Protecting the environment with better results in the years ahead can start with a single idea. A new book edited by Daniel Esty suggests 40 of them.
For the new book he edited that comes out this month, called A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, Resources for the Future board member Daniel Esty brainstormed with a wide range of experts to share an abundance of ideas—40 in all, proposed by more than 50 different authors—that, if applied, can help support a sustainable future for the planet.
Esty’s selections for these essays tend to focus on the design of positive incentives. Instead of relying on a traditional, punitive system of “red lights” enforced by policies and the government, Esty suggests that an expanded set of “green lights” can nudge systems toward better, more sustainable, behaviors. Just as some argue that companies should pay for their negative externalities, Esty says that “those delivering positive externalities—benefits to society—should be compensated.”
A major goal of the book is to take environmental protection to a higher level. “These are not research articles or typical academic writing,” Esty says. “They’re lighter and presented in a distilled, short format that the general public can absorb. My hope is to energize the conversation and give a foundation for action, at a moment when everyone assumes that nothing can happen.”
If the future looks dark, and Moore’s Law applies, then technological innovations can seem like the best way—even the only way—to save the planet. In his essay, David Rejeski warns against this belief, which he calls the “solutionism” trap. But he’s not claiming that technology is all bad; rather, it’s worth applying caution.
Rejeski cites examples of “predictable surprises,” where early warnings exist, but organizations and individuals nonetheless fail to act or fail to act on time. He also points out systems that work, such as Pentagon- supported advanced research projects and the private sector’s erstwhile Bell Labs, both of which have thrown funding and inventive solutions behind difficult problems.
Rejeski’s suggestion for a sustainable planet: setting up a “Department of Unintended Consequences” that focuses on the preventable side effects of major technological advances. With more flexibility and an entrepreneurial approach to policy, we may avoid mishaps.
Regulation by robot might sound sketchy, but Cary Coglianese sees big potential for applying machine learning to help solve intractable problems. Machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that automates pattern recognition and other data analysis, already assists with medical treatments, fraud identification, and self-driving cars. And with the huge amounts of environmental and economic data now available, governments and organizations can let machine learning do the work of leveraging the data—something like “algorithmic environmental governance.”
For example, machine learning can help identify toxic chemicals among the thousands in use. With novel chemicals used for novel applications, machine learning can quickly make predictions about whether a new chemical might be likely to have toxic effects. Another example: machine learning can help target facilities for environmental inspections, improving the efficiency of regulatory agencies that run on limited resources. “[T]he cost savings for government could be substantial,” claims Coglianese, if we let machine learning help allocate scarce human resources.
In 2017 and 2018, the United States experienced 16 and 14 weather and climate disaster events, respectively, that cost upwards of one billion dollars to address. Contrast these recent years with the time period 1980–2018, which saw on average six weather catastrophes annually. And with one- third of the US economy sensitive to weather and climate, Monica Medina asks in her essay, “Are we as a nation sufficiently climate change ready?” Perhaps not quite.
Her idea: expand the weather service into a weather and climate change forecasting service, built readily from the existing National Weather Service. This type of exerted effort to predict climate can help prevent public health problems that increase with warming, such as Zika, Lyme disease, and toxic algal bloom events; optimize site selection for solar and wind energy systems; and determine better response strategies to climate change, such as adaptive crop rotation.
Ocean ecosystems are in big trouble, but Jane Lubchenco has optimism about their resilience— particularly after framing (and reframing) the human history of ocean conservation in three short chapters:
- The ocean is too big to fail. The 1960s mantra, “Dilution is the solution to pollution,” scoffed at the idea that tiny humans could influence the vastness of oceans.
- The ocean is too big to fix. In the past few decades, people have recognized that the oceans are not invincible to persistent pollutants and stress, and the magnitude of damage inflicted upon the ocean ecosystem would be impossible to reverse.
- The ocean is too big and too important to ignore. Lubchenco notes recent ocean conservation success stories about fishery management reform, the creation of Marine Protected Areas, use of technology to monitor activities on the water, and other best practices that make smarter—not harder—use of ocean resources.
A new narrative that illustrates a positive but realistic perspective on the oceans “can alter people’s sense of what is possible,” Lubchenco says, “and reset expectations of what could be.”
In some places, pumping out too much freshwater from underground aquifers can cause the land above to collapse into the empty space left behind. This potentially scary and dangerous phenomenon, called land subsidence, accounts for about a quarter of net sea level rise. With sinking land just one example of such high pressures driving the search for potable water, communities need to identify sustainable sources.
In his essay, G. Tracy Mehan III describes various methods that lead to the same creative solution for the problem of water scarcity—finding clean water where you might least expect to find it, by reusing wastewater. Pristine water is a fantasy, and the next best thing involves taking advantage of the “found water” in a community’s own wastewater stream. “Wastewater” no longer exists, says Mehan: “There is only water that is wasted.”
“We know sustainability can enhance the value of a company,” says Todd Cort in his essay, “but how and why are still a bit of a mystery.”
Social and environmental responsibility can be good business, and studies actually do show positive correlations between corporate sustainability and financial performance. Half of a company’s value depends on the perception of stakeholders; with investors becoming more interested in sustainable finance, corporate attention to environmental sustainability might afford some extra cachet.
Cort says, “Markets will protect environmental and social well-being only to the extent that it makes sense for business and investors.” And where shareholder influence leaves off, governments can pick up the slack to help protect society and the environment.
When climate change directly threatens children and loved ones, Paul Rink says in his essay, then people may be more likely to feel the impact, rather than ignore the abstraction. And young people are feeling the threat enough to take the issue to court.
Young plaintiffs have brought litigation to national governments in the Netherlands, Pakistan, Ireland, and Germany, citing the connections that link climate change with human rights. Instead of making a legal claim about damages already incurred, climate change litigation can target anticipated harm. Rink cites young US plaintiffs as arguing that “the federal government violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by actively perpetuating a fossil-fuel-based energy system that causes climate change.” Theirs is a fight for “intergenerational climate change justice.”