Chapter 1
Dialogue and Education:
Keys to Sustainability


From individual consumers to international corporations, from youths to seniors, households to communities, this nation is taking its first tentative steps toward becoming a sustainable society. The consumer who selects a recycled paper product at the supermarket or who rejects a product because it is over-packaged is taking positive action. The corporation that redesigns its manufacturing process to save energy and raw materials has taken an equally positive step. The young person who devotes hours of after-school or weekend time to volunteer in his or her community is also participating -- and it is a process of change that is gathering force across the nation and around the world.

A 1995 survey noted that 61 percent of Americans favor the idea of sustainable development, and that four out of 10 say they would tolerate changes in the price of consumer goods, such as paying more for a gallon of gasoline if they were sure it would help the environment.1 This willingness indicates that the public is developing attitudes and values that foster sustainable living. Further, a March 1996 survey asked respondents if the three goals of sustainable development -- economic growth, environmental protection and the health and happiness of people -- can be accomplished collectively without compromising any one of them, and 66% agree that it is possible to achieve all three simultaneously.2 Our society will not be unsustainable one day and sustainable the next. Sustainability is a process with a beginning and no end. The challenge will remain with us and our children and their children.

-- Stephen Viederman
Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation

Another indicator of change is in the industrial sector. Manufacturers across the nation are adopting eco-efficient manufacturing processes, also known as 'industrial ecology." Eco-efficient firms design industrial processes that mimic natural ecosystems, following nature's model by recycling valuable energy and natural resources. The goal is a closed loop with little or no waste -- a system that makes good economic as well as environmental sense. Other evidence of change, drawn from the actions of individuals, businesses, and manufacturers, is mounting:

  • Recent years have seen phenomenal success in converting a nation of "throwaway consumers" to conscientious recyclers. In 1990, Americans recycled 9.65 million tons of aluminum beverage cans, a recovery rate of 63 percent. The Berger family in Whitney Point, New York, has found ways to keep its trash to 3.0 pounds a year, rather than the 4.3 pounds of garbage produced every day by the average American. "It's integrated into our lives," explains Cindy Berger. "It's second nature, a habit."3

  • Production of bicycles reached 110 million units worldwide in 1994; 12 million were bought in the United States alone. Mail carriers in St. Petersburg, Florida, use bicycles on their rounds. Some police officers in New York City and Washington, D.C., patrol on bicycles, as do some Secret Service agents at the White House. While bicycles' overall impact on reducing energy use and air pollution may be small, it is growing.4

  • Nationwide, various high-profile retail chains have introduced environmentally friendly practices. McDonalds, for example, through a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, pays for independent evaluations of manufacturer' claims of "biodegradable," "recyclable," and "saves energy." The company shares that information with consumers, enabling them to make informed purchasing decisions.5

  • Home Depot and Scientific Certification Systems pioneered the first U.S. private sector program to partner retailers, manufacturers, and third-party environmental certification to promote continuous environmental improvement in consumer products. Collins Pine, a sustainable forest products company, became the first to join the program by introducing Collins' wood, a certified sustainable product, at select Home Depot stores.6

  • Interface Flooring has started to implement a licensing program for carpeting. Interface manufactures the carpet (a petroleum-intensive product), ships and installs it, maintains it, and continues to own the carpet throughout its life. Because the carpet is made of free-laying carpet tiles, Interface's maintenance program includes periodic selective replacement of individual tiles that show wear and tear. Replaced carpet tiles are returned to a closed loop recycling center where individual components are recycled into new carpet tiles. Interface is also implementing The Natural Step, a program that combines science-based principles of sustainable development with total quality management to introduce sound environmental practices to the factory floor. 7

  • Young people also are finding innovative ways to practice principles of sustainability. For the past three years, fifth grade students at Kimbark Elementary School in San Bernardino, California, have lowered their school's energy bill by $5,000 a year. One of the student ideas was to hang signs reading, "Oops, you left your lights on," in empty classrooms. Students record each day's energy consumption, discuss possible causes when high readings occur, and carry out strategies for lowering energy use.8

The individuals and organizations cited above may not call what they are doing "living sustainably," but they are making behavioral changes by conserving resources, saving money, and making collective and collaborative contributions to their community. Collectively, these actions -- and others like them -- will lead us to a sustainable tomorrow.

