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Local Sustainability Efforts in the United States: The Progress Since Rio

June 2002

Citation: ELR 10667

Author: Jonathan D. Weiss

I. Introduction

If we want to think about changes in local sustainability over the last 10 years, perhaps the best place to start is with Al Gore. In 1992, just before the Rio Earth Summit and before he was to be tapped as a vice presidential candidate, then-Senator Gore published a treatise on the environment called Earth in the Balance.1 The book was rightfully hailed as a work of "statesmanship, evangelism, and scientific exposition."2 While visionary in its scope and prescient in its analysis of such issues as global warming and energy alternatives, the book failed to mention the words "brownfields," "sustainable communities," "livable communities," "new urbanism," or "smart growth." In short, it failed to mention what would become a national movement since the 1992 Earth Summit.

What a difference 10 years makes! Al Gore would end up championing "livable communities" as a part of his domestic agenda as vice president and later as a plank in his 2000 presidential campaign.3 The Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, also claimed brownfields redevelopment as an important priority and vowed that we need "smart growth."4 The word "brownfields" was not even in the dictionary in 1992; it achieved that honor in 1999.5 The term "smart growth" did not exist in 1992. It is now arguably a movement.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in that book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

Prof. Jonathan D. Weiss is the Director of the George Washington University Center on Sustainable Growth. Professor Weiss previously served in the Clinton Administration—first at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as Senior Brownfields Counsel and then with the Office of the Vice President as an advisor on community redevelopment and sustainable growth issues.