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Professor Bill Clark

The Office for Sustainability asked three members of our community to reflect on what sustainability means and what it will take, inside and outside of Harvard, to build a more sustainability future. Here is what Professor Bill Clark had to say.

"The Dimensions of Sustainability"

William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at the Harvard Kennedy School

How can we – as individuals, as a University and as a society – foster a transition toward sustainability, toward patterns of development that promote human well-being while conserving the life-support systems of the planet? This is one of the central challenges of our generation and one that President Drew Faust has said as a University we have a special role and a special responsibility to address.

The groundbreaking 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development helped frame the discussion this way:

“Environment is where we live; and development is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable…. “

“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable: to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

When we analyze how humans use their environments, we face two sets of questions. The first, What kind of planet can we get,? involves questions of fact, amenable to scientific investigation and answered through experimentation, trial and error: What flows of services are we capable of extracting from the planet over the long run? What are the tradeoffs between economic development and environmental conservation?  The second, What kind of planet do we want,? involves questions of values, illuminated by the humanities and answered through social dialogue and politics: Am I justified in  dumping my pollution on you?  What kind of a global warming burden can I justly leave my grandchildren? More succinctly, as my colleague Robert Kates has put it, those seriously concerned about sustainability must grapple with the question "What is, and ought to be, the human use of the Earth?”

Progress toward sustainable development therefore requires not only advances in understanding of the interactions among economy, environment and society concerns but also a willingness to pursue that understanding as a joint effort of scholars and engaged citizens.  It is a daunting challenge, requiring that we move beyond the comfort zones of particular disciplines, places, and perspectives to engage a rapidly changing world in all its interactive complexity. Single-dimensioned responses are not only inadequate, they are likely to end up as counter-productive.  And this is not only true for efforts intent on maximizing short run profits without regard to long term environmental degradation, but also for those that would organize environmental protection efforts around single metrics such as carbon dioxide emissions.

What we do know is that most of the small steps we have made along a transition toward sustainability have been built around solution-oriented, targeted partnerships involving various mixtures of players from universities, governments, non-profits, businesses and civil society.  We haven’t discovered answers to questions of how humans can organize their interactions with the environment in ways that lead to mutually supportive outcomes though contemplative reflection on general principles. Rather, we have invented solutions through engaged, reflective and adaptive practice that integrates the best that scholarship currently has to offer with vision, leadership and experimentation appropriate for particular places and contexts.

Universities seeking to play a meaningful role in meeting the challenges of sustainable development must therefore promote research and teaching that is increasingly integrative across traditional disciplines and engaged with the world of reflective practice. Making universities into learning laboratories for inventing their own pathways toward sustainable development is a first step in this direction, and one that at Harvard has engaged students, faculty, staff and alumnae in exciting and productive ways.  We still have a long way to go, however, in bringing our course offerings and incentives for relevant faculty research and outreach into alignment with the need and our competitors’ accomplishments.