Sustainable Development

Sustainable development recasts the role of environment in human affairs—from something that can be used and degraded to something that must be protected and restored in order to sustain human well-being and quality of life. The United States, which has 5% percent of the world’s population but consumes one quarter to one third of the world’s energy and resources, will play a key role in global efforts to achieve sustainability. Dernbach has edited the only comprehensive nongovernmental assessments of U.S. efforts. These are Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability (2012), Agenda for a Sustainable America (2009) and Stumbling Toward Sustainability (2002).

Earth Summit

In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world agreed to an ambitious and unprecedented global plan of action for addressing the related and growing problems of environmental degradation and poverty. “Humanity stands at a defining moment in history,” they stated.

These nations based their plan on sustainable development, a framework for achieving economic development that is socially equitable and protective of the natural resource base on which human activity depends. In agreeing to this plan, they all agreed to work toward sustainability—in both their domestic actions and their international efforts. These nations include the United States.

Sustainable development is a response to the deeply held view that environmental degradation is the small price we pay to achieve progress; the price is not small, however, and environmental degradation prevents or threatens social and economic progress. Because of the Earth Summit, sustainable development is also an internationally recognized framework for guiding and evaluating the behavior of national governments and other actors.

Sustainable development is a framework for achieving economic development, national security, social well-being, and environmental protection at the same time. In a sustainable society, environmental protection and restoration are part of what it means to achieve progress. Environmental degradation–and the harm that this degradation brings to humans–would no longer be the price of progress.

Sustainable Development in the United States

The United States is not just another country in the global effort to achieve sustainable development. It has the world’s highest Gross Domestic Product, the most powerful military on earth, and is the largest producer and consumer of energy and materials in human history. Because of its impact on the world’s environment and its political, economic, and military influence, the United States has unparalleled power to lead an international effort to achieve sustainable development or to prevent or impede world efforts to achieve sustainability.

Much of American influence around the world, for better and for worse, rests in the example it sets. As a consequence, U.S. domestic actions related to sustainability are likely to influence other countries as much as, and even more than, anything the U.S. does in the international arena. It is highly unlikely that the rest of the world can achieve sustainability without the active engagement of the United States.

But what does sustainable development mean for the United States? How much progress has the U.S. made toward sustainability since its 1992 Earth Summit commitments?

Articles and Book Chapters on Sustainable Development

Dernbach’s writing on sustainable development attempts to work out the practical consequences and meaning of the concept, particularly but not exclusively for the U.S., and what we must do to achieve sustainability. As stated above, the three most important works are Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Agenda for a Sustainable America and Stumbling toward Sustainability.  In addition, he has written many articles and book chapters.  Most of those below can be downloaded by clicking on the title.

  • The Sustainable Relationship: What the United States and the United Kingdom Can Teach Each Other About Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the National Level, (Environmental Forum, May-June 2013, at 30 (with Andrea Ross)). This article describes and compares key U.S. and U.K. laws and policies on sustainable development and climate change, and suggests what each could learn from the other.
  • Citizen Suits and Sustainability, 10 Widener Law Review Rev. 503 (2004). This article explains the importance of citizen participation and involvement in achieving sustainable development, using citizen suits under U.S.environmental laws as a point of departure.
  • Making Sustainable Development Happen: From Johannesburg to Albany, 8 Albany Environmental Outlook 173 (2004). This essay explains the importance of sustainable development at the state level, using New York State as an example.
  • Progress Toward Sustainable Communities: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, 35 Urban Lawyer 495 (2003) (with Scott Bernstein). This article assesses U.S. sustainable development efforts at the community level from 1992-2002, and includes recommendations for the next five to ten years.
  • Targets, Timetables and Effective Implementing Mechanisms: Necessary Building Blocks for Sustainable Development, 27 William & Mary Environmental Law & Policy Review 79 (2003). This article explains why specific goals, coupled with dates for achieving those goals and effective laws and policies to ensure they are achieved, are essential to sustainable development.
  • Achieving Sustainable Development: The Centrality and Multiple Facets of Integrated Decisionmaking, 10 Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 247 (2003). This article explains why integrated decisionmaking—incorporating environmental considerations and goals into social, economic, and security decisions—is the key principle in sustainable development.
  • Sustainable Versus Unsustainable Propositions, 53 Case Western Reserve Law Review 449 (2002). This article critiques Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, from the perspective of sustainable development.
  • Why Lawyers Should Care About Sustainable Development, Environmental Forum, July-Aug. 2002, at 30. This essay explains the importance of sustainable development to the practice of law.
  • Learning from the President’s Council on Sustainable Development: The Need for a Real National Strategy, 32 Environmental Law Reporter 10,648 (2002). This article is a critique of U.S.efforts on sustainable development from 1992-2002, and recommends that the U.S.adopt a national sustainable development strategy.
  • Sustainable Development: Now More than Ever, 32 Environmental Law Reporter 10,003 (2002). This article explains the meaning and importance of sustainable development for the United States.
  • Reflections on Comparative Law, Environmental Law, and Sustainability, 3 Widener Law Symposium Journal 279 (1998). This brief essay explains how the U.S.and other countries can make progress toward sustainability by using laws that work effectively in other countries.
  • U.S. Adherence to its Agenda 21 Commitments: A Five-Year Review, 27 Environmental Law Reporter 10,504 (1997) (with the Widener University Law School Seminar on Law and Sustainability). This article is the only comprehensive review of U.S.efforts to implement its Earth Summit commitments between 1992 and 1997.
  • Pollution Control and Sustainable Industry, 12 Natural Resources & Environment 101 (1997). This article outlines what sustainable development means when applied to industry, the necessity for sustainable industry, and how sustainable industry can change and is already beginning to change the debate about pollution control.
  • The Global Environment Facility: Financing the Treaty Obligations of Developing Nations, 23 Environmental Law Reporter 10,214 (1993). This article is a review of the pilot phase of the Global Environment Facility, which is used under several multilateral environmental treaties to pay for the additional costs to developing countries of complying with those treaties.