Sustainability: A National Strategic Narrative

A National Strategic NarrativeWe all have our “story” – that which defines us either individually or as a group.  As Americans, we have long held the belief in our democratic values.  And yet, as the world has progressed, we are coming to find that we must adjust our policies and goals to reflect new realities.  We need a new “story.”

After World War II, George Kennan published an article The Sources of Soviet Conduct, which established the framework for a new story – that the United States was “the leader of the free world against the communist world; that we would invest in containing the Soviet Union and limiting its expansion while building a dynamic economy and as just, and prosperous a society as possible.”  This led to a non-partisan effort to craft the National Security Act of 1947, which would be the basis for our national defense strategy for the next 50 years and beyond.  Unfortunately, we are finding that the challenges we are facing in the 21st century are far different, and require a much different approach.

The concept of sustainability seems, on its surface, to be a rational approach.  Unfortunately, it has been often politicized as another left-wing idea with an elitist agenda.  In contrast to this prevailing outlook, the musings of Colonel Mark Mykleby are refreshing.  Mykleby, a retired marine, recently addressed a group of members of ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers) and the U.S. Green Building Council at a meeting in St. Louis.  He and Navy Captain Wayne Porter authored a brilliant prescription to embrace sustainability as part of our strategic plan for both prosperity and security.  The 12-page document, entitled A National Strategic Narrative, is an inspiring plan to create a new story.

A preface by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, succinctly summarizes the immense ideas into a few pages.  She notes the increasing pessimism about our role and stature in the world, particularly among young people.  In one sentence, she suggests that our strategic focus should be to “become the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement.”  Her synopsis offers insights into a number of major transitions happening in our world.

In his presentation in St. Louis, Mykleby highlighted a “grand strategy” that would align our economic engine, our governing institutions and our foreign policy to solve the immense challenges of our world.  He suggested that the new story that America needs is based on opportunity, not risks and threats.  The world is an open system, and we can no longer use containment as a strategy to protect our interests.  We need to build credible influence to shape global forces in an increasingly interdependent world.  We must engage in healthy competition, where winning does not require a loser.

Three opportunities for local engagement were presented in Mykleby’s grand strategy.  As baby boomers downsize and look to maintain independence in their golden years, young millennials are seeking similar housing in walkable communities.  This simpler and more sustainable lifestyle will create huge opportunities in the building industry.  At the same time, people are demanding healthier organic food, which will necessitate the growth of regenerative agriculture.  With climate change, rapid soil depletion and water scarcity becoming more serious, this represents another major area for investment.  Finally, Mykleby suggested that a productivity revolution would more effectively leverage technology to make more with less.  We have to recognize the finite limits of our natural resources, and focus more on a cradle-to-cradle approach to manufacturing using clean, renewable energy.  All of these investments will produce the significantly higher returns than traditional investments.

Mykleby suggested that this grand strategy would be most effectively promoted at the community level or in Regional Economic Clusters.  He reasoned that future-focused mayors who recognize the value of a public-private sector partnership could create success stories that could be replicated in other communities using a non-partisan approach. This, he suggested, could create the needed consensus to drive change at the national level.

By implementing these strategies, we can create a new story that will unite us as a nation, and regain the respect of people around the world.  It no longer serves us to be the global superpower that is feared because of our military strength.  The more sustainable approach would be to recreate a prosperity model that serves everyone, attracting admiration that leads to emulation.  This is the story I’d like to tell my grandchildren.

This was slated to be published in the Going Green section of the September 2014 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine, but was postponed due to space constraints and subsequently published in February 2015.

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