12 Ideas for Sustainable Jersey’s “Next 10 Years”


This past Tuesday, Sustainable Jersey (SJ) held a “Listening Session” in Maplewood, the first of three they will be holding around the state. SJ is a non-profit, residing within The College of New Jersey. They set criteria for, and certify, municipalities at three increasingly challenging levels of sustainability. This is on the occasion of their 10th Anniversary, to provide direction for their “The Next 10 Years.” They emphasized they “will listen,” are “open to ideas,” and “willing to change.” Their Executive Director, Randy Solomon, added: “The next 10 years will be crucial,” with which I (as well as famous marine biologist Sylvia Earle) agree.

They received many ideas two nights ago from members of the audience, but I thought I would add 12 of my own.

This comes from a long-time Sustainability Change-Agent and “friendly critic” of the Program; who co-chaired one town’s Green Team (the first and most basic requirement for a town pursuing certification) in Union County, whose application was successfully certified, and advised two more in Warren County, one of which, after building internal support for two years, just applied last week-end for the first time; catalyzed, was on a committee, and demonstrated the Program’s “Green Business” Activity; sent ideas to staffers developing new Activities, such as Agriculture and the Gold Star Standard Certification; defended the Program publicly to attacks from less-friendly critics; advocated (successfully) for the Executive Director to receive an “Excellence Award,” was once named a SJ “Hero of the Month;” discussed SJ in some of the college courses taught; and attended many SJ forums over the years, and presented at one, always with something out-of-the-box to say.

This most likely will be my final input to, and efforts concerning, SJ.

I had previously commented, publicly, on how much this Program exceeded my initial modest expectations based on how they originally sought to approach sustainability. Never did I foresee that a majority of towns in the state would seek or get certification. I now note the emergence of an expressed urgency as a part of the context in which sustainability is discussed at SJ forums. This wasn’t there during the early years, which bothered me as it is an essential tenet of the field of sustainability. The same for the recognition of climate change. It’s also now present. Similarly, they clarified that those municipalities successfully receiving “Bronze,” or the basic level, certification does not mean they are sustainable, whereas the emergence of the “Gold Star Standard” a few years ago is the way for them to actually, if very approximately, approach that level.

I must note some limitations of what I suggest as I have been nearly totally out of touch with the Program in the past two years. It is possible some of what I propose below has already been considered. The same is true for their “Schools” initiative as I have not followed that at all.

(However, years ago, in my “Parent” hat, the then-Superintendent of Schools in my then-town set up an “Education” Committee with teachers to accommodate me. Later, when that town’s in-process certification efforts were falling short of the required point level, that Education Committee joined the Green Team, adding the schools-based based activities they had been doing. The combined result was sufficient. That Superintendent is now the head of the New Jersey School Boards Association, an active partner to SJ. Also, I’ve taught 28 sustainability college courses.)

How SJ could do the below is not addressed. It is understood that SJ cannot do all of these things. While some of these may be out of their current comfort zone, hopefully SJ can do some. The needs are there, for the most part no one else is doing them, and real innovation can be conceived and attempted.

(Speaking of innovation—and what couldn’t have been imagined even the day before, I note the announcement on Monday of Governor Murphy’s new policy that the State will stop using or working with financial institutions and retailers who do not step up to support gun control. Here is my separate comment on that. If such an innovation is possible there, why not what currently can’t be imagined at the municipal level?)

Here are the 12 ideas for SJ’s consideration, as well as those who work with them.

The 12 Ideas

  1. Sustainability needs to be mainstreamed in New Jersey. While it was nice that CivicStory was at the “Listening Session,” and, in accordance with their new reporting initiative, there will probably be a story, sustainability needs to be in the media all the time! SJ could write or facilitate op-eds on how a sustainability lens effects the issues of the day, including non-environmental ones. Approaches to sustainability need to be discussed at all levels of government, by citizens, environmental and social welfare non-profits, businesses, and others. It can no longer be a niche of which relatively few are aware. (In Europe, where I’ve been spending at least a week each of the last three years, everyone I speak to has heard of it. Not so in New Jersey.)

  2. The Gold Star Standard Certification should be expanded and promoted. It should be clear that over the next 10 years that “Gold” is really the goal for municipalities.

  3. Global Connectedness. Sustainable development, as well as environmentalism, in their early days emphasized the theme of interconnectedness, including between parts of the world. Potentially, this could be between municipalities in New Jersey and countries, or cities in them. Whether we’re sensitive to it, or not, we touch them both in good and bad ways, and vice-versa. In a way, the emphasis on municipalities in New Jersey in the past 10 years has employed a useful fiction of, in contrast, independence. However, if we can help them, and/or learn from them (e.g. the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it levels of bicycling in some European cities; the German experience, both good and bad, with electricity sector restructuring to seek unprecedented levels of renewable power, with which Governor Murphy might be familiar from his time as U.S. Ambassador there), then why not seek those ties? This contrarian perspective actually has precedents. SJ already has, among other things, visited certain other parts of the world and worked with schools there, and sponsored international visitors here. Very recently, the movie, “Blinded by the Light,” came out about a Pakistani youth who was inspired by Bruce Springsteen lyrics to stretch his life goals. I once worked out a mechanism with SJ by which municipalities could develop, and get points for, an international connection through the existing “Innovation” Activity. But this needs to be much better promoted and municipalities’ mindsets expanded to consider it. (It can be a stretch! Still, see here for the first page of an article with several more examples of local: global ties, now called “glocal.” See the author for the rest of it as it got “de-Interneted” somehow. Here’s a more recent example of local: global connection.)

