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Two Steps Forward

Sustainability and election 2018: Connecting the dots

Adapted from GreenBuzz, a weekly newsletter published Mondays.

Something interesting happened this election season, something not noted or discussed among the chattering class on TV and online. The definition of what it means to be sustainable expanded, albeit subtly and not necessarily consciously. We’re beginning to see the connections among social, economic and environmental issues — the proverbial triple bottom line. It’s what my friend and co-author Patrick Doherty has dubbed "full-spectrum sustainability," a term I find myself using more.

Of course, those in sustainability have seen this connectivity for a long while — decades, for some of us. It’s not new, or news, that these three things are inextricably linked. But our society — and, indeed, some politicians on both the left and right — are just beginning to connect the dots between environmental, societal and economic well-being. And that’s encouraging.

The implicit message: You can’t have a healthy economy in an unhealthy society.

So, for example, climate change isn’t just an environmental issue. It’s a jobs issue, a property rights issue, a security issue, a public health issue. Access to affordable healthcare isn’t just a matter of individuals' personal or financial security. It impacts state and local budgets, economic development, workforce readiness and the ability of people to stay in their homes and communities. Immigration isn't just a matter of nationalism or globalism, it's an economic issue vital to communities and the nation as a whole.

The implicit message: You can’t have a healthy economy in an unhealthy society.
Sustainability executives, who probably intuitively understand these linkages, are slowly but surely seeing them show up in their own remits and responsibilities. What used to be marginalized as "corporate social responsibility" — things such as supporting affordable housing, early childhood education, prenatal care, workforce training and access to healthcare — are seen as directly conjoined to the business of business: the ability to have a ready pool of trained and educated workers, and to attract and retain talent from both inside and outside the community.

Understanding these linkages is one thing. Integrating them into business (or political) decisions is an altogether difficult step. But the first step is connecting the dots.

Slippery slope

Some connections are more elusive. The current political climate — the fearmongering about immigrants and minorities, for example, and the policies that result — can have consequences that are (probably) unintended. Here in Oakland, California, for example, I’m hearing stories about growing strife between the Hispanic and African-American communities. The reason? The latter want the former to stay out of their neighborhoods, fearing that the presence of Hispanics will attract immigration police, and increased police presence sometimes doesn’t end well for African-Americans.

So, what was ostensibly meant to improve national security actually reduces local security and social cohesion. Local leaders are left to clean up the messes caused by careless, sometimes irrational policy moves. This is not necessarily the intent of calling in ICE, but it’s a slippery slope.

We need more people connecting such dots and telling stories about the consequences for a society that, on some days, seems to be unraveling. We need our friends, families, neighbors, customers and community leaders to better understand the interconnectedness and implications of the policies our elected officials enact.

This is not a challenge that will end now that Election Day is finally over. Far from it.
This is not a challenge that will end now that Election Day is finally over. Far from it. The need to make connections and tell stories will take on ever-growing importance during these politically fractious and societally fragile times.

As it is, we approach most of these issues piecemeal — one policy or problem at a time — not necessarily appreciating or accepting responsibility for the consequences, intended and otherwise. All of us have a role and a responsibility to help show the more systemic picture — to connect the dots.

Of course, there is a positive version of the sustainability story, should we get things right. For example, thoughtfully addressing climate change at the community or regional level can lead to more resilient and affordable energy systems, greener infrastructure able to adapt to extreme whether events, higher-quality housing at affordable prices and out of harm’s way, food security in every neighborhood, and cleaner and more accessible transportation and mobility systems.

Those stories need to be better and more frequently told. There’s a growing hunger out there for encouraging news.

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