A “sustainable society,” according to one definition, is one that can persist over generations; one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social system of support.
As national governments work to ensure sufficient fresh water, food, energy, housing, health, and education for their nation while trying to maintain its resources for future generations, they discover that they are not well organized to address the crosscutting nature of sustainability issues. Complex challenges such as managing ecosystems or improving disaster resilience, for example, do not fit neatly into a single national agency’s mandate or a single area of expertise. Governing for sustainability will require building “linkages” among national, state, and local governments; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and the private sector.
Considering Connections, Building Linkages
The legendary ecologist John Muir wrote in 1911 that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” His perceptive statement applies to water, land, wildlife, and other aspects of the natural world, as well as to the interactions that link humans and nature. Many decades later, it is obvious that the statement is also relevant to how a country like Belize governs its resources. Governing for sustainability requires:
- Considering connections across resource areas. For example, managing water resources sustainably means considering not just water quality and quantity but also water’s connections to other domains. Water is connected to agriculture because it is used for irrigation and because agricultural runoff affects water quality. Water is connected to energy because managing water requires energy, and because water can be used to produce energy through hydropower. Water quality and availability affects human health, as well as recreation, fisheries, and animal habitats.
- Fostering linkages across agencies and other organizations. Governance by its traditional nature — and often by law — is compartmentalized, but focusing on a single element in an interconnected system is a path to less-than-optimal results. By acknowledging the linkages across societal and governance institutions, agencies can bring the right complement of people to the table for sustainability-related decision making. Thus, managing water resources would require effective linkages among dozens of national, state, local, and sometimes international institutions and organizations.
When coping with complex sustainability issues, government agencies are likely to achieve better results if they manage connections and promote governance linkages. This becomes a real challenge when key resource domains, including water, land, energy, and nonrenewable resources are linked with areas that require these resources such as industry, agriculture, nature, and domestic needs. A near-complete connection exists among all of these domains. Nevertheless, scientists and decision makers typically specialize in one resource domain or one group of resource users and are relatively unaware of the constraints that may exist because of their area’s connections with others.
While it may be challenging to address connections across natural resource domains and groups of resource users, successful governance requires overcoming these challenges. Ignoring connections and neglecting linkages raises the risk that policy actions will be ineffective or lead to unintended consequences.
Priority Issues for Building Sustainability Linkages
What sustainability issues are the most important ones for Belize to address? There are many that can be consider, but for discussion purposes the following four are suggested that involve connections among many social and natural resource areas. These challenges cannot be effectively addressed by a single agency acting alone. Rather, managing them sustainably will require creating linkages to enable greater interagency cooperation.
Connections among energy, food, and water. The availability and abundance of affordable supplies of energy, food, and water are vital to sustaining healthy populations and economic prosperity. Producing and using energy often involves consuming water and can also impact water quality, air quality, and land use. For example, intensive production of sugar both requires water for irrigation and affects water quality; chemical fertilizers that are heavily applied to crops run off into streams and rivers and become a major source of pollution. Some fossil fuel production and renewable energy sources also require water for production, processing, cooling, and other purposes.
Diverse and healthy ecosystems. Ecosystems provide services to human communities — such as water supplies, coastal storm buffers, productive fisheries, and pollination. While not well quantified, the economic value of such services represents a significant contribution to the nation’s economic health. The actions of many agencies affect these ecosystems, and managing ecosystems to sustain their benefits and long-term health often requires working at large scales.
Enhancing the resilience of communities to extreme events. Improving the sustainability of communities means identifying their vulnerabilities and enhancing their resilience in the face of both catastrophic events — such as severe weather, earthquakes, or terrorist attacks — and more gradual processes, such as climate change. For example, climate effects such as sea level rise and storm surge can result in coastal flooding, which in turn affects transportation, communications, water supplies, and energy services. Currently, the nation’s capacity to manage such interdependencies remains limited. More-coordinated strategies are needed to address vulnerabilities in infrastructure and promote resilience in communities.
Human health and well-being. Sustainability efforts may affect human health and well-being in complex, crosscutting ways. For example, agricultural practices influence the nutritional content and contaminant levels in food, as well as its availability and price. Land use and transportation decisions affect levels of physical activity, which in turn influence the risk of cardiovascular disease, many cancers, and other conditions. Environmental policies affect the probability of exposure to toxic chemicals, contaminated air and water, and hazardous waste. These multiple connections suggest that linkages among many government entities and nongovernment players are needed to achieve sustainability policies that promote human health and well-being.
Agencies need not await structural overhauls to strengthen their capacity to address sustainability issues. They can begin by preparing a high-level systems map that illustrates key connections and linkages, which can then be deployed widely across national agencies to encourage policy coordination for any sustainability-related program or project. Among other things, agencies should develop personnel performance measures that emphasize collaboration and the design and implementation of interagency, integrated approaches to addressing sustainability issues. They should nurture “change agents” both in the field and at regional and national offices, an effort that may include revisions to managers’ performance plans, rewards, and training, as well as better alignment of policy tools to support collaboration. Agencies should also enable cross-agency management and funding of linked sustainability activities.