Seeking Sustainable Growth in the Wake of Sandy

This article was originally published on December 30, 2012 in the Dead River Journal (Seeking Sustainable Growth in the Wake of Sandy)

vzelin2010-150The Center for Regenerative Community Solutions and Regenerative Community Ventures, Inc. have recently circulated a position paper on “Laying a Foundation for Sustainable Growth in New Jersey in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy” with policy makers and community leaders in the state. Here is a final version, and several excerpts. The authors are co-founders of the Center for Leadership in Sustainability, the Sustainable Leadership Forum, and Acumen Technology Group, LLC. Jonathan Cloud is Senior Fellow, Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Managing Partner, Acumen Technology Group, LLC. Victoria Zelin is Principal, Regenerative Community Ventures, Inc., a licensee of Unified Field Corporation.

Superstorm Sandy has dramatically altered NJ’s economy as well as its geography for years to come. While there may be a short-­?term “bounce” from the money spent on reconstruction, the thinking about how that rebuilding should be carried out is already moving very quickly toward the view that it needs to be substantially more hurricane-­? proof and disaster-­?resistant, more resilient, and — in a word — more sustainable.

This paper sets out some considerations and recommendations for creating a foundation for sustainable growth in New Jersey, describes some of the initiatives we are taking through our new nonprofit organization, the Center for Regenerative Community Solutions, and makes specific suggestions for policies and programs for state and local government to support these and similar initiatives from other organizations.


Hurricane Sandy has altered not only the NY-NJ-Connecticut shoreline, but also has shifted the conversation around climate change. New York’s Governor Cuomo said, “Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”[1]

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on November 1 that he was supporting Obama for President because of his stance on climate change, stating

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.[2], [10

Blogger Marc Gunther speculated that “This hurricane might even turn New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie into a climate hawk,”[3] and while this might seem surprising to some, in fact Gov. Christie has already acknowledged the reality of climate change. In August of 2011, even while vetoing the RGGI retention bill,[4] “the governor said ‘climate change is real.’ He added that ‘human activity plays a role in these changes’ and that climate change is ‘impacting our state.’”[5]

While he has not (yet) raised the issue in connection with Sandy, what’s relevant here is that “adaptation” to climate change is suddenly the watch-word of the day, and sea-level rise is now being taken very, very seriously. Whereas in past years global warming critics have repeatedly called for “mitigation” (e.g., reducing the sources of greenhouse gas emissions), and such action is certainly of utmost importance, the current discussion is squarely focused on “adaptation,” preventing further harm to natural and manmade systems and being prepared to withstand the increasingly negative consequences of climate change.[6]

One of the goals of this paper, therefore, is to emphasize that it’s important to look at long-term sustainability if we are going to “build back better.”[7] The cost of restoring buildings, boardwalks, drainage systems, power lines, etc. requires us to think about where and whether we are spending our money wisely, for in the end it all comes out of our pockets.

As important as it is to build back sustainably, in the interests of Shore communities — which are on the front lines of the impact of our changing climate — we must be prepared to act urgently to diminish our society’s contribution to climate change. The current international consensus is that we should aim to prevent the planet from anything greater than 2°C of warming, which itself is sufficient to cause enormous human and economic damage; but the course we are currently on may exceed that, bringing about rapidly rising sea levels and consequent coastal devastation. According to some estimates, a warming of 3°C would be sufficient to melt the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which could raise the seas by as much as 25 meters (82 feet).[8] Adaptation to this level of climate change might be simply impossible for many existing shore communities.

And this is only one of the challenges we must have the economic resources to address in coming decades. What’s needed is really a massive effort to restore and regenerate the entire planet; and as part of this each local and regional community needs to be strengthened and made more comprehensively self-sufficient.[9]

The Idea of Sustainable Growth

The very idea of “sustainable growth” may seem objectionable if not implausible to those working in the sustainability field. After all, nothing can “grow” forever; there is a natural limit to the resources and the “carrying capacity” of the planet. But “economic growth” does not need to mean exclusively “material growth,” especially not in the wasteful, excessive, unlimited sense that our current economy is based on.

While we could indeed argue, as former World Bank economist Herman Daly has done for the past several decades, that “development” is a better term for what we’re looking for than “growth,” we prefer to use “sustainable growth” precisely to make the point that growth — which like it or not is a perfectly understandable goal for economists and politicians — must somehow be made sustainable if it is to mean anything at all.

For it’s not simply that the consequences of our actions will fall upon our grandchildren. The chickens are already coming home to roost. What we’re experiencing now is the result of the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere over the past 150 years, and most particularly over the past 50 years, less than the span of a single lifetime (and it may take us at least as long again to begin to slow and reverse this damage to the biosphere).

Moreover, how we solve our short-term issues is going to affect how we address our longer term challenges. What we need to be thinking about, as we rebuild in the wake of storms and tornados and tsunamis, is how we can protect ourselves and our communities from future disasters, and how we can preserve our habitat in order to pass it along to future generations.

Here are some of the main areas where we need to think about operating differently in both long-term and short-term ways:

  • Securing Our Sources of Energy
  • Smarter Land Use and Building
  • More Energy-Efficient Transportation and Travel
  • Local Chemical-Free Food Production
  • Clean Water with Less Treatment
  • Hardening Our Infrastructure
  • Regenerating Our Communities
  • Restoring Our Environment
  • Maintaining Our Health
  • Ensuring Growing Prosperity for Others

While the solutions we need in these areas are not always simple, they are available, and in some cases all we need is the information, the political will, and the funding to put them into practice.

Download the complete paper here: LayingFoundation4SustainableGrowthinNJ30Dec2012.

[1] Source: 2012-11-02/listening-to-hurricane-sandy-climate-change-is-here.html.

[3] Source: hurricane-sandy-a-climate-pearl-harbor/.

[4] Governor Christie announced that New Jersey would drop out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in 2011, and vetoed subsequent legislation aimed at preventing this from happening.

[5] gov_christie_admits_climate_ch.html.

[6] Confusingly, “mitigation” is also sometimes used to refer to efforts to “harden” manmade systems to prevent future damage from occurring. (Cf. Senate testimony on the effects of Hurricane Sandy on transportation systems in the Northeast, note 19 below.) We find it clearer to refer to this as “adaptation,” and, following the practice of climate change scientists, to use “mitigation” to refer to efforts to diminish or reverse the underlying causes of climate change.

[7] “Haiti – A Way Forward,” Working Group for a Sustainable Future for Haiti, Institute for Sustainable Enterprise Fairleigh Dickinson University, February 2010. Ironic that we may all need to learn from each other’s disasters what resilience really looks like.

[8] Sivan Kartha, “Climate Change: Redemption through Crisis,” Tellus Institute, 2006.

[9] Some readers have argued that we still ought to avoid or minimize “the usual sustainability and green lingo,” and focus only on the financial arguments for strengthening local communities. Increasing public and even business awareness is, however, recognizing their intrinsic connection.

[10] Since then, in his 2nd Inaugural Address President Obama spoke out forcefully for action on climate change, including a new energy future, and is expected to follow through with Executive Orders, EPA actions, and other measures to curb carbon.

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