Important Perspectives – 1995 – Sustainability in Focus

by Steve Viederman – Fellow, G&A Institute

Introduction by Hank Boerner

In 1995, Stephen Viederman, then President, of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, authored this thoughtful, forward-looking view of key stakeholders’ focus on sustainability and the quest for a more “sustainable world” — a topic of discussion that has grown in importance in recent years.. 

Steve Viederman is a respected pioneer and thought leader of the sustainable and responsible investment (SRI) movement.  We found his 1995 commentary compelling and certainly applicable today to the various public conversations going on about “sustainability.”

At the time of writing this article, Dr. Viederman was President of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in Steve ViedermanNew York City. A historian by training, he has also held senior positions with the Population Council and the UN Population Fund.

Today, Steve is a Fellow of the G&A Institute and a valued advisor to our team.

Steve’s perspective on the importance of sustainability c 1995:


Knowledge for Sustainable Development: What do we need to know?A chapter from a “Sustainable World” By Stephen ViedermanOn January 17, 1994 a major earthquake rocked Los Angeles. That event, combined with chronic problems of water and air, underline the obvious: that Los Angeles presents a textbook example of technology and science winning out over common sense. This bears directly upon our concerns today: knowledge for sustainability.There are those who see sustainability as a problem of science. Harvard scholar and science statesman Harvey Brooks (1992) has written:“There is a need for a relatively value-neutral definition of sustainability that permits consensus among people with widely differing value perspectives and world views to agree on whether or not the objective criteria for sustainability have been met in any given development strategy or project, but without necessarily endorsing that strategy or project in terms of their value system. In other words, whether or not a given development path is sustainable should, in principle, be a scientific rather than a trans-scientific question . . .”Robert White, President of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, has similarly argued recently that scientists are more capable of creating “rational” public policy than the public-at-large (White 1993).Sustainability is not a technical problem to be solved or an “uncertain characteristic,” as suggested by David Munro in his [article in this volume]. Sustainability is a vision of the future that provides us with a road map and helps to focus our attention on a set of values and ethical and moral principles by which to guide our actions, as individuals, and in relation to the institutional structures with which we have contact—governmental and nongovernmental, work-related, and other.

  • I have argued elsewhere that sustainability is a community’s control of capital, in all of its forms—natural, human, human-created, social, and cultural—to ensure to the degree possible that present and future generations can attain a high degree of economic security and achieve democracy while maintaining the integrity of the ecological systems upon which all life and production depend (Viederman 1993).

We must begin by recognizing that many of the problems that we face today, as Barry Commoner observed many years ago, are not the result of incidental failures but of technological and scientific successes. Witness nuclear power and the problems of agriculture. The problems of environmental justice are also products of technological successes, without comparable social and moral development.

Witness Los Angeles

Science can describe, with different degrees of precision, what is, and to a lesser degree, can help us to assess what can be. Science cannot tell us what should be, and that is the key issue of sustainability. Science is a form of know-how: it is a means without consideration of ends. It underlines the differences between knowing how to do something, and knowing what to do.

Many have argued for new thinking about science at different times in this century. Albert Einstein observed that “we cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them.”

Economist John Maynard Keynes remarked that “the difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping from old ones.”

And Friedrich Hayek, in his Nobel address, noted the irony that economists of his time were being called upon to solve the very problems which they had helped to create. Each of these observations should become an internal guide for each of us as we think about the role of knowledge in sustainability.

With this as introduction, let us return to the assigned question: “What do we need to know?” It may not come as a surprise to you by now that I think that is the wrong question on at least two counts.

First, the problem of sustainability is not a problem of lack of knowledge. Focusing on “need to know” as an issue assumes that lack of knowledge is the problem and suggests that there is a cure—namely, more and “adequate” knowledge.

But as David Orr (1991) has correctly observed, “As important as research is, the lack of it is not the limiting factor in the conservation of biodiversity.”

The problems of sustainability are primarily problems of power, on the one hand, and political will, on the other hand. Debates over international whaling and wetlands in the United States reflect this.

These issues, however, go beyond the purview of the task assigned to me, so I will focus more on my second concern, which relates to the nature of science and the limitations that are encountered in addressing issues of sustainability.

Sustainability confronts us with a situation where, as Funtowicz and Ravetz (1991) have observed, “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent.” This is not a set of circumstances where conventional science excels, to say the least.

Investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed research, as suggested by the proponents of the U.S. National Institutes for the Environment, is not likely to be responsive to such circumstances.

