A new report from the National Research Council points out that the “U.S. should establish a National Sustainability Policy and take additional steps to encourage federal agencies to collaborate on sustainability challenges that demand the expertise of many agencies, such as improving disaster resilience and managing ecosystems.”
The inherent problem preventing this is the way the government is structured:
Statutes and government culture encourage agencies to focus on a single area – energy, water or health, for example – with little attention to how areas affect one another. This “stovepipe” or “silo” effect makes it difficult to address issues that cut across agency boundaries.
The report offers a decision making framework that can be applied to sustainability-related projects and programs and identifies four challenges of national importance that should be top priorities:
• Connections among energy, food and water. Producing and using energy often consumes water and can also impact water quality, air quality, land use and the agricultural sector. For example, intensive production of corn for ethanol requires water for irrigation, and chemical fertilizers that are heavily applied to corn run off into rivers and become a major source of pollution. • Diverse and healthy ecosystems. Ecosystems, which are affected by the actions of many agencies, provide services to human communities – such as water supplies, coastal storm buffers, productive fisheries and pollination of food crops. • Resilience of communities to natural disasters and other extreme events. Improving the sustainability of communities means identifying their vulnerabilities and enhancing their resilience to catastrophic events – such as earthquakes or terrorist attacks – as well as to more gradual processes, such as climate change. • Human health and well-being. Sustainability efforts may affect human health and well-being in complex, crosscutting ways. For example, agricultural practices affect the nutritional content and contaminant levels in food, as well as food’s availability and price, and land use and transportation decisions affect levels of physical activity, which in turn affect the risk for cardiovascular disease, many cancers and other conditions.