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‘Acting as if Tomorrow Matters’ - An Interview with Prof. John C. Dernbach

In this interview for AZoCleantech, the esteemed environmental lawyer Prof. John Dernbach talks about his new book, Rio+20, and the future of sustainability.

GT: Could you give a brief over view of your new book, ‘Acting as if Tomorrow Matters’?

JD: The book reviews the limited progress made by the United States over the past two decades. It identifies the underlying drivers or patterns in that progress, as well as obstacles. It then describes ways of overcoming obstacles and accelerating progress, providing a checklist of ideas that can be considered in any context or sector.

GT: Who is ‘Acting as if Tomorrow Matters’ aimed at?

JD: It can be read profitably by environmental specialists and sustainability practitioners, as well readers without any particular expertise in the environment. The contributing authors provide a strong depth of analysis on particular issues, but the book is written in a single voice and is quite readable. The book is aimed also at policy makers and students.

GT: How do you hope to engage the casual reader in the often complex field of sustainability?

JD: We tend to think about the environment as something that can be separated from everything else we care about. As the book explains, everything we care about—including our health, the economy, our quality of life, and our security—ultimately depends on the environment.

Much of the on-going sustainability work is performed by specialists in green building, brownfields redevelopment, smart growth, sustainable agriculture, and the like. While the book uses examples from these and other areas, its focus is on patterns in that activity. The big picture approach shows results that casual readers should find interesting and even appealing. For instance, there is growing support for sustainability in spite of mixed public opinion polling on the environment. And, over the past two decades, more-sustainable decisions have become easier to make and more attractive. Options are now available that did not previously exist—such as LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certification for green building, the Global Reporting Initiative standards for corporate sustainability reporting, and organic food certification.

Finally, the book argues that we need an American movement for sustainability, akin to the environmental movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, that engages the middle 60-80% of the public. We all need to play a role, wherever we are, whatever we do, in moving toward sustainability in our personal and professional lives, and in encouraging our political leaders to do the same.

GT: Who else contributed to ‘Acting as if Tomorrow Matters’?

JD: There are 51 contributing authors, experts in a wide variety of fields, including higher education, water quality, industrial ecology, and local governance, from all over the United States. They were asked to answer five questions about progress in sustainability over the past two decades, drivers for that progress, obstacles, and how to accelerate progress. We then used a collaborative process to find patterns in their answers and to refine our conclusions. It was a unique process and collaboration—friends tell me they have not seen this used anywhere else--and produced conclusions that none of us would likely have reached on our own.

51 experts in a wide variety of fields contributed to 'Acting as if Tomorrow Matters'

GT: How does ‘Acting as if Tomorrow Matters’ build on your previous two books in this trilogy, ‘Stumbling Toward Sustainability’ and ‘Agenda for a Sustainable America’?

JD: The first two books were edited volumes with individual chapters on a wide variety of sustainability topics. Each chapter reviewed progress over the past five or ten years on a particular topic and made recommendations for the next five or ten years. In part, the idea was to explain how the abstract concept of sustainability applied in specific contexts such as hazardous waste, business and industry, or national governance. These books, in large measure, were about what to do in those contexts.

‘Acting as if Tomorrow Matters,’ by contrast, is about how to accelerate progress toward sustainability. We have made modest progress, to be sure, but the goal is increasingly distant in no small part because of climate change. It appears that knowing what to do is not enough. So the question we attempt to answer in this book is how to accelerate progress. Clues to the answer are provided by the patterns that exist across a wide variety of fields—patterns that are described in some detail in the book.

GT: Does the book concentrate on a specific sector?

JD: The book uses examples from a wide variety of sectors, but does not emphasize any one sector. As the book explains, more sustainable decisions are easier to make and more attractive. One of the reasons for this is the development of new analytical and decision-making tools, including industrial ecology, valuation of ecosystem services, and management systems—that are now employed in a wide variety of sectors.

GT: You lead the project ‘Sustaining America’-could you tell us more about your work on this. What has it achieved so far and what are the aims for the future?

