Daniel C. Esty: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future

Browse By

Amidst the deluge of tragic news stemming from the current coronavirus crisis, one slightly more encouraging narrative has been the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. However, unless emissions are reduced yet further, it is likely we will still miss the target of avoiding a one point five-degree Celsius temperature increase. Hence, humanity remains in its quandary: how can we stop climate change, a phenomenon which is now largely undisputed, before it renders us extinct?

Esty and his fifty-three collaborators try to answer this very question in this critically acclaimed book published only last year. The book is clear in its aim as it desires to ‘offer a sweeping set of new perspectives and innovative policy approaches that might help put the United States and the world beyond on a more sustainable trajectory’. It is largely successful in achieving this aim, as the reader leaves the book with comprehensive and broad knowledge of current problems, ranging from narrow communication strategies to ineffective international cooperation, and potential solutions, involving both individuals and governments.

Despite there being forty different essays, usually focusing on very separate aspects of the issue at hand, clear themes emerge as the book is read. One of the first themes to come through is the concept of ‘internalising externalities’. In other words, when it comes to measuring economic value, whether that be in consumer prices or macroeconomic measures, like GDP, then all factors, including environmental damage, must be considered. For instance, consumer prices are currently too cheap and do not reflect the long-term damage products are doing to the environment; likewise, as many, including Joseph Stiglitz, have argued, GDP is misleading as it does not give insight into how much ‘Natural Capital’ has been used to achieve an economic statistic. The coronavirus crisis has proven how important testing is because without it, it is impossible to know how to focus our medical response. Similarly, consumers and governments have to be aware of the true cost of products and economic growth; without this, we will not know how to marshal our resources to the greatest effect.

Whilst it is impossible to know the most effective manner in which to use resources without most specific measurements, many of the book’s writers do offer insight into initiatives, some of which are already in place, that could help in confronting climate change. Often, these initiatives are dependent on sectors, both public and private, collaborating. For instance, in his essay ‘Driving Systems Change Through Networks’, Bradford Gentry contends that governmental organisations, such as the EPA, should try and coordinate grass roots movements which might involve individuals, corporations, or both and more. Doing this, Gentry suggests, will alleviate some of the pressure currently on underfunded government organisations as well as increasing community and corporate engagement, which will inevitably be needed as the problem of climate change intensifies.

However, this book does not limit its scope to different sectors, but also different people groups. Ultimately, climate change is an issue that will affect all of us, although it will affect poorer demographics to a greater degree. An important means to combat this inexorable inequality is by improving communication. In his essay ‘Hip-Hop Sustainability’, Thomas RaShad Easley highlights how the discourse surrounding climate change is largely white and middle class, which, whilst good for some, is not engaging for others. In order to try and break down these barriers, Easley started producing hip-hop inspired by climate change, increasing the number of people who engage with this imminent issue. Further to this, groups who lack the means to defend themselves against powerful conglomerates should have their rights more clearly enshrined in laws. For instance, including the right to having a safe environment to inhabit in state constitutions has had very positive impacts by ensuring those already worse off in will not face environmental inequality.

Beyond all these very sensible arguments put forward in this book, perhaps the most important is the acknowledgement that climate change activists cannot be completely dismissive of economic realities and businesspeople completely dismissive of environmental realities. It can often feel that the environmental discourse is trapped between those, such as Greta Thunberg, arguing that economic growth must be sacrificed for the environment and others, like Trump, who refuse to consider climate change an issue. However, as Tim Harford recently argued in our rival publication, The Financial Times, a mutually beneficial middle-way between the two viewpoints is possible. My favourite essay is written by Todd Cort and emphasises how socially conscious companies, who care for employees as well as the environment, are often rewarded on the stock market and in the long-term. Therefore, this book is effective in relieving its reader of the idea that environmental responsibility and economic wellbeing are mutually incompatible, hence deconstructing perhaps the greatest barrier to effective climate action.

In reality, there is very little to critique about this impeccably written book. At points, it can perhaps feel a little long and some ideas overly abstract or ambitious, but this book is not designed to be an enjoyable read; rather, it wants to provide the reader with a vision of what society’s reaction to climate change could, and likely should, look like and it certainly achieves this.

Rating: 4.5/5