Brookside Fifth Graders: Students for Sustainability
For the past four years, students of Brookside School in San Anselmo, California, have worked with their teachers, Ruth Hicks and Laurette Rogers, to help save a local endangered species, the California freshwater shrimp (Syncaris pacifica). They adopted the shrimp through the California State Adopt-a-Species Program. First, the students learned all that they could about the shrimp. Then they acted to put their knowledge into practice. The students visited a native plant nursery to learn about methods that could be used for restoring creekside habitat. They also contacted Paul Martin, a local rancher whose property included one of the last 15 creeks harboring the shrimp. The class asked for -- and was given -- permission to restore habitat along the creek. Partnerships were formed among creek biologists, Americorps, and Future Farmers of America members who worked with the students to make the creek rehabilitation possible.

To build support for their project, the students formed a "Shrimp Club" and arranged for the club logo to be stamped on grocery bags; they also sold student-designed t-shirts to raise money. The class's public relations committee arranged for the project to be featured in magazines and newspapers, and on radio shows and local and national television. The shrimp project has received over $100,000 in awards and grants which will be used to build fences to keep the run-off from cattle manure out of the creek and to plant the banks with native plants.

One 10-year-old made a presentation to the University of California Board of Regents expressing his concern over what would happen to the shrimp if a proposed dam was built. Other students involved with the project have gone to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to lobby for the shrimp. For example, at the Endangered Species Act congressional hearings, these students spoke about the importance of collaboration with private landowners and the need to keep funding strong.

Rancher Paul Martin notes, "The shrimp project has been accepted by the farmers in my area because the students have been taught to respect a farmer and his property and work cooperatively." The students and teachers have learned a great deal about diplomacy and working with others with varying perspectives. As Paul puts it, "The shrimp project is not about a rehabilitated creek, it's about rehabilitated people."

Participation in the project makes students feel empowered and hopeful. Eleven-year-old Lucia says, "I learned a lot from the shrimp project, and one of the main things was that kids can really do a lot to save the earth. If every class in the world helped one species, the world would be a much better place. I learned so much about building dams, planting species of the same kind, and showing people how much we care . . . This project showed me how much kids can do."

The Need for Public Dialogue on Sustainability

Despite the encouraging trend toward sustainable living practices, an overarching, incontrovertible fact remains: many Americans do not understand the concept of, or concepts involved in, sustainable development.

For example, they have little if any understanding of such pervasive environmental issues as biodiversity and global warming. A 1992 national opinion survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates indicated that only one percent of respondents consider endangered species to be a serious environmental problem, and only one in five respondents had heard of the loss of biological diversity. This response, according to E.O. Wilson in The Diversity of Life, stands in startling contrast to the fact that approximately 27,000 species a year -- 74 per day, or three species every hour -- are driven to extinction worldwide.

Additionally, many people confuse the issue of global warming with depletion of the ozone layer. A 1994 study by Carnegie-Mellon University revealed that even well-educated citizens wrongly believe climate change can cause increased cases of skin cancer and are convinced that their personal response should be to give up aerosol sprays.9 Not only are these respondents confusing global warming and depletion of the ozone layer, they also seem to be unaware that ozone-depleting chemicals have been federally banned from aerosols for about 20 years.

If widely reported concepts such as global warming remain unfamiliar to so many Americans, it is not surprising that sustainability -- a complex and multidimensional concept, which involves finding a balance between achieving environmental protection, economic progress, and sociopolitical equity -- is unknown to as many as four out of 10 citizens, as well as to many policy makers, business leaders, educators, and community leaders.10

Many approaches can be used to raise public awareness of sustainability. But education -- lifelong education, education within and outside the formal schooling system throughout our lives -- is the major, perhaps primary, tool for creating a common understanding of this concept. This education may occur in formal schooling or in such nonformal venues as the media, adult education programs, museum exhibits, conferences and workshops, and nature center programs. The goal of this educational experience is for citizens to become active participants in dialogues about sustainable development and in developing meaningful sustainable development strategies -- personally, locally, nationally, and globally.

Dialogues on sustainability must involve as many people and as many different viewpoints as possible. Multi-stakeholder dialogues compel people to work to discover common ground on which to build consensus and create change. Exploration of diverse views will result in wiser decisions leading to win-win solutions that provide benefits for all constituencies. Ultimately, this approach encourages "buy in" because participants feel they have a stake in the outcome. The result of a successful process in a cooperative atmosphere is that the stakeholders develop shared visions.

At the heart of a sustainable society is an integrated, supportive system that does not allow one component to dominate over another to the exclusion or extinction of another, but allows every component to flourish. The consensus needed to develop this system will be a gradual, cumulative process spreading outward from a few individuals, groups, and communities, and building over the years.

