Ready, set, sustain

If you aren’t familiar with the term "sustainable development," get ready. You’re about to become immersed in the concept.

During the first week in May, an estimated 3,000 people from across the country will converge on Detroit for the National Town Hall Meeting for a Sustainable America. Co-sponsored by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, the four-day event will bring together environmental activists, corporate executives, politicians and bureaucrats for study sessions and panel discussions.

The meeting, in Detroit as a result of Mayor Dennis Archer’s lobbying efforts, features an appearance by Vice President Al Gore and has the backing of industrial heavy hitters ranging from Big Three automakers to Dow Chemical. Gore is expected to make sustainable growth a key issue in his presidential bid.

"It’s the environmental equivalent of the Super Bowl," says Dave Dempsey, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. "The only thing it’s missing is cheerleaders."

What does it all mean? Like the term sustainable development, that depends on who’s answering the question.

The modern concept of sustainability can be traced to 18th and 19th century Germany, according to an essay Thomas Davis wrote for the Menominee Sustainable Development Institute. The clear-cutting of forests for firewood and lumber was beginning to have devastating effects, and foresters realized they needed a steady supply of trees long into the future.

The ecology movement of the 1960s and ’70s expanded on this philosophy, which began entering the mainstream in a big way following a landmark 1987 report by the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development. The ideas expressed in that report were summed up this way:

"We have to consume … with the realization that resources are finite, and part of our job as human beings is to preserve the human future on this planet into a limitless future."

The trick is the leap from concept to reality, a leap made all the trickier because, in the view of some, capitalism itself is in direct opposition to sustainable development.

The argument goes that in the market economy, those who take their eyes off the bottom line to consider environmental concerns are doomed to failure.

Which is why people like Dan Chodorkoff, co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology and a professor at Goddard College in Vermont, is leery of the upcoming event.

"Any discussion of sustainability is useful," he says. "It is a very important concept for people to become familiar with.

"But the danger is that sustainable development has become a buzzword with no clear definition, meaning one thing to one group and something else to some other group. And some of those definitions are quite destructive."

In the hands of corporations, the concept often puts "a green veneer on institutional practices that are the antithesis" of true sustainable development. What’s needed, argues Chodorkoff, are basic changes to address the "inherent contradiction" between "capitalism based on limitless growth" and an ecologically based sustainable economy.

In Chodokoff’s view, a challenge to the status quo is unlikely in a conference that features Dow Chemical and British Petroleum touting environmental achievements, or that lets the Big Three automakers highlight their green agenda – even as they lobby to weaken the Clean Air Act and produce bigger and bigger SUVs that guzzle more and more gas.

On the other hand, says Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, these corporate players are exactly the ones that have to be brought on board if sustainability is to be achieved.

"If you look about you at the institutions capable of changing the world, you have to include the corporate sector, " insists Lovins. "The power to change is in the corporate sector."

An event like the National Town Meeting brings the corporate executives together with government officials and activists to "thrash through how they can work more productively together."

"We stand on the threshold of a real revolution in attitudes," says Lovins, whose institute advises corporations on how to become more green. "Leading companies around the world have realized that they can’t simply engage in business as usual."

As an example, she points to Interface Inc., a billion-dollar carpet manufacturer based in Atlanta. The corporation has vowed to embrace sustainable development, and the results have been impressive. By reducing waste, cutting use of natural resources and creating the first truly recyclable carpets, it has been able to cut costs and increase profits, reports Lovins.

There is also political capital to be realized, according to Keith Schneider, director of the Michigan Land Use Institute.

Gore’s focus on the issue as he gears up his presidential campaign, says Schneider, is an astute move. He says that in Michigan, as in other parts of the country, we are seeing a backlash against sprawl that cuts across constituencies. Urban dwellers want renewal and rural residents want to protect their quality of life – which means both would benefit from central-city redevelopment and preservation of open space. Both want reduced air pollution and unclogged freeways.

It is an issue conservatives – adhering to a free-market, antiregulation philosophy – are ill-suited to deal with, explains Schneider.

The meeting, he hopes, will help crystallize an undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the way growth is mismanaged under laissez-faire economics

"This is a wonderful opportunity for all sides to go, look, listen, learn, talk about this really important emerging set of issues"

But will it really be all sides? Donele Wilkins, a Detroit environmental activist and member of the National Town Hall planning committee, doesn’t think so. Even though a number of grants and scholarships were offered, she thinks the $250 price tag to attend the five-day event is too steep for many grassroots environmentalists. She is concerned that poor and minority voices – those most affected by corporate polluters – will largely be lost.

Her group, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, will plans a daylong alternative meeting Saturday, May 1, one day before the big event gets under way at Cobo Hall on May 2.

"If only the elite are engaging in the decision-making process – that is contrary to the whole idea of sustainable development," says Wilkins.

For more information about the National Town Hall Meeting for a Sustainable America, phone the President’s Council on Sustainable Development at 202-408-5296 or visit Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice can be reached at 313- 821-1064 and at

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