The problems of sustainability are systemic in nature. In a system there are no byproducts, there are no side-effects, nor are there any externalities, all of which are rather products of too narrow a paradigm. In a system there are only effects and products. Conventional science reflects the narrower paradigm, however, and is, therefore, often ill-equipped to deal with issues of significance for sustainability. Again, investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed research is unlikely to deal effectively with the system issues.

What, then, do we need?

First, I think we need to restate the question to conform with one of the key principles of sustainability. This is the humility principle, which states that we should recognize the limitations of human knowledge. The question then becomes: What is our tolerance for ignorance and uncertainty in order to act in a timely fashion with the highest degree of certainty possible while avoiding harm and doing good in the short and long-term? That is what Ravetz (1986) has called “useable ignorance.”

Yes, there are immutable laws of nature. But despite the mythology of science, they are not always knowable to us, and most certainly not knowable—or rarely knowable—in the time frames necessary to right the wrongs of the past and prevent future harm. Yes, we humans are always dominating nature. We have no other choice, in many respects.

The issue is do we dominate in ways that destroy nature, such as is the case of conventional agriculture, or in ways that can contribute to sustainability, as organic and sustainable agriculture are assumed to do. Can we dominate without or at least while minimizing adverse repercussions? This brings us to another dimension of the knowledge base—economics, which is increasingly being recognized as part of the problem of sustainability.

There are no immutable laws of economics. Nor are there what Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson has called “inexorable economic forces.”

Economics and the economy are human constructs. The assumptions and assertions that are part of conventional economics are key issues that we need to address if we are to achieve sustainability. Among these are the mantra of growth; the assumption that rising tides raise all ships; that increasing national wealth effects distribution and equity within a country; that comparative advantage and specialization apply in an economy where capital is mobile; that the market can deal with all issues, including equity; and that competition is good and natural, in all cases.

The need for a new economics—an ecological economics—is clear.

Questions – What We Need to Ask

What then are some of the things that we might need to know to achieve sustainability, along the lines of the definition that I have offered above that includes economic security, democracy, and ecological integrity? This is clearly not a research agenda. Rather, my purpose is to suggest questions that I believe are quite different from those more normally asked.

  • How can we design an economy that honors economic security, democracy, and ecological integrity? What would an economy look like that goes beyond socialism and beyond capitalism?
  • What can be done, working with indigenous peoples to help them to preserve their lives and cultures, as well as their habitats?
  • Can we begin technology development and product design with the question of need foremost in our minds, rather than simply worrying about how to do it better and in a less damaging way, as important as that is? What is appropriate technology? Does “industrial ecology” really deal with the fundamental issues, or simply postpone the ultimate problem?
  • What are appropriate measures of work and wealth that value sustainability? Ponder for the moment that the word “asset” once connoted “having enough.” Can we move from “excessities” to necessities? How?
  • What determines the sustainability behavior of individuals and institutions, and how can it be encouraged? Finger (1993), for example, has completed empirical research in Switzerland that suggests that only environmental action, with values of equity and justice, lead to environmental behavior. Environmental experiences, linked to fear and anxiety and awareness about environmental problems do not appear to translate into environmentally responsible behavior. This runs counter to the usual suggestion that knowledge, values, and attitudes taken together create new behaviors.
  • How do we achieve a sustainable agriculture, one which includes sustainable communities? Is there such a thing as sustainable forestry? What are appropriate measures of production in agriculture and industry that reflect concern for sustainability? For example, why do we measure crop yields in terms of units of land, rather than in terms of, or in addition to, units of water used, land degraded, workers and consumers harmed, etc.?
  • How can we live in peace within and between families and communities and nations?

The Reversibility Principle

I would urge us all to add to the list, while recognizing that in many—in most cases—we sadly cannot wait for the answers. We must proceed with caution, respecting the two other principles of sustainability, beyond the humility principle already referred to. These are the precautionary principle: When in doubt (which, taken together with the humility principle, means most of the time) move slowly and think deeply; and, the reversibility principle: Do not make irreversible changes.

We must make clear our own values, assumptions, and assertions and demand the same of others, in terms of the problem definition, the scientist’s response, the methods and models used, and the policy climate. We must understand the politics of knowledge, and the political economy of science.

There are no knowledge products independent of institutional setting, financial support, scale, place, pace, and person. Fortunately, scientific bodies seem to be more accepting of this analysis now than has previously been the case, although the acceptance is far from universal.

Of particular importance is the recognition that much of the discussion of sustainability—all too often narrowly defined as ecological sustainability—has taken place in and is driven by northern elites. The South, no less interested in the concept of sustainability, has, however, spoken more of issues of poverty and inequity and justice. Only recently has there been a joining of the concerns.

