Q and A with Royal Gardner

royal_gardner_photo2On Jan. 15, the Environmental Law Institute published Agenda for a Sustainable America, which features a chapter co-authored by Stetson’s Royal C. Gardner, a professor of law and director of the Institute for Biodiversity Law and Policy, and by Ezequiel Lugo ’07.

The book explores many topics related to sustainability, including forestry, transportation, oceans and estuaries, religion, and governance. Below, Professor Gardner answers questions about sustainable development and his contributions to the compendium.

What does sustainable development mean?

In principle, sustainable development means using resources and living in the world in such a way that you preserve options for this particular generation and for future generations. But the term “sustainable development” is in tension with itself. On the one hand it refers to development, but on the other hand the development is supposed to be sustainable, and often development is not sustainable. Sustainable development is an elusive goal, but one that we should strive for nevertheless.

With the world’s population estimated to increase by three billion in the next half century, according to Agenda for a Sustainable America, is sustainability even possible?

I think population growth is one of the biggest challenges (if not the biggest) to achieving sustainable development. We had a speaker at Stetson who had worked for many years in Africa on wildlife issues, and I asked her if there was one thing that you could do to help conserve and better protect biodiversity in Africa, what would that be? She thought about it for a minute and said “birth control.”

But population is only part of the equation. In the United States and elsewhere in the developed world, we need to focus on our overconsumption.

So given those challenges, will it be possible to achieve sustainability?

It’s possible. I think it will be difficult, but people change their behaviors when it becomes clearly in their self-interest to do so. For example, when gas prices shot up to more than $4 per gallon, demand for gas went down. People began to drive less. The trick is for people to try to change their behavior before it’s too late and before it becomes too painful to do so.

If you could advise President Obama on the topic of sustainable development, what recommendations would you make?

There are a lot of aspects to sustainable development. In the context of biodiversity, and specifically wetlands (one of the primary areas of my research), one of the things that I would say would be that we need to consider the unintended consequences of certain policies that may appear to be environmentally beneficial, but are actually not. Ethanol production is one example. On the one hand, it may seem to be a positive action because it is a renewable resource. On the other hand, there are costs associated with the use of water, with the use of pesticides, and runoff from agricultural areas, which happens to be the number one source of water pollution in the United States. Add to that the fact that as more land is put into agricultural areas to grow corn, we lose more of our natural areas.

In your chapter in Agenda for a Sustainable America, you discuss development assistance and U.S. national security. What is the relationship?

agenda_cover_imageSometimes people think that foreign aid is simply charity, but it actually can benefit the United States as well.

For example, some of our greatest threats from a national security perspective come from failed states. A state can fail in a number of different ways. It can be because AIDS has ravished its society. Or, there’s also the potential that certain environmental threats such as climate change may actually destabilize an area, which eventually could have an impact on the United States. Even the military recognizes that there is a link between international assistance and security issues. In 2007, a group of retired generals and admirals issued a report calling on the United States to take more of a leadership role with respect to responding to climate change.

Your chapter suggests that the measure for determining Official Development Assistance should be redefined. Do you think that would make the U.S. more accountable and more purposeful in how federal money is spent?

We have this measurement called ODA (Official Development Assistance), and it’s really just a rough metric. It’s a rough measurement in terms of what developed countries are doing to try to assist developing countries. It’s a framework that doesn’t capture all of the contributions that a particular country makes, but also you can’t assume that just because money is spent in a particular area that it’s going to result in a sustainable project. The chapter suggests that ODA should have an explicit sustainability element. A refined definition of ODA might lead to more effective use of ODA dollars.

There seems to be a growing awareness of environmental issues and sustainable development. Are we making progress or are we avoiding hard choices?

I think there’s certainly much more awareness about environmental issues today than in previous generations. I think we are making progress. To give you one example from the wetlands perspective, in the 1950s the United States was losing about a half-million acres of wetlands per year. That rate of loss has slowed to the point where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that we have achieved recently, in the past several years, a net gain of wetlands—at least with respect to wetland area. It’s a bit complicated because I think that we are still losing wetland quality. Although we’ve made a lot of progress in that area in terms of slowing wetland losses, there’s still a long way to go. But certainly, there has been some progress made.

In terms of choices, there are some historical examples of when people in societies have made choices to act in a sustainable manner without government regulation. Perhaps the best example of that is with CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which are ozone-depleting substances. On their own, U.S. consumers, once they were educated about the risks to the stratospheric ozone layer, stopped purchasing products that released CFCs into the atmosphere, so much so that there was a two-thirds reduction in CFC consumption in the United States without formal regulation. One of the keys was that there were cost-effective alternatives. The hard part comes when you have alternatives but they’re expensive, like hybrid cars.

