Government’s Role in Design


In a sustainable society, eco-friendly choices should not be difficult to make. The sustainable choice in any situation, whether it be buying a new lightbulb or designing a suburban development, should be the default choice, the path of least resistance, even natural. This section confirms that governments—which set laws, create societal priorities, and design the cities and towns where people live—will be central players in nurturing such a culture of sustainability.

An important role of governments—one that is almost invisible when it is done well— is that of “choice editing.” Michael Maniates of Allegheny College notes that editing citizens’ options through laws, taxes, subsidies, and so on has been a long-standing role of governments. What is new today is that choice editing is now being used to make the sustainable choice the default one by design. From a plastic bag ban in Rwanda and the phaseout of incandescent bulbs in Canada to sweeping carbon taxes in Sweden and subsidies on solar power in China, many governments around the world are starting to try to make it effortless for people to live sustainable lives.

Another concept that sorely needs to be reconsidered is national security. As human activities disrupt a growing number of ecological systems, it will become increasingly clear that the biggest threats to national security are not foreign armies or terrorist groups but the weakened state of the planet. Michael Renner of Worldwatch describes how to take the almost $1.5 trillion spent each year on militaries around the world and use it instead to heal environmental and social problems. This shift will do more to protect people than the largest nuclear arsenal ever could, and in the process it will create additional economic opportunities and new openings to improve diplomatic relations between countries.

Where people live will also need to be redesigned in order to make it easy to live sustainably. Peter Newman of Curtin University of Technology outlines how and where this is happening already, so that cities and towns have smaller ecological footprints or even no footprint at all. Cities could become free of cars and could generate a significant portion of their energy and even their food by harnessing their rooftops and green spaces for solar arrays, wind turbines, and gardens. And by tapping into community networks, city dwellers can be mobilized as active participants in accelerating the shift to sustainable urban design.

Key social services like health care need to be overhauled as well, as Walter Bortz of the Stanford University School of Medicine notes. In many societies today, health care is focused too much on treating symptoms instead of on preventing disease and encouraging healthy and sustainable living. By shifting from “sick care” to health care, governments can prevent millions of unnecessary deaths and improve the lives of millions more. They can also save billions of dollars and, by reducing the need for resource-intensive treatments, cut the ecological impacts of keeping people healthy.

One other key redesign needed is that of the very system of law. Cormac Cullinan, an environmental attorney in Cape Town, describes how legal systems today fail to integrate the rights of Earth’s systems and how this in turn allows the shortsighted conversion of ecosystems into resources at the expense of both human communities and the Earth community. Recognizing Earth’s rights in law will help make it natural to consider the broader tradeoffs of development choices made today and will give citizens legal recourse when ecological degradation masquerades as economic development. Within these articles there are also two Boxes: one on how other social services could be redesigned to provide more for less and in ecologically restorative ways and another on the international community’s role in making global consumption and production patterns sustainable through the Marrakech Process of the United Nations.

The importance of government’s role in creating sustainable societies cannot be overstated. If policymakers make sustainability their priority, bolstered by citizens’ support, vast societal transformations can occur so that one day living sustainable lives will become natural—by design.

—Erik Assadourian

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