In an exclusive conversation for The Krea Communiqué, Jessica Seddon, Member of the Academic Advisory Board at Krea, a Senior Fellow at World Resource Institute and a Senior Fellow at Yale University, shares her interpretation of sustainability and how it’s driven by human dynamics intertwined with social and political landscapes and economic strategies. Jessica takes us through work on environmental governance and around ‘Air’-a globally shared commons that affects nearly everything we care about. Underneath all these she is deeply focused on the reasons why humans and groups of humans make the choices that they do, particularly with respect to the non-human environment. That has always been her interest – and the latest manifestation of that is air quality and climate change.
She also navigates us through her environmental journey, right from the seeds sown in her childhood as she grew up in the middle of woods and fields and with a family that was very connected to the environment around. Further leading to her conscious embarking on the path in her junior year at college and successive milestones that punctuate her journey.
In reference to the mammoth task that awaits the future generation and how we could groom them to be sustainability-sensitive and conscious citizens, Jessica adds, “I think they are. I don’t think we’re in any position to groom them – we should be in more of a position to be embarrassed that we’ve left so much to them to solve.”
Jessica, when you think of the word, Sustainability, what is the first thing/word that comes to your mind?
Contentment is the first word that comes to mind. Things can only be sustainable – in the sense that they can be carried on for an indefinite period of time without much change if people do not want.
Having said that, sustainability continues to be misconstrued -over time – to mean only ecology, and hence the initiatives have been skewed. How can we attempt to engage with it more holistically in a way that it includes the environment, social and political landscapes that we inhabit?
I would say, thankfully, that this has been changing for the past decade or so. Sustainability is at times thought of in ecological terms as a kind of indefinite carrying capacity – that the present species, surroundings, etc can carry on without shifting suddenly to a new state. However, the role of humans in driving these changes – this lack of environmental sustainability – has been pretty clear for a while and the drivers have also been pretty clear. Those drivers are deeply intertwined with social and political landscapes, not to mention economic strategies.
I think it would be very hard to find somebody who would define sustainability without some kind of reference to human dynamics at this point.
WRI develops practical solutions that improve people’s lives and ensure nature can thrive. Tell us a little bit about your focus areas in the now.
Right now I’m actually only part-time at WRI. I’m a senior fellow there and I focus on air – the lower atmosphere that shapes our health, our ecosystems health, and climate. I also teach environmental governance at Yale, where I am a senior fellow at the Jackson School of global affairs. Environmental governance is basically the study, practice, and experimentation of how we can steer the human and non-human systems around us toward better – perhaps you could say more sustainable – outcomes.
I could go on and on about the air because it basically is a globally shared commons that affects nearly everything we care about – from our health, to crop yields and food security, to storm intensity, to the productivity of renewable energy, to much more. And nearly everything we do – from moving around to cooking to producing to growing food affects it.
But I think underneath that I am focused on the reasons why humans and groups of humans make the choices that they do, particularly with respect to the non-human environment. That has always been my interest – and the latest manifestation of that is air quality and climate change.
Personally speaking, when did you embark on this journey towards sustainability? Growing up, what was your relationship with nature?
I grew up in a rural area in Vermont just below the Canadian border. So in many senses I grew up in nature – in the middle of the woods, fields, and with a family that was very connected to the environment around us.
I only really consciously embarked on an environmental journey in my junior year of college, when I considered becoming an earth sciences major. I ended up not changing at that point but I always did try to work in some understanding about the economics and politics of our species’ relationship with the rest of the environment – not to mention differences in cultural understandings. I was able to collaborate in the mid 2000s with a climate scientist named V Ramanathan and write a few papers about policies toward air pollutants that also affect climate. So in some sense my formal professional environmental career began then.
Do global sustainable initiatives deepen the divide on the planet? The impact of climate change the world is facing today, is fundamentally the result of advanced economies who have now shifted negotiations away from historic responsibility or climate debt to current emissions levels. In fact many of them are outsourcing emissions to developing countries through trade; how can climate finance and policies become more holistic and equitable?
I would hesitate to lump all global sustainability initiatives in one bucket. Some do deepen the economic divide, others try to address it. And you are implicitly speaking about carbon emissions being outsourced – but pollution footprints are actually growing faster than carbon footprints. It’s not just trade it’s also production decisions and The supply chain evolution before covid.
I don’t think there’s really a simple answer about how climate and finance policies can become more holistic and equitable – and I think at the root of both of those things, both of those policy areas, are public expectations and acceptance. Which brings me back to this point of contentment. We’re not going to get very far on holistic and equitable policy and finance until we recognize that the ways of life that are extracting more than the planet can bear are driven by want. I mean want in the sense of both need and the more luxurious version of just greed.
We have been constantly discussing how sustainability is a real work-in-progress. Would you agree?
How much do our individual everyday actions contribute to a collective impact? Can they – if at all – offset the large, environmental footprint of the major industries and the large corporations?
Well – I think the environmental footprint of the major industries and large corporations wouldn’t really exist unless we used and consumed what the industries and corporations produced. That said, many of the choices about how to produce and what kind of environmental footprint is absolutely necessary to meet demand are not individual decisions and so it is unfair to put everything on individual actions.
It takes working together and seeing the goals in new ways.
The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. We are almost halfway through. How much progress has the world achieved towards peace and prosperity for people and the planet?
Sadly – I’m not sure how much. In many ways, we seem to have regressed.
And finally, how can we groom the next generation to be sustainability-sensitive and conscious citizens?
I think they are. I don’t think we’re in any position to groom them – we should be in more of a position to be embarrassed that we’ve left so much to them to solve.