Prioritizing and tracking our sustainable future
In New Jersey, we’re serious about defining a vision and goals for a sustainable state as well as a way to track our progress toward reaching these goals. Sounds simple — every state should have a plan, right?
Well, there are many things that go into developing the vision, goals and tracking. Last week 300 people attended the 2015 New Jersey Sustainability Summit to rethink, refine, and build consensus around the future we want.
Goals, Indicators and the Breakfast Sammy
Developing a vision for the future and documenting it in a plan is not easy. For example, let’s say that my sustainability goal is to have one delicious breakfast sandwich with eggs, pork roll and cheese each day. We can turn my desire into a formal goal statement: Ample pork roll, egg and cheese sandwiches in perpetuity. We can create a specific target for this goal; in this case the target is one sammy per day. And we can use indicators to track progress toward the goal. A review of the data, my recollection of the past few weeks, reveals that I’m eating about two breakfast sandwiches a week. That is far below my goal of one per day.
What can we learn from this? First off, this illustrates that sustainability is values laden. It’s not just about addressing consensus on major issues, like climate change, and then once it is achieved we are “sustainable.” What exactly do we want to sustain, and for whom?
What we work for, and the methods we choose, creates winners and losers. And we don’t all value the same things. You might not like that I value having a delicious breakfast sandwich, but the reality is that if this is my priority, it has to be taken as legitimate. Everyone has wants and needs and each brings its own legitimacy as we wrestle with the future we want to create.
Second, the breakfast sandwich illustrates the point that achieving seemingly simple things rests on a complicated and tenuous foundation. To get my sandwich food, supplies must be imported from around the world and transported and processed through a vast and complicated infrastructure that is reliant on large quantities of fossil fuels, and comes with a staggering environmental cost. So if I want a breakfast sandwich, AND I want it to be sustainable (I can rely on having it in the future), then we need to think about the ramifications of the system that brings it to me, and how to make each component of that system more sustainable.
Finally, we can think about the fact that if all I’m concerned about is a breakfast sandwich, then I’m probably doing ok. Many in the world would have said that all they want is not to fear for their lives in conflict zones, or to have potable water to drink without fear of disease. In New Jersey many people fear for losing their homes, or have no homes, or are forced to live in environmentally unsafe areas. I have to recognize that my sandwich is frankly a “want,” and I should be humble about how vigorously I pursue this want over someone else’s need.
After a two year process consisting of stakeholder engagement, research and expert consultation, Sustainable Jersey has released the 2015 NJ Sustainable State of the State Report. Its presentation at the Sustainability Summit was a humble offering to start a discussion. The report has 57 goals that define a vision of sustainability for New Jersey. Each goal has indicators that provide clues as to how New Jersey is doing. It’s a report card on our progress, designed to engage stakeholders in an ongoing dialogue toward continuous improvement in measuring quality of life indicators.
How is New Jersey doing?
So, if you were not at the Summit and/or did not yet read the report, you must be curious. How is New Jersey doing toward the goals of clean water and air, access to education, reduction of waste, renewable energy, progress toward an equitable society and more? The 2015 NJ Sustainable State of the State Report shows thumbs up and thumbs down for 57 goals.
Clare Payton, a member of the Maplewood Environmental Advisory Committee, left the Sustainability Summit panel session on water and commented, “When I hear that at least 90 percent of our bodies of water in New Jersey are failing to meet the water quality standards for at least one of their designated uses, I want to sound a great call to action to prioritize water today. The data results are not acceptable. Let’s remember that clean water is essential to all life and focus now on the actions that we need to take to make New Jersey water a sustainable resource for our future.”
As might be expected, the report’s results suggest a mixed bag, with progress being made in some areas and not others. The report goals, indicators, and assessments of progress are subject to debate and interpretation and that is the intent. We want to build consensus around the future we want, and about how to track progress. The Sustainability Summit gave us a valuable opportunity to take the first step toward these goals.
Read and share the report!
I encourage you to read and share the 2015 New Jersey Sustainable State of the State Report (http://bit.ly/1e6arxQ).
I know that I was inspired by the level of energy at the Sustainability Summit and the important discussions that happened at all of the 16 concurrent workshops. Monica Coffey, chair of Sustainable Margate said, “The Sustainability Jersey Summit provided an opportunity to hear how much progress is being made across the state as we all work toward building more sustainable communities. I personally came away energized and excited to share what I learned with our green team and elected officials.”
Moving forward, we need the public to review this report and provide input on what the best indicators are and what goals people value the most so that we can measure and fill in the data that is needed. Feedback on the Report can be provided directly to Melanie Hughes McDermott at any time via firstname.lastname@example.org and when you comment and share the report on-line use #SustainableStateNJ to continue the discussion.
For more about Sustainable Jersey: