As President Obama steps to the podium to deliver the State of the Union address tomorrow, he will have much on his mind: Defending Obamacare. Reforming domestic surveillance programs. Extending unemployment insurance. He'll be looking towards the 2014 elections and framing a narrative to help Democrats preserve their majority in the Senate and recapture the House.
Presidents late in their terms are often compelled to highlight their accomplishments rather than ask Americans to join in facing new challenges. But America would be well served if the president stakes a broader claim: to explain to the nation why sustainability is truly the defining challenge of our time, to show us all what is at stake, to demonstrate how the path of sustainability and the path of prosperity are one and the same, and to lay out a bold new plan for building a sustainable economy.
The president would start by explaining that sustainability is about much more than the environment, much more than being green. Sustainability, in its essence, is about how we meet the needs of the current generation, without preventing future generations from meeting their needs when it is their turn. It's that simple.
A sustainable America would meet three tests: economic sustainability, social sustainability and environmental sustainability. These three aspects of sustainability are different but they are all tightly interwoven.
Economic sustainability is fundamentally about productivity: how to keep productivity increasing and how to ensure that the U.S. economy is at the forefront among nations. For example, more than 200 years ago, when the U.S. Constitution mandated the annual State of the Union address, the U.S. economy was not very productive. 97 percent of the population had to work full time producing food just to keep the nation from starving. That left only 3 percent of America's energies to pursue innovations in science, technology, energy, transportation, communications, culture and more. Now, it takes less than 3 percent of America's labor to produce what is arguably too much food. This leaves us with abundant time and talent to pursue all manner of innovation. But the rest of the work has become more productive too, and we are no longer the unrivalled leader. We must pick up the pace or face declining income.
But aggregate productivity is not enough. The productivity increases achieved by our society must be wisely deployed and fairly shared. "Wisely deployed" means that a good portion of the gains in our economy must be invested in ways that further increase productivity: things like education, infrastructure and advanced research. This does not happen without smart policy grounded in a sense of stewardship. To understand what happens when productivity gains are not wisely deployed, consider the many countries that enjoyed a surge in prosperity after discovering a valuable natural resource like oil. The resource led to rapid growth in productivity, but the money was not invested to create a globally-competitive economy. When the resource runs out, these countries spiral back down into poverty. While the U.S. enjoys a much more diverse and healthy economy right now, the same principle of reinvestment applies. You don't need to look far in our country to see rusting bridges that seem about to collapse.
The idea that productivity increases should be "fairly shared" brings up the social aspect of sustainability. But fairness is not just a moral issue, it is also an intensely practical concern given the historic fragility of democratic governments. The stability of our society and government depends on people accepting the legitimacy of major social and economic institutions. When people find that hard, honest work is fairly rewarded they maintain their trust in, and commitment to, the institutions of our society. But when people find that despite hard work they cannot maintain their standard of living, and worse, when they see their children fail to achieve economic security, they begin to lose faith. In America's past, tough times test our commitment and bring out the worst in our society: Pervasive and violent racism flourishes. Support grows for charismatic totalitarians from both the left and the right.
The environment is the third main aspect of sustainability, and environmental considerations are closely linked to our economic well being. Frankly, many people misunderstand environmental sustainability. They see it as an issue of starving polar bears, stranded on melting ice floes. They argue that although it is sad to see those polar bears starve, there's little to no practical impact on the general population.
However, the greatest challenge of environmental sustainability is not starving polar bears, it's the dwindling supply of fresh water for drinking and agriculture. This affects farms and cities in many parts of the country, but the greatest threat to the national prosperity is the risk to California's Central Valley, perhaps America's most productive farmland, which would be dry a desert for most of the year without imported water. Regardless of the cause, water shortages need to be addressed before food prices soar, several western cities collapse and the national economy suffers a significant slowdown. Like water, many environmental issues have strong economic implications.
With sustainability, everything is connected to everything else. That is why need national policy and national leadership to meet the challenge. For example, energy policy and water policy are inseparable because cheap abundant energy would let us make fresh water out of salt water. Climate policy and military policy are inseparable because the Pentagon expects rising sea levels to cause geopolitical instability, requiring higher levels of military spending. Education policy and economic growth are inseparable because without affordable higher education, our workforce won't keep pace and the most innovative, fast-growing businesses will set up shop elsewhere.
Sustainability is not an optional "add-on" that we address with the few resources left over after allocating resources to other problems and opportunities. Rather, sustainability is the unifying theme that helps us both understand how the rest of the issues are connected, and also develop policies that exploit the interconnections in useful ways that are consistent with our most important long term goals and our deepest values.
Right now the State of the Union is — in a word – "unsustainable," and that needs to change. We are facing a new world, and we can't meet its challenges without new ideas and a new vision. This requires leadership from the president.
David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.