Cautious Optimism As Distinguished Professor Returns From UN Conference on Sustainable Development

“Sustainability involves our duty to others, including future generations,” says Distinguished Professor and Environmental Law Center Co-Director John C. Dernbach, adding, “The growth in that understanding is one of the reasons I come away from Rio more hopeful than I might otherwise.”

Dernbach spent eleven days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil beginning June 12th for events related to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. The conference brought together world leaders and thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other groups to discuss and examine sustainability and mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Professor Dernbach attended a number of side events related to the conference that focused on how to accelerate the transition to sustainability that were consistent with the findings in his recently published book, Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability. In addition to positive feedback on the book, he was pleased to observe that every side event he went to focused on the question of how to accelerate that transition, saying, “My book title captures the question that everyone was asking.”

Noting that his book argues for “an American movement for sustainability” and “that we cannot rely on government to do it,” Professor Dernbach adds that he got the sense from many of the attendees from business or non-governmental organizations that they agreed that such a development was necessary “not only in the United States, but around the world.”

“In the United States, we’ve made a little progress in a lot of areas. We are building more certified green buildings. Colleges and universities are doing a better job teaching sustainability,” he says, also noting that many corporations have made strides in reducing their negative impacts by reducing water use and cutting pollution.
However, he also stresses that the problems sustainability is intended to address are large, and he says, “The response that we have provided in the United States to this point is not consistent with the challenge or the opportunity.”

Succinctly phrasing his overarching impression of where the struggle for sustainability stands, he observed, “We have made more progress toward a goal that is increasingly distant.”

“More and more people are coming to understand that sustainability is not just a policy question or a good idea or something that we need to do for the environment. It is also an ethical, moral, and religious question,” Dernbach concludes.

Professor Dernbach shared some of his thoughts about the conference on the Environmental Law Center’s blog, including a general post about the history behind the Rio+20 conference and a post about the role that lawyers can play in the quest for sustainability. More information about his new book, Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, can be found at the website for publisher Island Press.

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