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We need to get smarter about sustainability

Academic thinking about sustainability has progressed quite a bit since the days of the Brundtland Commission and the Earth Summit. Our practice of sustainability, however, has lagged. With global warming and peak oil at our doorstep, we have no time to waste to turn theory into practice.

Summary: 

Academic thinking about sustainability has progressed quite a bit since the days of the Brundtland Commission and the Earth Summit. Our practice of sustainability, however, has lagged. With global warming and peak oil at our doorstep, we have no time to waste to turn theory into practice.

"Sustainability" has been a mainstream buzzword since at least the late 1980s, when the Brundtland Commission issued its famous definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Academic thinking about sustainability has progressed quite a bit since then, with countless scholars now working on concepts like the "sustainability triad" (ecology-society-economy), "ecological economics" and even "strong and weak" sustainability.

Our practice of sustainability, however, has lagged. In the 21 years since the Brundtland Report, cities in the US and Canada have made progress on things like recycling, green building and renewable energy. But we're significantly behind the achievements of most Western European cities, and neither continent is nowhere near a quality of economic development that could truly be called "sustainable" from a global perspective.

Sustainability thinkers realized early on that, while international action was required on big issues like global warming and global inequity, many green goals were best addressed at the level of communities and local governments (hence initiatives like ICLEI). It's at this local level that both governmental and academic attention now needs to focus: How do we translate the need to reduce oil consumption into urban development practices that encourage renewable energy? How do we apply the lessons of resource use, connectivity and collapse in complex adaptive ecosystems to those ecological-social-economic systems known as cities and suburbs?

Portland State University was recently awarded a $25 million grant targeted to its nascent sustainability programs, with a focus on the School of Urban Studies and Planning. This is an important step towards turning theory into practice, and Portland is the perfect laboratory to do this. But with precious few years left to transition our economies to the realities of peak oil and global warming, we clearly need to be doing much more, and more quickly.

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PHOTO: Solar Flower Power... by KMountManattributionnoncommercialnoderivs

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Post Carbon Cities: Helping local governments understand and respond to the challenges of peak oil and global warming.
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