What is “sustainability”?

To the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, it means addressing a wide-ranging set of challenges so we can protect this blue marble of life in the black void of space.

The organization measures obvious aims, such as action on climate change, responsible consumption, transit, protection of life on land and sea, and clean energy. And it watches the not-so-obvious, including poverty and hunger, gender equity and quality education. The goals are intended “to achieve economic prosperity, flourishing people and a healthy planet.”

The organization recently released a report card on how 105 U.S. cities and metros are doing to meet the U.N.’s 2030 sustainability goals. The short answer: Not great.

San Francisco was tops, with a score of nearly 70 out of 100. Baton Rouge, La., was at the bottom, scoring 30. The average score nationally was 48.9. The report was compiled by using 57 indicators. Not surprisingly, European cities outperform their American counterparts.

Seattle, you ask? Not too bad.

The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area scored 66, fourth highest. Close behind, at No. 6, was Portland, scoring 65.6.

We should expect no less, given the urban Pacific Northwest’s history of seeking environmental protection and social justice — at least compared with much of America. Maybe we should seek much more.


Reality for the planet’s future doesn’t grade on a curve, so 66 is around a B-minus/C-plus. Those grades aren’t going to meet the admittedly ambitious U.N. goals.

To be fair, democracy is messy, molasses-like process isn’t limited to Seattle, and impediments are many. But if cities don’t lead advances, who will?

According to Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, “this year’s report highlights the many urgent challenges facing America’s cities … These indicators should provide flashing red lights to communities around the US to take actions at the local level to promote the (goals), and to advocate for sustainable development policies at the federal and state level as well.”

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To millions of Americans, sustainability is a meaningless buzzword at best, and pernicious shorthand for leftist totalitarianism at worst.

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., encapsulated it nicely (though wrongly) when she claimed that Democrats “want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.”

Even beyond the fever swamp of the Tea Partyers, many people likely see the broad agenda of the U.N. and the left in general as hurting them in a zero-sum game. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord was popular with this cohort.


Yet according to a Pew Research Center poll, a majority of respondents said environmental protection and addressing climate change should be “top priorities for the president and Congress.” It marks a significant rise in support compared with a decade ago.

A 2018 Pew poll showed 89% of adult respondents favored more solar panels and 85% more wind-turbine farms. Only 39% wanted more offshore oil drilling or fracking. Even fewer wanted coal.

Yet, maddeningly, the same survey found that only 49% said that policies to reduce the effects of climate change would do more good than harm for the environment. Only 30 percent said they would help the economy.

The results were at least partly skewed by vehement opposition by most Republicans. Also, other studies have shown that some minorities prioritize economic advancement ahead of environmental protection, although such findings are nuanced and not monolithic.

Still, most Americans can’t understand how much climate change is going to cost, how the cost will keep rising, and how measures to reduce greenhouse gases could be an economic boon.

Getting there will require a president with Reaganesque communication skills — aimed at the climate emergency — and commanding majorities in both houses of Congress. And without American leadership, the world won’t make the progress it must.

Meanwhile, cities can do only so much, especially when the president and Senate are foursquare opposed to constructive measures.

Beyond report cards and polls, sustainability is recognizing that decades of “advances,” habits, hustles and quick-buck schemes are driving us off a cliff. The bill is coming due with climate change and we will continue to be dunned, rougher each year. (And it’s all magnified by a world population of 7.5 billion).

Speeding up Sound Transit light rail would face enormous barriers. (Los Angeles is trying harder than Seattle). But when interstate highways and other freeways destroyed city neighborhoods and small towns, enabling the “American dream” of suburbia, opposition was bulldozed. The cost in lost valuable farmland and inefficiencies from “thinning out” population are only now being more widely recognized.

Amtrak fights for its life every fiscal year and its network is mostly a thin shadow of the American passenger train system that existed as recently as the 1960s. For years, the federal government subsidized highways and airports while railroads faced ruinous regulation and taxes. No wonder what was once the best passenger-train system in the world nearly collapsed.

Today the United States is the only urbanized advanced nation in the world without high-speed rail, something that would be of enormous help in reducing transportation’s huge share of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, like transit, it runs into wide opposition.

Some of this situation is a result of custom, of course. Many Americans can’t imagine life without their single-occupancy car travel. Fine, but they should pay the real cost of such behavior and have options with quality transit.

Other opposition is self-serving and cynical. For example, the Koch brothers aren’t content to fund lawmakers who will advance their fossil-fuel interests. They are spending heavily to kill public transit projects around the country. The Supreme Court’s rulings that allow unlimited big money into politics perpetuate this shameful act.

Given such opposition, maybe the idea of sustainability itself is unsustainable. It will take more disasters, droughts, wars, mass migrations and other climate-driven events to make enough Americans see that such cynicism is an illusion.