Watershed, Fall 2002
The River
Management Plan
Newhall Ranch

Book Review
The Local Politics of Global Sustainability
by Thomas Prugh, Robert Costanza, and Herman Daly
Reviewed by Ron Bottorff (adapted from Linkages, Summer 2002)

The basic theme of this book is that the major questions involved in transitioning to a sustainable global society are too complex to be left to scientists and ecological experts, and that they must be addressed by citizens through a democratic process. All concepts of sustainability involve something which endures, but even in simple definitions of sustainability, all manner of ambiguities and difficulties come into play. How are sustainable economic systems to be organized? What qualifies as enduring - fifty years or five hundred? What should be produced - Lexus cars or lentils? Who gets it - and who decides? Can an economy be sustainable if it is "unfair" -- that is, must it include a social justice dimension? Our needs are minimal, but, what about our wants? The vast majority of economic output in rich nations goes toward satisfying wants. What will future generations need or want?

The authors argue that these questions are primarily not technical in nature, but instead concern values. They state unequivocally in their introduction that "[These questions] cannot be answered by simply asking the experts. Sustainability will be achieved, if at all, not by engineers, agronomists, economists, and biotechnicians but by citizens."

The sustainability problem starts with the fact that little political activity centered on ecological issues takes place where it matters most. The questions of sustainability are debated in some of the highest councils of government, but in everyday life hardly a word is said about the subject. There is nothing resembling a real "citizens discussion", say, of global warming or any other sustainability issue.

The book's first chapters deal with the minimum technical requirements of sustainability.

There are three simple rules: (1) Don't use up all the resources; (2) Don't undermine the delivery of ecological services; and (3) Don't overwhelm the waste-absorption capacity. Ecological economics has as a basic principle that the ecosystem is (1) limited in size, (2) not growing, and (3) not receiving any new flows of materials, though fortunately it receives energy from the sun. Since no subsystem can outgrow its host, the economy cannot grow larger than the ecosystem. Thus, economic growth cannot continue indefinitely. The likelihood of solving the sustainability problem through decentralization and voluntary simplicity seems remote, given humanity's long history of solving problems through greater complexity.

In a chapter called "Prelude to Politics", the authors discuss the many pitfalls of standard variety capitalism, pointing out that the real problem with this system is its dependence on perpetual economic growth, which is not possible in a finite world. They further decry alienation from the political process and the loss of public discourse in the country, citing such shows as "Crossfire" and "Meet the Press" as poor substitutes for genuine debate. "Especially at the national level, the public sphere in its classical sense has ceased to exist."

In the last three chapters, the authors turn to the main theme of the book, which argues that a new politics is needed if we are to eventually achieve sustainability. Since "sustainability issues are global in scale, staggeringly complex, and interactive, poorly understood, and riddled with uncertainties....science must become just one partner in a broad-based decision-making process [in which ] essentially everyone is a stakeholder." Their most compelling model for a politics of engagement is "strong democracy", a "road not taken" in American political history, which chose instead a system advocated by federalists in which elected representatives take care of the public's business. Examples of strong democracy are discussed, such as New England Town Meetings, Oregon Watershed Councils, and other such groups that have functioned well for certain limited purposes. The key process of strong democracy is talk among citizens: "the ongoing deliberation of issues that clarifies the issues themselves and the values that the community brings to bear on them."

Many theorists have said such a system cannot work. However, the authors cite a 1993 Brookings Institution "core cities study" which looked at the governing structure of five medium-sized U.S. cities: Birmingham, Dayton, Portland, St. Paul and San Antonio. All launched reforms in the 1970s that decentralized government and distributed power to the neighborhoods. The results were generally positive and created a strong sense of community. City officials "overwhelmingly felt that the benefits outweighed the costs."

One has the overall sense that these authors are basically on the right track. The decisions we face regarding sustainability do involve values, and society can only move toward sustainability as citizens decide these issues through a political process, whether it be strong democracy or some derivation of it. If this is correct, the main questions from my perspective then become: First, do we have the time for such democratic processes to develop? And second, is there any chance that community groups will develop nationwide in sufficient numbers to create the needed national dialogue on sustainability?

Even the authors cite only limited examples of successful community groups. Moreover, since September 11, our nation has focused the lion's share of its attention on national security issues. While this is understandable, it seems questionable whether we have the luxury of working on sustainability issues after we have "solved" the terrorism issue. Failure to address sustainability issues relatively soon will, in the view of many reputable scientists, put our civilization at serious risk of global ecological and economic decline.

Can a national dialogue on sustainability issues be created it time? The authors are hopeful that it can. Our fate and that of our progeny may well hinge on the answer.

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