Sustainable Politics and Governance

Eric Zencey, Gund Fellow, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont, writes:

To many people, sustainability does not immediately suggest itself as a topic of study relevant to issues in politics and governance.  Being sustainable seems like a technical or economic issue.  But political systems themselves can be sustainable or not.  The Founding Fathers consciously designed a system that they thought would be sustainable:  not rigid and unable to change (which history suggested would fall prey to disintegration and collapse), but a supple system that could absorb calls for change, moderate them, and evolve in ways that would allow it to adapt and survive. Ultimately, they saw, a Republic would be sustainable if it enfranchised the common man, insulated the levers of government from the passions of the mob, divided governmental powers between three sometimes competitive branches, and provided a foundation of personal freedom and civic dignity that would preclude the systematic perpetration of injustice that could lead to rebellion and sudden change.

That describes a system that has a sustainable form.  But what if those forms depend upon infinite economic growth? What if a flexible, resilient Constitutional system is hooked to an economy that seeks to grow forever? Nothing in nature can grow forever; the human economy has grown for centuries, but it has been able to do that only because the planet is so large and, several centuries ago, humans were relatively few–and their ambitions hadn’t yet been amplified by the powers unleashed when they discovered the trick of turning past solar income (stored as fossil fuel) into wealth and power in the present.  We now live in a world that is very different from when the fundamental principles of modern governance were laid down.  If democratic governance depends on infinite economic growth, democracy is in trouble.

Nearly all of our political and economic institutions and ideas were created on a planet that seemed infinite.  The effort to achieve a sustainable balance with nature’s ecosystems demands that we re-think those institutions and practices; they need to be recast for the reality of a finite planet.  Studies in this field contribute to that effort.

Below is a list of resources on this topic. Find a more complete list of resources with links for learning and teaching about this topic on our Pinterest site:
Follow Sustainability’s board Sustainable Politics and Government on Pinterest.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How It Can Renew America, Thomas L. Friedman

The Principles of Sustainability, Simon Dresner