American concern for the environment isn’t static. At its roots in the years before 1850, life was breathed into the movement as much by artists such as Henry David Thoreau and my favorite landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt, as from science. The term ecology wasn't even coined until 1866.
Experts break our concern for stewardship of our environment down into three eras and perhaps now a fourth:
- Pre-1970, environment was more about natural conservation
- Post-1970, environment was more about pollution control
- Post-1990, environment was more about pollution prevention
- Post-2010, environment is more about sustainability
As I was making my home in Durham, North Carolina in the late 1980s, a global conference was defining sustainability simply as “an activity that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (1987 UN Conference on Environment and Development).
I’m persuaded that “sustainable resilience” is a better term as proposed by Professor Emeritus Dr. Roger Caldwell of the University of Arizona because in his view lots of experimentation is required to achieve or maintain sustainability and also because it transcends just the environment.
Caldwell even suggests that sustainability may be the next great era after technology, but not in my mind, if conservatives have their way. According to researchers working at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sheps Center, which just 10 miles from my house in Durham, conservatives are much more likely to distrust what they stigmatize as “regulatory science” because it doesn’t support their world view prejudices.
What do I know? The study by Dr, Gordon Gauchat, released just a little over two weeks ago, illustrates that conservatives’ trust in science has been declining since 1974, especially among the higher educated. But maybe as capitalist George Soros suggests what new really need is to “move from the Age of Reason to the Age of Fallibility in order to have a proper understanding of the problems.”
Gauchat’s UNC-CH study also reveals that moderates like me tend to be less educated than conservatives and especially liberals, but we’re definitely not stupid. Quibble about degrees here or there but who can argue that we don’t owe it to future generations to be better stewards of this planet? Really!
The study rules out some long-held theories about the long gradual decline in trust for science among conservatives settling on politicization. The study is particularly enlightening for those of us living in Durham, home to two major research universities, world-renowned Research Triangle Park and scores of major corporate and government research facilities.
Duke University in Durham is also the gold standard for sustainability, both in policy and practice. Next month when I go to Duke Eye Center for my annual exam, I will park in a green parking deck with living green walls, cisterns, a retention rain garden and a clematis covered rooftop level.
Adjacent buildings sport an award-winning green roof and heliport and across the street is an area where University Trustees have approved construction of a new tree lined 6-acre reclamation pond that alone will save 100 million gallons of Durham drinking water each year.
The 23-million-gallon pond will collect and retain rainwater and storm run off from more than a fifth of Duke West Campus to be recycled for other uses such as cooling towers.
Any organization, private, public or non-profit would do well to study and emulate both the Duke policy and the extensiveness and intensity with which it is being put in practice, much of it driven by my friend Dr. Tallman Trask III.
There are obvious contradictions such as the outdoor billboard messages either bought by marketers or enabled as donations for Duke Medicine Marketing. While sacrificing roadside forests and undermining community values they are easily corrected anomalies and understood given the difficulty of entrenching sustainability in every nook and cranny of such a large enterprise.
Those who distrust science as an objective means of making and informing democratic decisions, public or private, are well advised to suggest anything better. While they may thwart or retard government sustainability initiatives, this is a movement now so pervasive as to make such obstinacy anything more than a speed bump.