Do you think we can make right decisions even when there aren’t cheap alternatives?

I don’t know. Sometimes when I’m in a more pessimistic frame of mind, I would say no. But on the other hand, if people are aware of the real costs of their actions I think that people will take steps that may not necessarily be in their short-term economic interest—if they understand and appreciate the longer-term implications.

So awareness can lead to real action?

Absolutely. The reduction in CFCs is one example of that. A more current example would be with compact fluorescent light bulbs, which I encourage everyone to use. They’re more expensive initially but over the long term, because of the energy efficiency associated with them, they’re actually of benefit to consumers as well.

What are the biggest obstacles for sustainable development becoming commonplace?

It depends on where you are in the world. If you are in a country that isn’t stable, if you’re in a country where there is a war going on or where there is a threat of a war, sustainable development is not going to be at the top of your agenda.

If you are in a developing country, such as China, the focus may be enhancing your own economic condition instead of worrying about the fact that air pollution from China is degrading air quality in Los Angeles.

With respect to countries where there is a lack of stability, that’s one of the intersections of national security and sustainable development. People are not going to focus on a concept like sustainable development until they have basic peace and security. So to the extent that the United States, the member states of the European Union and other developed countries can contribute to peace and security in various regions, that actually contributes to sustainable development in the long term.

What is more important to achieving sustainable development, technological advancement or societal will?

I suppose the answer depends on whether you have faith in people, in general, or faith in technology. Sometimes I have neither [laughs]. That’s a good question, but it’s not an either/or answer. We’re going to need technological developments. For example, we’re going to need to come up with batteries that can store solar power. But where is the demand going to come for that development? It’s going to come from people who are calling for this technology.

Is it possible to impose new environmental regulations without stifling business growth? How?

Yes. I think it’s possible in a couple of different ways. Number one, reducing the waste stream in an industry can have economic benefits to a particular company. Ideally, a company would recognize this on its own, but sometimes it may take government regulation to force the issue.

In other contexts, government can create economic incentives for businesses to become more sustainable. One of the areas that I study now is wetland mitigation banking, which is a mechanism that creates an economic incentive to restore and protect wetlands. It can be controversial because there are people who are making a profit off of this. But if it’s done right, I think it’s a vast improvement over the status quo. I think it’s actually to everyone’s benefit if we can come up with systems where people can make money by doing environmentally beneficial activities, whether that happens to be restoring wetlands, reducing nutrient runoff from agricultural areas, or preserving endangered species habitat.

What changes in governmental policy might best help achieve sustainable development?

Gas tax [laughs]. That would obviously not be popular, but it would result in people conserving more and then the resulting funds that the government accumulates could be channeled into developing alternative sources of energy. Another important step would be for all levels of government to stop subsidizing development in natural areas, particularly along the coastline. There should be no federal subsidies with respect to flood insurance in these areas. If someone can afford to build something there, great. But the government shouldn’t be subsidizing those activities.

Another area that I think we should explore is the use of genetically modified organisms—specifically, agricultural crops that do not require pesticides. If you can remove pesticides from the farmlands, then you solve a lot of water-quality problems in the United States, and you can also help solve a lot of the issues associated with the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico because you wouldn’t have excessive nutrient runoff that winds up there, choking off all life. Another, less controversial way would be to reclaim land along rivers, and set up buffer zones to restore the wetlands that were once there so they can act as filtering devices.

What can individuals do to support sustainable development?

Many things. Buy fluorescent light bulbs. Go with native vegetation instead of lawns that require watering, fertilizer and pesticides. When it comes time to purchase another automobile, buy a smaller one. I’m trying not to sound like a grumpy old man, but try not to waste so much!

People can educate themselves about these issues to find out what they can do in their own lives to try to cut down on what they consume. In particular, what Stetson students can do, in terms of educating themselves, is to take advantage of some of the on-campus activities we offer, such as the upcoming International Wildlife Conference, as well as other events in the area. There’s a brown-bag lunch series sponsored by USF-St. Petersburg that focuses on environmental issues, and they are open to the public. They’re great sessions that involve a combination of science, law and policy. If we’re going to make any progress in this area, we’re going to need all of these disciplines working together.

Are you hopeful that we can achieve sustainable development?

I vacillate [laughs]. Sometimes, I’m pessimistic and dyspeptic. Other times, I recall that humans are capable of great change. Just considering some of the huge political shifts that have occurred in our lifetime in terms of the Berlin Wall being taken down, the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the elimination of apartheid in South Africa, the apparent end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, all of these demonstrate that there is reason to be hopeful.