But the northern paradigm of science still prevails. The prestige of southern institutions is still measured against a northern standard. Molecular biology is more highly valued than taxonomy as David Ehrenfeld (1989) has pointed out. As a result, what is taught, how it is taught, and what is researched all too often are designed to meet international standards rather than national needs.

Thirty years ago Ali Mazrui referred to African universities as multinational corporations rather than national institutions (Mazrui 1975). The same is still too often the case all over the South. I have serious doubts that this contributes to sustainability.

The northern tradition of science has generally failed to value indigenous and experiential knowledge. While this is changing among some groups of scientists, the change is slow.

Knowledge generation for sustainability also demands that we involve stakeholders in the process because sustainability is more than ecological or economic.

Sustainability is a statement of values

Sustainability  is a statement of values; in effect,  a vision of the future. Stakeholder involvement is also essential because, as I have noted earlier, “values are in dispute.” In a democracy, value dispute requires participation.

In speaking of science for sustainability, it is important to observe that the corporate world has been stating its support for environmentalism more and more frequently in terms of support for “good science” rather than emotion. I suggest that is a smokescreen for inaction.

The “good science” they want before they act—the exact answers to unanswerable questions—sounds good but is destructive. For example, the effects of the toxic soups that we are each exposed to by modern life cannot be assessed in a manner that reflects human variation.

We do need science and knowledge to address the realities of sustainability, but it will be a new science, an issue-driven science. It will not pretend to be either value-free or ethically neutral, although it will certainly need to remain objective and unbiased in its approaches and continue to be based on rigorous hypothesis testing.

The scientific enterprise in this new paradigm will have to accept the world as it is, rather than try to recreate it in ways that are more susceptible to its research needs. The circumstances that demand this new paradigm are worth repeating: “Facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent” (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1991).

As a result, the new paradigm will focus attention on the qualitative assessment of the quantitative data available, recognizing that uncertainty exists. It will also extend the peer community involved in assessment to all stakeholders, as the only way to arrive at decisions that are both scientifically sound and politically tenable.

An “issue-driven” science would, therefore, begin with a problem orientation that is non-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary, recognizing at the outset that it is fraught with uncertainties. This distinguishes it from curiosity-driven science, where the effort is to minimize uncertainties.

In this respect, the new paradigm is “post-normal,” to differentiate it from the scientific paradigm that is now considered “normal.” The characteristics of this new paradigm will include:

·         Pragmatism and plurality. Tools and conceptual frameworks will be appropriate to the solution of the problem, rather than being limited by the tools and conceptual frameworks of a particular discipline.

·         Acceptance of uncertainty as a given. It is acceptable to ask questions about the real world that at present we do not know how to answer.

·         A focus on data quality rather than data completeness.

·         Use of a systems approach that is comprehensive, holistic, global, long-term, and contextual.

·         Explicit concern for future generations, sustainability, and equity.

·         A concern for dynamics, non-equilibrium, heterogeneity, and discontinuity.

  • Expression of social points of view, as well as individualistic points of view.
  • Concern for the processes through which the behaviors of individuals and institutions change.

I would like to close with two observations. First, history teaches us that we should expect the unexpected. We should, therefore, study history as part of the knowledge base for sustainability, as a constant reminder of humans’ incapacity to manage the planet.

Second, knowledge is obviously better than ignorance. But wisdom is even better. We should proceed with caution and humility, and try to avoid doing something that cannot be undone.

Notes:  The preceding is a chapter from T. Trzyna, ed. A Sustainable World: Defining and Measuring Sustainable Development. Sacramento and London: California Institute of Public Affairs and Earthscan for IUCN, 1995. Copyright © 1995, IUCN – The World Conservation Union.


  • Brooks, H. 1992. The concepts of sustainable development and environmentally sound technology. ATAS Bulletin 1(7): 1924.
  • Ehrenfeld, D. 1989. Forgetting. Orion.
  • Finger, M. 1993. When knowledge is inaction: Exploring the relationships between environmental experience, learning, and behavior. Paper available from author [as of 6/2006 at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland,].
  • Funtowicz, S., and J. Ravetz. 1991. A new scientific methodology for global environmental issues. In Ecological economics: The science and management of sustainability, ed. R. Costanza. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Hayden, G. 1991. Institutional policy making. In Ecological economics: The science and management of sustainability, ed. R. Costanza. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Mazrui, A. 1975. The African university as a multinational corporation. Harvard Educational Review 45(2): 191210.
  • Orr, D. 1991. Conservation Biology.
  • Ravetz, J. 1986. Useable knowledge, useable ignorance: Incomplete science with policy. In Sustainable development of the biosphere, ed. W. E. Clark and R. E. Munn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Viederman, S. 1993. The economics and economy of sustainability: Five capitals and three pillars. Talk delivered to Delaware Estuary Program. Available from Noyes Foundation, New York.
  • White, R. 1993. Regulations shouldn’t be relics. Technology Review 96(4): 66.






