A New Strategy for American Sustainability

The New Grand Strategy / St. Martin’s Press

Back in 2009, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael McMullen tasked his staff to create a “grand strategy” for the United States. That job fell to Navy Captain Wayne Porter and now-retired Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, who later turned the results from the multi-year research study into a book: The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit at Serenbe, an agricultural community near Atlanta, Mykleby asserted that the United States is now deeply embedded in an “unsustainable global system” that makes it susceptible to shocks, particularly from climate change. In addition, we are stuck with a “20th century economic engine.” The way forward to future sustainability is found in walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and greater resource productivity. “We need to rebuild our own strength and credibility by setting a new example.”

Mykleby — who was described by Serenbe founder Steven Nygren as a “gentle giant with a big heart who can kill you with two fingers” — outlined in drill sergeant mode all the things that make our current global system unsustainable:

First, there is the rapid inclusion of many new consumers around the world. As the planet heads towards 9 billion people, we can expect to see a middle class of around 3 billion people. If they are consuming as Americans and western Europeans do now, we will need 4.5 Earths to maintain them. Second, climate change and increasing ecosystem degradation will reduce our access to resources and increase our vulnerabilities. And, lastly, there is a growing “infrastructure resilience deficit” — infrastructure worldwide isn’t set up to accommodate the anticipated population growth or coming nature-driven shocks.

(Mykleby also argued that using gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of progress is really enabling all this unsustainable global growth and needs to be replaced with a gross national happiness metric, like Bhutan’s. We’ve discovered in the United States that “more shit isn’t going to make us happier.”)

In addition to being embedded in an unsustainable global system, the U.S. is also stuck with an “obsolete 20th century economic engine,” defined by suburban sprawl, consumer spending, high-input agriculture, massive federal subsidies, and quarterly reporting and capital gains taxes. This engine is “extremely fragile.” Agricultural in particular is in a “perilous place,” given climate change. On top of all this, we have “political dysfunction.”

Walkable communities help rebuild American strength by increasing social ties, particularly inter-generational ones. As baby boomers downsize and want to age in place, they seek connections to others. Millennials can’t afford cars or don’t want them, so they are also want more walkable places. In fact, research shows “some 60 percent of the country seeks communities with the attributes of smart growth.” But given the market hasn’t met demand, people are still paying a premium to live in these places.

Food production will need to increase 60-70 percent in coming decades to meet the demand from a growing population, just as climate change accelerates and ecosystems are further degraded. The only way to achieve this is “100 percent regenerative agriculture. We need to restore our top soils.” (Mykleby didn’t further define regenerative agriculture in his talk, but we are assuming it involves permaculture, introducing perennial grain plants, and other sustainable farming practices).

Lastly, according to The Atlantic, some 70 percent of Indian cities have yet to be built. A similar number can be found for many developing world cities. And all our developed-world urban communities are in a continuous process of being rebuilt. As the global population heads toward 9 billion and concrete production already accounts for 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, we need “more advanced, resource-efficient, recycled building materials.”

If the U.S. “can get its ass in gear,” focusing on building walkable communities, sustainable agriculture, and new housing materials will lead to a resurgence in jobs in the manufacturing, agriculture, construction, transportation sectors, and create the “economy of the future.” Mykleby also called for changing from a model of rampant material consumerism to an economy in which “we consume positive, meaningful experiences.”

While the path to sustainability is clear to him, sadly, the U.S. is now “doubling-down on the old economy. We are walking away from climate change, increasing inequality, and leaving international institutions.” As the supporters of the old business model hang on tight, they are setting us up to fail.

If you are unconvinced the U.S. is falling behind, Mykleby urges you to read China’s latest five-year plan, which aims to set the country on a “sustainable path, address social equity problems, and increase participation in international institutions.”

3 thoughts on “A New Strategy for American Sustainability

  1. Terry Mock 04/20/2017 / 12:43 pm

    Good advice:

    “Back in 2009, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael McMullen tasked his staff to create a “grand strategy” for the United States…”

    Some previous advice:

    “In the summer of 1995… excerpts from that article, which provides a snap shot of a time… You be the judge of whether there has been movement toward more informed decisions about the future, toward a plan that I called at the time, “the coming restorative economy.

    … The existing world economic order is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and will not be capable of sustaining itself much longer by exploiting dwindling world supplies of natural resources and by deficit government spending.

    That is the bad news.

    Paradigm Shift

    The good news is that out of these huge problems will come the pressure to replace our old system with new political and business structures that will help provide for a sustainable global economy. The will to act is all that is missing, for the scientific knowledge to technologically operate our planet in a sustainable manner is now available to all via satellite-relayed, instant around-the-world information…” http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/building-bridge-new-global-culture/

  2. vienna777 04/20/2017 / 7:02 pm

    In fact, research shows “some 60 percent of the country seeks communities with the attributes of smart growth.” But given the market hasn’t met demand, people are still paying a premium to live in these places.
    Really? Another explanation is that smart growth has been a huge money maker for people who owned land and houses in such urban areas. But smart growth never considered the impacts of supply and demand. It was as exogenous as the cost of sprawl. Environmental gentrification is another name for it. Planners sometimes worry about policy failures but they rarely consider the effects of success on people who can’t afford their dream.

  3. wcsulliv 04/21/2017 / 6:21 am

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention, Jared. It’s a little jarring to read the blunt language and sense of urgency that retired Marine Colonel Mykleby brings to the discussion of sustainability and the design of the built environment. I’m looking forward to sharing this column of The Dirt with the students in my Environmental Sustainability class.
    Keep up the great work, Jared!

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