“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” - Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Aquinas College

Government & Sustainability


The 12-story Chicago City Hall building retrofitted with a green roof
Photo courtesy of Katrin Scholz-Barth (NREL PIX number 13397)

The role of government in the movement of sustainability is difficult to define and will probably be debated for a long time. Great strides have been made in environmental and consumer protection; after all, government throughout the twentieth century has been gradually minimizing pollution imposed by industry. For instance, water quality in the Great Lakes basin has improved and air pollution in some urban areas has been reduced via government regulations. However, air and water quality in general are still declining. We can see the effects of contamination in the eyes of every child that is diagnosed with cancer and the center of every town that has experienced economic disaster due to habitat loss. Regulation just isn't sufficient at our current rate of destruction, contamination and consumption.

Ultimately, regulation is a signal of design failure, while sustainability seeks innovative and effective design. "End of pipe" solutions employed today often discourage creative problem solving. What if government incentivized innovative, efficient and environmentally effective design? What if government became the carrot rather than the stick. Instead of industry doing as little as possible to meet emission standards (via a government prescribed "license to harm", (McDonough and Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, 61) we could begin to see eco-effective products gaining the competitive edge on the market rather than outsourced, unregulated products.

If the government is to play a positive role in sustainability, it needs to become the carrot. As citizens, we can support sustainable government initiatives and legislation and we can choose to put our dollars toward companies that are currently going above and beyond the regulatory framework. Such companies that are making innovative strides not just to be less bad, but to be good. It is going to take a lot of steam to turn this ship around but it can be done and it must be done. Regulating bodies can no longer continue considering reduction and minimization of air emissions, soil and water contamination to be a viable strategy. "Reduction does not halt depletion and destruction--it only slows them down, allowing them to take place in smaller increments over a longer period of time" (Cradle to Cradle, 54).


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Header photo by Carol Y. Swinehart, courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant Extension
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