Sustainability? Corporate Citizenship? Lots Going on at Metlife Stadium – Site of Sunday’s Super Vowl

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

Lots Going on at Met Life Stadium Last Sunday — Yes, Seahawks and Broncos on the Field – But Hear What the Stadium Managers Were Doing as “Corporate Stewards”

We could call this Walking the Talk – putting good intentions into action to be an outstanding corporate steward of the environment.

MetLife Stadium, Meadowlands, New Jersey: venue for Super Bowl XLVIII and now more familiar to the millions of people who watched the game on TV. The stadium managers lay claim to being a “Leading Venue in Carbon, Energy, Water and Solid Waste Reduction.”

This is home for the New York Football Giants and the New York Jets. (Yes, it’s really located in New Jersey, but hey, New Yorkers can also claim to the teams, as well as the proud New Jersayans! Besides, you can see the place from up top in NYC skyscrapers.)

The stadium replaced an existing facility a few years ago. In June 2009 the stadium signed an agreement with US Environmental Protection Agency pledging to become an “environmental steward” by implementing green initiatives to reduce the venue’s carbon footprint. And, help to improve the planet’s environment.

The stadium opened April 2010. MetLife Stadium released its first environmental progress report in July 2011 — and the latest in 2013, documenting reduction of 234,834 MTCO2e (metric ton carbon dioxide equivalents).

Goals were set in an MOU with EPA:

• Using 40,000 tons of recycled steel to build the stadium; recycling 20,000 tons of steel and 30,000 tons of concrete when the old stadium came down.

• Construction waste was recycled (83%); some was used as backfill, some as sub-base for nearby roadway projects in New Jersey.

• Seating for those rooting Super Bowl fanatics? Partially made from recycled plastic and scrap iron. The stadium itself is a huge recycle — it was built on a former Brownfield.

• Throughout, designing in ways to reduce water and energy consumption. was a priority.

• Mass transit was used to move large numbers of fans to football games – -especially including the Super Bowl (NJ Transit trains were packed to and from Manhattan – a good sign, even if temporarily uncomfortable for fans with prices tickets anxious to get to the game and then home again.)

According to The New York Times today, here were 85,000 fans on hand plus 10,000 or so support staff, contractors, and others making it all happen. At the urging of public agencies and the stadium, leading up to the game, ticket holders were encouraged to ride the rails — 28,000 were reported using NJ Transit (the railroad), which can handle 12,000 per hour an the route.) Oh well, it did prove the concept of using public transportation vs. gas-guzzling private auto. (There was also bus service, so many, many cars were kept off the roads — making it more of a green, low carbon event.)

And what about the food? We learned on NPR yesterday that Americans spend more than US$1 billion on snacks and food and goodies while they take in the Super Bowl at home, in sports bars, at parties. Much of the waste goes out for garbage, and on to landfills.

So what happened on site with the tons of food consumed at the Super Bowl?

Well….the stadium reports that much of the waste is right now being composted and recycled! “Super Bowl Dining at MetLife Stadium Will Be the Greenest In History” proclaimed a news release on January 9th.

The communications team explained: With partner (foodservice) Delaware North Companies Sportservice, waste is to be converted to biodiesel fuel; all kitchen scraps are composted; leftover food is donated; cardboard, plastic, glass, aluminum, paper are recycled; no polystyrene containers were used; and ENERGY STAR equipment was used. (Note that at this huge facility, 200 on-site restaurants can feed up to 100,000 people a day.)

For its efforts, MetLife Stadium won the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) “Green Restaurant” certification — the first stadium to do so.

A shout out to the managers at this great facility. It was a great game, with lots of excitement provided by the Seahawks and Broncos. With Wonderful security provided by New Jersey and New York police units, Homeland Security, FBI and who knows who else. (The NJ Air National Guard was even overhead in fighter aircraft.) People felt “safe,” and that was important to the fan experience.

And this is great corporate stewardship being exhibited by the MetLife Stadium folks. We should mention prominent “partners” at the stadium – Bud Light, Pepsi, Verizon, MetLife Insurance (and its MetLife Central program) — all did their part.