  4. Soften the required Municipal Government condition for activities occurring in the town to be eligible for points. Find a creative way, if necessary, to maintain an association between those doing something innovative within the town that isn’t technically a government or public school initiative and those affiliated with local government. Or, even more flexibly, just allow anything sustainable happening within that town to qualify for an Activity even if there is no real municipal government connection at all. For instance, something a business, non-profit, church, private school, citizen, or university located in the town is doing.

  5. While less formal, re-look at cultural factors. Loosen or eliminate the sense that activities cannot be undertaken or considered because municipal officials “do not have control” over them, such as pollution from a highway running through the town. In an importance sense, invoking the complex systems context, which is often overlooked but within which much of society actually functions, “control” can be an illusion anyway. Even when you think you have it, surprises often occur, quite possibly beyond anyone’s ability to foresee (not that they shouldn’t try). Also, attempts can still be made to influence or encourage what clearly can’t be “controlled.” Finally, the risk-inhibiting onus of a “failure” can be re-conceived as a step along the way to a better outcome, as long as it was a worthy and well-conceived project and a “lessons learned” approach taken towards it. Another town could then pick up on that “failed” attempt, benefit from knowing precisely what didn’t work, and add a different strategy, perhaps leading to more success.

  6. Pay more attention to Conservative areas of the state. They may need special attention, including regional Hub creation where there isn’t yet sufficient enough obvious interest. Relatedly, seek to re-engage Frelinghuysen, which dropped out of SJ some years ago when approached by The Tea Party. They promised when they dropped out that they would one day re-consider.

  7. Follow, more actively take from, explicitly invoke, and contribute to the field of sustainability. Participate and bring back to SJ participants current topics and ideas, and thought on them, such as Sustainable Transformation and Transitions; proposals to replace or go beyond sustainability, such as “Regeneration,” “Thrivability,” “Flourishing;” the UNSDGs; systems thinking; cutting edge Corporate Social Responsibility; the “despair” theme now getting a lot of attention, as well as how it will hopefully be addressed; complexity.

  8. The subject of “Benefits” and, relatedly, “Motivation” often come up at SJ events. The usual and compelling answer are grants. Getting certified increases the size and availability of them. Sometimes a secondary reason like “bragging rights” comes up. At my table someone mentioned: a way to “Uplift the community,” the first time I’d heard that. It is time, though, to take advantage of the emergence of what was seen at the forum: that greater sense of felt urgency. Expand what is seen as a “Benefit” to having the opportunity to participate in opening up and expanding a whole new, relatively untapped front—the local level–to help address the challenges of our time.

  9. Clarify what is unique about sustainability. What is its relationship to environmentalism? Where, in practice, are they basically the same thing, and where are they different? If some are confusing the two, using them too synonymously, quietly point this out to them. What is special about sustainability? What are some of its relevant properties and how can SJ ensure these are part of its thinking, operations, and communications? For example, are at least some SJ Board members from the academic sustainability community and are they specifically tasked with bringing in this dimension? Can a stakeholder participation process—such as this one—attain a standard of co-decision-making between participant and SJ manager/staffer on what gets incorporated and what doesn’t? Are failures acknowledged and learned from? Are what is not known about sustainability part of the discussion?

  10. Extend SJ Manager/Staff participation in others’ sustainability activities. Be more involved, particularly at academic conferences in the State. Seek to help others’ sustainability initiatives using the SJ network, fundraising and other capacities, and brand. Help distribute others’ sustainability articles and reports.

  11. Education in its largest sense should be seen as vital to the pursuit of sustainability. While it might already seem that it is, too often the word is used in almost a (not necessarily intended) superficial way. Often heard is: “We have to educate the public about (say) recycling.” It actually needs to go much deeper than that. Related to some of the above, some of the special qualities of sustainability (and learning) need to be part of the process. These include: systems thinking (including when it is cited but not actually done, as well as when its apparent opposite, reductionism, is still legitimate); critical thinking; lifelong and perpetual learning and curiosity; real interdisciplinary thinking; double-loop and triple-loop learning; co-learning; the distinctions between knowing what we don’t know, not knowing what we don’t know, thinking we know but are actually wrong; humility; complexity and when you need to go there; social entrepreneurship; opportunism; creativity and real innovation; personal resiliency, as participating in sustainability activities can come with a few “hits;” and truly working sustainability into every job category. The focus sometimes seen on “Projects” and “Activities,” while perhaps more tangible, practical, and measurable than alternatives, risks losing some of these. Finally, while the frequent focus on “The Young” is important, don’t forget about the “Oldsters.” We may have a few tricks to pass on and might stand to still learn a few more.

  12. Some other vital SJ projects and efforts beyond municipal certification in New Jersey can be overlooked in a “Listening” context when the latter is the focus. These include Sustainability Goals for the State and tracking of metrics showing progress, or not, towards reaching them; very graphic mapping of projected sea level rise in vulnerable areas around the state; helping other states adopt their own municipal certification programs; and perhaps others. Most likely these also would benefit from a re-look to help guide the next 10 years. Consider a mini-Listening Session for them, too.

Hopefully, these ideas will hold SJ for most of the 10 years until the next “Friendly Critic” comes along.

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