Sustainability is about improving the odds of continued existence under preferred conditions. Preferred conditions can entail many things. Nineteenth century writer Henry David Thoreau presented a rather succinct glimpse of a very personal journey to discover the meaning of life lived under preferred conditions. In one of his most insightful chapters “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in the classic account Walden (or Life in the Woods), Thoreau vowed to confront the “essential facts of life” in terms of modes of living and principles by which to live well.
While Thoreau’s soul-searching journey was a highly personal one carried out in a bucolic setting, in a modern society composed of billions of individuals sharing a planet newly aware of its own fragility the generally accepted political, social, and economic institutions and guiding principles defining society as a whole would seem to require the same process of careful soul-searching by the next generation of college-educated persons. As our global society evolves, decisions about what principles and practices should continue to be accepted and what changes should be made ought to result from a sustained, open, and easily accessible dialogue about our individual and collective preferences. It is our hope that this book contributes to that dialog.
In the larger societal sense, sustainability might be easily confused with the concept of “hanging on.” Clearly, many great nations and civilizations have experienced both long and painful declines and have sought to remain sustainable despite a growing sense of the inevitable. More positively, sustainability could serve as recognition that without general guidelines for existence, an upward societal trajectory and an improved future is unattainable. Rather than drive society towards eventual disaster, perhaps it would be better to alter course and avoid trouble.
This book is a collective effort to understand and apply current conceptualizations of sustainability to a study of state and local government. It is an attempt to focus our attention on a basic understanding of the time-tested institutions and guiding principles likely to take society and governance towards greater advancement. Our work is, however, tempered by a developing understanding of smart growth — growth in productive capacity, quality of life and social justice that does not necessitate large-scale destructive or extractive activity. The growth sought produces widespread mutual benefit, is prudent in design and thoughtful in execution. The growth in question here is mindful of the past, yet builds better lives and futures for our posterity.
It is important to recall that sustainability is neither a conservative nor a liberal concept. Rather, it is built around a basic human need to maintain our collective and individual bearings in an ever-changing world. Throughout time, humans have found their collective and individual bearings through institutional memberships and shared principles. While conservatives and liberals may place varying emphases on aspects of institutions and principles, conservatives and liberals alike desire to maintain core democratic values and are eager to sustain the institutions which give life to those values.
As authors, we seek to provide a book that will help students understand a current conceptualization of sustainability and how it plays out in the governance of the states and localities in the nation. It is a dialogue built on the ideas, experiences and events of many cited scholars and their works, as well as the personal research experiences of the authors themselves.
Our book represents a unique opportunity for three generations of scholars to reflect upon and collectively consider their decades’ long research, and the meaning of that research to both the broader society and to students of contemporary politics. Nicholas Lovrich served as a graduate school mentor to Brent Steel, and Brent in turn mentored Christopher A. Simon as an undergraduate and guided him to study with Lovrich. Steel and Lovrich have collaborated on research for over 30 years, while Simon has frequently collaborated with Steel and Lovrich for nearly 20 years.
Research experience was not the only guide or source of our inspiration, of course. For Christopher A. Simon, his years of alternately living on a sailboat and a farm brought him close to issues of survival and the wise use of the resources available to both him and his parents, Raffi G. and Susan M. Simon. Along with his youthful experiences sailing the Pacific Ocean and working the tilled farmland of Central Oregon, his parents instilled in him the importance of studying history and philosophy. For Brent Steel, growing up traveling and camping with his grandparents in locations ranging from Alaska, to northern and western Canada, and the mountains of the American west, he learned a deep appreciation for the environment and our need to be sound stewards of our environment so that future generations can enjoy and “soul search” just as Thoreau had done. For Nicholas Lovrich the experience of growing up in an immigrant family in a multi-cultural social setting provided an opportunity to see American society from a slight distance. Viewed from that perspective, it was possible to see the great value present in the inventive and adaptive capacities of Americans in every state and hamlet across the country as they manage the changes brought on by their powerful economic system drawing upon access to vast natural resources and benefiting from wise investment in the education of the nation’s youth.