Imagine if the dozens of other stadia owners around the nation followed the MetLife Stadium corporate stewardship example. Especially as the wealthy owners of teams regularly appeal to the public sector for financial support in building these massive and very expensive new venues.  Sort of, let’s give back as good corporate citizens, we could say! (After all, professional sports teams, like those in the very financially-successful NFL, are big business.)

You can learn more at:



Welcome, Janet Yellen to the Fed Chair – We Have Questions

Questions for Chairs Greenspan, Bernanke, Yellen:
–What has the Federal Reserve Learned?

by Larry Checco – Principal, Checco Communications

At his last public appearance before leaving office, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said: “We hope that as the economy improves, and as we tell our story…people will appreciate and understand what we did was necessary and in the interest of the broader public.”

Given that Wall Street is once again back on its feet and enormously profitable while millions of Americans remain unemployed, many having experienced near or total financial ruin from which they may never recover, Chairman Bernanke’s statement is arguable, at best.

Chairman Bernanke made his remarks as the keynote speaker, along with a bevy of high-ranking Federal Reservists and Fed watchers, all of whom were on hand to help launch the Brookings Institution’s Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy.

The event covered in highbrow fashion the yins and yangs of Chairman Bernanke’s unprecedented monetary daring-dos, including overseeing the big bank bailouts, taking short-term interest rates down to zero, purchasing more than a trillion dollars worth of government bonds and mortgage-backed securities, lending money to foreign central banks, and more.

Some speakers even looked to the future and brushed on the options that the Fed has for tapering, or reducing quantitative easing.

The one topic, however, that was not broached….

What could the Fed have done to prevent the Great Recession in the first place, and has it learned any lessons?

Prior to the collapse of the housing bubble, home prices in some regions were rising 10, 15, 20 percent and more annually. This, at a time when average annual wages had remained flat for a decade — or more.

People—both the greedy and unsuspecting—were encouraged to buy homes, or use the equity in their current homes as ATM machines, through usually-deceptive subprime mortgage products. Many of these loans required little or no money down — nor the need for borrowers to disclose their incomes or other information that would fall under the rubric of responsible underwriting practices.

Then there was the incidental detail that most of these loans would reset to rates many borrowers could not afford, resulting in millions of home foreclosures.

Red flags abounded.

Yet the Fed, with its hundreds of highly-educated economists, many with Ph.D.s after their names, and under the direction of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, a true believer in minimal regulation and the invisible hand of the marketplace, did not, evidently could not or would not see this train wreck coming.

Instead, at a Congressional hearing in October 2008, Chairman Greenspan explained that the Federal Reserve was “…as good an economic organization as exists. If all those extraordinarily capable people were unable to foresee the development of this critical problem…we have to ask ourselves: Why is that?”

Chairman Greenspan answered his own question by saying “…that we’re not smart enough as people. We just can’t see events that far in advance.”


A more plausible response would have been the Fed had abandoned all common sense for the ideological position that free markets take care of themselves, or as Chairman Greenspan inimitably stated before Congress “…that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in their firms.”

Well, we all know now how that presumption ended! For most of us.

But perhaps the most logical explanation is that way too many people were making way too much money that was sloshing around —fees and bonuses for home appraisers, mortgage brokers, bundlers of collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs) right on up to Wall Street investors who couldn’t get enough of what turned out to be terribly flawed investment vehicles.

And no one, including Chairman Greenspan or anyone else in the Federal Reserve system, had the cajones to break the expanding chain of greed.

During his tenure, Chairman Bernanke performed a yeoman’s task in keeping us from an economic depression. But now his time is over.

It’s encouraging that the newly-installed Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen turns out to have been an early critic of what was then — in the early 2000s — a fledgling bubble in subprime lending. Unfortunately, few paid heed. We can’t afford to let that happen again.

If there is one common sense lesson many of us hope the Federal Reserve has learned from this latest economic fiasco is that when billions of dollars in potential profits are cast upon the financial waters our better angels do not descend from on high to help divvy it up. Rather, the sharks do ascend from the shadowy depths to engage in a feeding frenzy, oblivious to how many smaller, innocent fish are devoured in the process.

In short, should you read this commentary, Ms. Yellen, I hope you will agree that greed is NOT good, and common sense trumps whatever ideologies or economic models the Federal Reserve System may harbor.

BTW, a bit more regulation and oversight over the sharks wouldn’t hurt. They have proven time and again that they cannot control their bloodlust instincts.


Guest commentary by Larry Checco / Checco Communications

Larry Checco
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