Sustainability: A Moving Target
The fact that the term "sustainability" has not yet entered the mainstream of American consciousness may be due in part to confusion about its meaning. Over the years, literally hundreds of definitions have been suggested. One of the earliest was proposed in 1915 by Canada's Commission on Conservation: "Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed down unimpaired."11 The actual term "sustainable development" was first introduced in the late 1970s and popularized in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Bruntland Commission, which defines sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In the final analysis, however, agreeing on a formal definition of the term is not as important as coming to agreement on a vision of a sustainable world. Citizens must work together to answer critical questions that emulate their view of the world. What would a sustainable lifestyle be like? How can sustainability be achieved? What does a sustainable society mean? Clearly these visions will differ based on a variety of issues, as well as from community to community.

As changes occur in social, economic, political, and environmental conditions, and as new scientific discoveries and technological advances are introduced, society's vision of sustainability will be affected. In other words, since conditions vary from one community to another and across nations, what will be sustainable under one set of circumstances may not be the best solution under other conditions. Also, what might be considered a sustainable society a few years from now might very well be seen as unsustainable a few decades hence, as advances in technology enable visions of sustainability to grow and improve.

A vision of sustainability in each community or country must take into account a variety of different views and perspectives. Businesses, nonprofit organizations, communities, and countries must seek the common ground that supports their collective needs, values, and goals. Then, as changes occur, they must continually revisit and revise their vision to reflect current-day situations.

Overcoming Barriers Through Dialogue and Education

Projections by the United Nations indicate that the world's human population will increase from 5.5 billion to 8.5 billion by the year 2025. In 1988, 1.25 billion people worldwide breathed air containing unhealthy concentrations of suspended particulate matter. The average annual rate of deforestation worldwide between 1980 and 1990 was approximately equivalent to an area the size of Georgia.12 In the United States, citizens consume 25 percent of the Earth's resources although they constitute only five percent of the planet's population. The amount of energy used by a single person in the United States is equivalent to that used by three Japanese, six Mexicans, and eight Native Americans.13 In the last 20 years, per capita consumption in the United States has increased by 45 percent. Because 35 percent of resources in America are consumed in households, it follows that lifestyle changes can make a direct impact on resource consumption.

Clearly, the time to chart and pursue a sustainable course is now. But lack of knowledge, indifference, and resistance must first be addressed.

If sustainability is to become a reality, educators, government at all levels, businesses, and non-governmental organizations must work together to foster an awareness of common needs, knowledge of the long-term impacts of decisions, and understanding of the benefits of achieving a sustainable society. The best way to allay any apprehensions about reductions in the standard of living and overcome anxiety and fear is to present positive visions and real-life examples of sustainability.14 Countless examples testify to sustainability-oriented changes across the United States. This report highlights some of these models, discusses the obstacles and efforts behind their success, and relates them to Task Force policy recommendations. By highlighting these stories, our hope is that their successes will inspire other grassroots efforts to spread the idea and practice of sustainability into other communities across the nation and the globe.

Progress toward sustainability will be realized if we as a nation can:

  • build upon what is already working,
  • identify success stories and share them as models,
  • form productive partnerships to work for the common good and address system constraints, and
  • educate individuals and communities for sustainability.

Progress means seeking synergy with ongoing initiatives and exploring new vehicles, such as experiential learning in the workplace, which will lead to an understanding of sustainability. A process like the one used by the President's Council on Sustainable Development and its Public Linkage, Dialogue, and Education Task Force can be replicated to continue moving us forward in examining strategies for advancing education for sustainability. The task is admittedly a big one, but it can be accomplished by working together to find common solutions.

GAP: Households for Sustainability
Many of the resources consumed in the United States are used in the home. The Global Action Plan for the Earth (GAP) is a grassroots effort providing individuals and communities with the motivation, support, and hands-on experience they need to live their lives more sustainably. GAP believes that the primary means for shifting America onto a sustainable path is for households to make changes in the way they live.

To date, approximately 7,500 households in 12 countries have participated on GAP's EcoTeams. GAP reports that, on average, these households sent 42 percent less garbage to landfills, used 25 percent less water, cut 16 percent of their carbon dioxide output, and used 16 percent less fuel for transportation. These lifestyle changes helped houoseholds save an average of $401 per year.

To further promote individual sustainability, PLTF teamed up with GAP to work with citizens in cities visited by the Council to help put sustainability ideas into practice. Says Sandy Kurtz of Chattanooga, Tennessee, "The PCSD and the Public Linkage Task Force enabled us to bring key community leaders to the table at the critical campaign launching time by underlining our credibility when we needed it most. In our first year, Global Action Plan-Chattanooga, with a small staff and many volunteers, has become a special project of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and receives financial assistance from Chattanooga Public Works Department and several businesses. The result: 11 household EcoTeams have been started!"

Chapter 2
Table of Contents