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Turning Oregon’s ‘Sustainability’ from Buzzword to Bottomline, by Kyle D. Johnson

Posted by: | March 3, 2015 Comments Off on Turning Oregon’s ‘Sustainability’ from Buzzword to Bottomline, by Kyle D. Johnson |

Oregon has codified the buzzword ‘sustainability.’ ORS 184.421 defines ‘sustainability’ for the state’s goals regarding sustainability and for the state’s sustainability board. The definition lacks concrete and tangible measures. Likewise, the state’s goals and objectives, described in ORS 184.423, lack any discernible standards. Without measurable and ascertainable criterion, Oregon’s definition and goals for sustainability are pointless. ORS 184.421 and 423 serve little to meet the current needs, but much to gain popular attention. Despite its legitimate status, sustainability is simply a buzzword and needs revision.

The term sustainability has only recently gained buzzword status. In the past forty years, its use has escaped its 17th century origins as a word used as a modification of ‘sustained yield’ in forestry. The use of ‘sustainable’ in the infamous 1987 Brundtland report marked a change towards using the concept in humanitarian efforts. By 1991, ‘sustainability’ had achieved buzzword status with Nobel Laureate in Economics Robert Solow pondering how to think straight about the concept and what it might mean for economic policy. Sustainability has continued to gain popularity, and its application has broadened from development to consumer marketing.

Sustainability is now a fad for anything socially good and environmentally friendly. The term has proliferated in popular vernacular, especially in consumer marketing, corporate public relations, and political campaigns. It has become a rallying cry for anyone with a need to amass friendly support or sympathy because the public assumes that sustainability equals beneficial. A debate rages on as to whether the buzzworthy status of sustainability is a good thing or bad thing. Sustainability as a popular concept is probably praiseworthy, but sustainability in specific action is subject to conflict and confusion.

Sustainability without specifics results in confusion. For example, Coca-Cola touts its “enduring commitment to building sustainable communities,” but has caused water scarcity in underdeveloped, rural communities. The average person encounters difficulty in knowing if their purchase of Coke is counterproductive to their donation to The Water Project (“committed to funding the most appropriate, efficient and sustainable solutions available”). The confusion surrounding sustainability is potentially more problematic than helpful. Oregon’s version of sustainability is no exception because it lacks specific standards.

Oregon’s goals and objectives for sustainability are practically meaningless. Sustainability is defined, in ORS 184.421, as “using, developing and protecting resources in a manner that enables people to meet current needs and provides that future generations can also meet future needs, from the joint perspective of environmental, economic and community objectives.” The objectives set out in ORS 184.423 seek environmental, economic, and societal well-being. The statute directs state agencies to seek efficiency and diversity to support communities and families. Agencies should help restore ecological processes and intensify efforts to increase economic stability of economically distressed communities. Not a single goal or objective, however, delineates the end. Accomplishing, attaining, or experiencing sustainability is not described.

The Oregon Sustainability Board is tasked with evaluating the state’s sustainability goals. ORS 184.429 mandates the Board shall, inter alias, make recommendations and propose legislation, develop and promote programs, submit a biennial report to the Legislature, and consult with and seek comment from interest groups. The Board was created in 2002. A cursory look into its activities reveals implementation of training programs, presentations and workshops around the state, and outreach to communities. But the Board can do little more than promote sustainability. It has no budget, its recommendations and evaluations are not legally binding, and beyond doling out awards, it does little more than share information. Beyond staying active, the Board can do little to get Oregon closer to achieving its goals regarding sustainability.

The entire effort is fundamentally flawed. Sustainability in Oregon is more akin to a soccer game with no goal nets. Sustainability in ORS 184.421 is the ball, the “goals” in ORS 184.423 are the players, and the Board is the cheerleading squad. Without tangible and concrete targets or benchmarks, the “current” and “future needs” are unlikely to be met. Without defining or delineating the parameters of what sustainability seeks to achieve, sustainability is destined to remain a meaningless buzzword. Without quantifiable and qualifiable standards of environmental, economic, and community concern, efforts in sustainability are unsound and arguably misleading.

Sustainability in Oregon can and should be more than a rally cry. As a definition for state goals and objectives, sustainability should unify through concrete and specific standards of living. ORS 184.421 should describe tangible levels of environmental, economic, and community well-being that meet current needs without threatening future generations’ needs. Establishing these will provide the foundation for the objectives detailed in ORS 184.423, which should also have specific criterion. Providing a baseline will allow sustainability in Oregon to guide not just governmental activities, but the efforts of anyone contributing towards the movement.

The current needs of the people of Oregon provide a starting point. A baseline of the state’s ecological footprint, living wage, and social services can easily be incorporated in ORS 184.421. Sustainability could mean using, developing and protecting resources in a manner that enables people to meet current needs and provides that future generations can also meet future needs, with an ecological footprint of 4 gha per capita, an average living wage of $20 per hour, and affordable access to food, shelter, education, and social services. (Italics are original, underline new). These are only examples. The metrics and standards can and should be defined through public discourse. The objectives in ORS 184.423 can break each category down further into more specific applications. The point is clear; define what it is the state wants to sustain, starting with those baseline levels the public agrees are necessary.

Redefining “sustainability” will not be easy, nor should it be absolute. While a new definition must be specific enough to gauge progress, occasional amendment can provide opportunity for modification. Advances in society can be reflected, with each generation determining their baseline needs and aspiring to meet them. A baseline also serves as a mark for accountability to future generations. If a baseline is reasonably calculated to threaten the opportunity of future generations to provide for themselves, it can be lowered and accommodations made by current generations to live within the estimated sustainable limits. The process of determining the baseline, and possible limits, is necessary to achieve sustainability. Hard questions must be asked. While the only legitimate answers are quantifiable and qualifiable, they are not absolute; they need not and should not be.

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