Muddled: Fixing the EPA’s Unclear Definition of Sustainability

The Environmental Protection Agency is only one of a number of administrative agencies that promulgates regulations and policies that have the capacity to encourage sustainability.  Others include the subsidiary agencies in Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy to name but a few examples – virtually every regulatory agency is capable of encouraging sustainability in business or in everyday life.  Perhaps none, however, has more prominence in this area than the Environmental Protection Agency because of the agency’s mission: “To protect human health and the environment.”  Unfortunately, the agency’s working definition of sustainability is useless at best, leading to an incoherent EPA-led sustainability policy that can only be fixed through the adoption of a tighter legal definition.

On its website, the EPA tells visitors that sustainability is “based on a simple principle: everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”  In short, the EPA tells us, in incredibly vague terms, what sustainability is based on what it does, but says absolutely nothing about what it is.

The need for a more useful definition is clear.  A study from 2010 indicates that regulations – which were previously a relatively unimportant factor in corporate sustainability – are becoming increasingly central to corporate decision-making, surpassing innovation as a primary driver of sustainability initiatives.  The EPA itself has indicated that it intends to use its regulatory authority to become more involved in sustainable development.  In 2011, the Agency commissioned a National Academy of Sciences report to develop a scientific “framework on sustainability” to guide the future evolution of environmental regulation.

As “sustainability” becomes the centerpiece of environmental regulation over the coming years, it seems self-evident that the Agency must embrace a clear, unchanging definition for the word.  Adopting a clearer definition has the twin benefits of encouraging uniformity in the purposes of EPA regulations that promote corporate sustainability, and making enforcement of those regulations more predictable and understandable.  Furthermore, it provides a clear metric against which the EPA itself can assess the success or failure of the regulations it enacts.

A useful legal definition of sustainability does exist, and should be adopted by the EPA.  The United States Forest Service – a subdivision of the Department of the Interior – provides a clear, concise, and comprehensive definition of sustainability in Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which governs the administration of National Forests, National Parks, and other public property.  This Title defines sustainability as “The capability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”  It goes on to provide sub-definitions of ecological, economic, and social sustainability.  This definition allows the Forest Service to clearly couch its new regulations and policies in pre-existing language.  This encourages a policy coherence that does not exist in the Environmental Protection Agency, which has no similar regulatory definition.

The only way to rectify this is for the EPA to promulgate its own regulation to define sustainability with similar clarity and specificity.  As any judge or lawyer can attest, regulation without definition cannot be administered.  For the Environmental Protection Agency to lead the government in the struggle to implement sustainable policies in America without a clear definition for what that means is unconscionable.  The Agency should implement this simple change without further delay.