JD: The project has helped to translate the broad ideas of sustainability to an American context. It is the only project of its kind in the United States. It has shown how sustainability is rooted in the achievements of U.S. environmental law and how sustainability is not limited to environmental law. It has introduced a great many lawyers, environmental professionals, and students to sustainability and provided guidance and support for their work. It has served as a prod to policy makers. This new book is intended to accelerate the transition to sustainability by providing a checklist of basic ideas that can be employed in any context. There will likely be another book for Rio + 25 in 2017. However it is prepared, it will have the same overall goals.

GT: Sustainability has become a big selling point in recent years for many companies, but in your opinion is there enough action by companies to back up their claims?

"Many companies have made considerable progress in reducing their environmental and carbon footprint..."
Prof. John Dernbach

JD: Many sustainability efforts by business and industry are quite good, and many companies have made considerable progress in reducing their environmental and carbon footprint. There are many drivers for this—including saving money, responding to customers and investors, protecting and enhancing their reputation. Other companies engage in greenwashing—making spurious environmental claims about their products and services—or funding disinformation campaigns about climate change. But the leading companies, both in the United States and elsewhere—are quite good and are working hard to become even more sustainable.

GT: Your work as an environmental lawyer has been extremely important. Could you briefly describe what this branch of law entails and how it affects day-to-day life?

JD: Environmental law ordinarily refers to statutes and regulations that limit air and water pollution, control the manner in which waste is disposed of, require environmental impact statements prior to major government actions that may affect the environment, and protect endangered species. Because of these laws, the air and water are much cleaner and healthier than they were several decades ago, open dumps have mostly disappeared, and some endangered species are recovering. These laws don’t simply protect the environment; they also protect human health. We don’t often recognize the achievements of these laws because we don’t remember (or weren’t born) when the problems that gave rise to these laws were more obvious.

GT: You were also involved in the case of ‘Massachusetts vs. EPA’, how were you personally involved and what did this case change?

JD: Massachusetts v. EPA involved a petition to EPA to regulate greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. EPA denied the petition, saying among other things that the science of climate change was too uncertain to justify regulation. EPA’s denial was challenged in court. When the case got to the Supreme Court, I was one of four lawyers representing 18 prominent climate scientists who filed an amicus (or friend of the court) brief. We argued that the science was strong enough to justify regulation, and the Supreme Court agreed. I tell the story in greater detail at The Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 decision in that case essentially requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

GT: What are the main obstacles for the progress of sustainability in the next 10 years?

JD: We found three main obstacles. The first is the inertial force of our existing personal and organizational habits, lack of urgency about environmental and sustainability threats, and uncertainty about alternatives. Second, law and governance are often unsupportive of sustainability. Indeed, they often support unsustainable development, through subsidies and other means. Third, there is political opposition, particularly in the United States on climate change, as well as the fact that rapidly growing developing countries are often explicitly following a conventional development path rather than a sustainable development path.

GT: What can the general public do to make a difference in the quest for sustainability?

JD: In our personal lives, we need to take every opportunity to move in a more sustainable direction—buying locally grown food, using energy efficient light bulbs, and refusing to purchase things we don’t need. In the places where we work, we need to be advocates for sustainability practices and participate in work that moves the organization in a more sustainable direction. Finally, we need to insist that our political leaders move in a more sustainable direction, reminding them of their responsibility to future generations and voting accordingly.

GT: How much progress has been made since the last Earth Summit? Is this enough?

JD: As the book explains, we have laid a lot of groundwork on sustainability over the past two decades, but the sustainability goal appears more distant now than it did 20 years ago. If we simply deployed existing more-sustainable practices (such as green building) at a greater scale, we could make a lot more progress than we have already.

GT: What is your opinion on the Rio+20 conferences? Will it be a success?

JD: The Rio+20 conference could reinvigorate the energy and enthusiasm surrounding sustainability that existed at the original Earth Summit in 1992. It could also produce commitments that will speed up our progress toward sustainability, both in the United States and around the world. A lot of governments and nongovernmental organizations have low expectations for the conference, but we could be surprised.

GT: Do you think that the issue of sustainability has been side-lined since the global financial crisis?

JD: There is always a reason to talk about something other than sustainability. The Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg, South Africa came almost exactly one year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The run-up to the one-year anniversary pushed news related to that conference into the background. The global financial crisis is just another excuse for not talking about sustainability.

GT: Lastly, when your book available and where can it be found?

The Kindle version became available June 1. The paperback version will be available by June 11. The book can be ordered at, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other distributors.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

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