February 25, 2020|By Robin Murphy| Sustainability

"A Better Planet" Offers Practical Solutions for Environmental Sustainability: An Interview With Dan Esty

A Better Planet was edited by Dan Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale Law School. Professor Esty spoke with The Conservation Fund’s Robin Murphy about this practical, bipartisan call to action from the world’s leading thinkers on the environment and sustainability.

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Robin Murphy: 
What led you to create this collection of essays written by experts from an array of fields, with a focus on strategies for sustainability? What really stood out to you once all the essays came in?

Dan Esty: I was struck by how many interesting ideas for substantive progress are percolating out there, just waiting for a political moment when the two parties in America might come together and think constructively about what I would call the “up the middle” agenda for environmental progress.

The most striking feature of conversations that I've been having about the agenda set forth in A Better Planet is the idea that we need to come together as a society—that being broken down by party lines is not a constructive pathway to a sustainable future and we really need to overcome that. The exciting new agenda in A Better Planet is getting more and more traction. It’s a “third way” that can bring people of all ages together across party lines, geographic divisions, and business and environmental groups.


Robin Murphy: What is the most appropriate and effective role for business to play in this movement?

Dan Esty: I'm a big believer that the corporate community needs to be part of the path to a sustainable future. In the 20th century, business was often seen as the problem with regard to environmental issues and pollution. Today, we recognize that business can and really must play a constructive role if we're to achieve environmental gains. Businesses are often very good at innovation and we should structure our government programs in ways that engage the business community with incentives that encourage new ways to address sustainable use of resources and reducing pollution. I think bringing businesses to the table with agendas that support their potential to make money by providing innovative solutions is critical. 

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Robin Murphy: 
What do you think are some of the most feasible and actionable ideas presented in A Better Planet?

Dan Esty: We now recognize that bringing new spirit to the environmental challenges that we face as a society will be critical. The essay by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim on the important role faith might play in bringing people who might not have historically seen themselves as environmentalists to support stewardship of the Earth. 

The essay by Bill Nordhaus suggesting that we need to have a price on carbon and we need to think about making people pay for the harm they cause is also an agenda that is rallying people as a path forward that hasn't really been given a serious trial until now.

I would also highlight Larry Selzer’s essay arguing for more private sector funding for conservation. Governments will never have enough money to do all the land preservation that needs to be done, so private capital becomes critical. 


Robin Murphy: 
What is something that conservation organizations can do better?

Dan Esty: Several essays address how the environmental debate needs to engage new audiences. Brad Gentry writes about what it takes to get people to think about issues “across differences” and to look for common ground. Thomas Easley talks about the need for what he calls “Hip-Hop Sustainability,” which is really a metaphor for reaching out to communities that have been left out of the environmental debate in large measure. It’s quite critical to open up the environmental discussion and bring in everyone that needs to be part of it—to approach people on their own terms and in ways that they can step up to the discussion and feel neither left behind nor intimidated.

Esty Lindsay Street Park Ribbon Cutting c Whitney Flanagan 057Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

The final essay written by a team of Yale students makes the point that big ideas need to both have a pathway to implementation and resources devoted to the execution of the plan. I think as a society, we've spent far too little time engaging with those individuals, those communities, those sectors of society that are going to be asked to do things differently.

One of the challenges we face as we move forward is to make sure that we don't achieve environmental progress at the expense of economic security, particularly for those at the lowest end of our economic ladder. If we are to achieve success on sustainability, we need to make sure that we are aware of the connections between environmental progress, reducing poverty, and recognizing inequality. This is one of the foundational elements that successful strategies will need to get right, within our own country and across the world.


Dan Esty PhotoDan Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale Law School. He also serves as Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and on the advisory board of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, which he founded in 2006. Professor Esty grew up camping, hiking, and fishing, and has always prized the world of nature. While studying at Yale Law School, he explored his interest in conservation, land use, and pollution control. Professor Esty served as head of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (2011–2014) and in several leadership roles at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1989–1993).