain your ideas regarding the interconnection between nature and society.
Clark:If we look around the world today and throughout history, we see cases in which humans have interacted with their environments in incredibly destructive ways. Take the Aral Sea, or the Love Canal case in which declining well-being of the environment and of society undermined one another in downward spirals of mutual destruction.
On the other hand, we have contrasting situations – take modern day Pittsburgh, or some of the areas of long-term rice cultivation in Asia – in which the productivity of the environment and the well-being of people have prospered in mutually supporting ways. The scientific challenge today is to figure out what differentiates those two classes of cases. What is it about ways in which humans organize their interactions with the environment that lead to mutually supportive outcomes, rather than the mutually destructive ones?
Humans receive a flow of services from functioning environments – everything from climate regulation to water purification to oxygen production. We can manage environments – farms, factory areas and so on – in ways that enhance and sustain those flows of services or we can disregard them, especially those that don’t enter the marketplace. But by disregarding them, we guarantee that they will be overexploited and undersupplied to the ultimate detriment of humanity.
So the question is, what kind of feedback mechanisms and governance institutions can be constructed that will guide development in ways that both promote prosperity in the short run and nurture environmental systems and their services on which our long term well-being depends?
Q: When you talk about sustainable development, you talk about influencing norms. Please explain.
Clark:When we analyze how humans use their environments, there are two sets of questions. The first focuses on engineering and economic concerns: what kind of planet can we get? What kind of flows of services are we technically capable of extracting from the planet? But there’s another critical question: what kind of planet do we want? This question is about equity: equity across places (is it fair that I dump my pollution on you?) and equity across generations (is it fair that we emit greenhouse gasses that will endanger our children and grandchildren?).
So you cannot escape making central value judgments about equity and fairness in answer to this “what kind of a world?” question. Sustainability science therefore grapples with the normative question of what sort of trade offs – present versus future, us versus them – are appropriate as we intervene and try to manage our environment?
Q: Global warming seems to be emblematic of the environmental risks posed by human development. How can and should the problem be approached over the long term in order to maximize benefits and minimize harms?
Clark:The way my colleague John Holdren discusses this is that in dealing with the climate issue, as with many human/environment issues, we have three options: we’re going to mitigate or reduce the pressures we put on the climate through our emissions; we’re going to adapt to the changes in environment that result from those emissions; or we’re going to suffer. And the tradeoffs are what combination of emission reduction, adaptation, and suffering we’re going choose.
It’s abundantly clear by now that our present trajectory of emissions of climate-changing chemicals are so far beyond what the planet can absorb without radical and destructive climate changes that we need to back off very rapidly on the rates of growth and emissions.
No matter how much we accomplish on reducing emissions, however, much climate change is going to occur. The most underinvested area today in both research and institution building for the climate problem is in that second component of adaptation. How do we build our infrastructure – our highways, our water provision facilities, our energy production facilities – in ways that make them and us less vulnerable to the kinds of climate change and related environmental alterations that are invariably going to occur over the next decades?
Finally, it’s important to realize that what we’ve already done to the climate is going to make us suffer. Various segments of society are going to take especially damaging hits though climate change that we cannot either prevent or adapt to. Thus any reasonable strategy for dealing with climate change has got to include some form of insurance – that is, for society as a whole taking responsibility for those who are in economic conditions or in sectors of work that suffer disproportionate harm as the price of the benefits the rest of us have already received from our profligate release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Q: How should global institutions be designed to promote sustainable development?
Clark: There are two major components that any sort of an international institutional architecture would have to deal with.
First, this needs to be an adaptive system. We are not smart enough to manage a system as complex as the interaction of a global economy and the planet as though we had a blueprint. The kinds of misplaced certainty evident among both environmentalists and macroeconomists – that we actually know what we’re doing – certainly cannot apply in the realm of sustainable development. We’re going to do things as best we can; we’re going to be surprised by things we didn’t anticipate. The trick is not to paralyze human development because of fear of those surprises. But we will have to be vastly more attentive and responsive than we’ve been at detecting the undesirable, unanticipated consequences of our actions and responding to them in creative, appropriate ways.
That will require an efficient global information system for monitoring the environment and humans’ effects on it. It will need an enhanced ability to build rules and regulations, to construct treaties, that don’t carve particular responses in stone but rather are adaptable on reasonably short-term cycles. Above all, it means we should not get caught up in silly debates over whether we are certain some transformation of the environment is actually occurring or is going to cost X or 2X. That’s as foolish as waiting to slow down on what you know to be a winding mountain road until you’ve driven off a cliff, all because your advisors couldn’t agree on the optimal speed or placement of warning signs. So we’ve got to become more adaptive in our approach to the unknown.
The second thing we understand today is that government structures need to be polycentric. That is, there is no global architecture that is going to get right how humans could and should adjust their interactions with the environment in situations ranging from high-intensity, low-input agriculture in Southeast Asia to the high-density running of the Boston-Washington transportation corridor. These are just radically different situations needing radically different responses.
What we need to be doing is building global architectures that let us deal with the long-term, large-scale externalities or overflows of pollutants, at the same time as we push downscale much closer to the political and ecological details which distinguish success from failure in handling the tradeoffs I mentioned earlier. We need to push downscale responsibility for adapting and building particular management of systems that work.
We are beginning to recognize that the role for global governance may be more one of information provision and facilitation than one particularly well suited to providing one size fits all regulations. Much of the action to promote sustainable development has to occur at the state and local levels, facilitated by information and institutions from above.
Q. What role does cross-sector involvement play – not just governments, but the private sector and NGOs? How can all of these work together to facilitate society’s responsiveness?
Clark:As both part of this adaptive and polycentric approach I was outlining, it’s become abundantly clear over the last decade or so that no one sector can do everything. Governments setting the playing field, being sure that there is culpability in rules faced by different actors, is crucially important, but engaging both civil society and the private sector with their different forms of innovation, their ability to harness particular kinds of social, financial and expertise resources just becomes absolutely crucial. As we look at some of the modern success stories – whether they’re in sustainable land-use and agro-forestry in Latin America, or in urban renewal situations in Europe or the United States – we see success being built around functional, fairly targeted coalitions of a few business interests, a few civil society interests, and government playing a sensible, facilitating, enabling role among them.
Q. Any final thoughts on this topic?
Clark: Climate change is clearly the big issue of the day. We’d be foolish not to be taking advantage of this window of attention and opportunity to address it. The need is urgent; the opportunities for change are great. However, we have to recognize that humans transform the environment in multiple ways, and greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are only one set of those. We saw recently in the great confusion over bio-fuels that an approach that looked sensible for mitigating releases of greenhouse gases ended up causing food crises.
Environmental transformation doesn’t occur in a silo. What we do with our lands, what we do with our industrial base – these are connected issues and we need to beware of optimizing on single dimensions, whether that is economic growth or carbon dioxide reduction. Because as useful as the first steps down any course may be, we must be mindful of the multi-dimensionality of these human-environment interactions. Otherwise, we will continue to be lured into doing very foolish and counterproductive things.

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