Articles - 2007 | volume 3 | issue 2

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Response to How EPA research, policies, and programs can advance urban sustainability by Alan D. Hecht & William H. Sanders III

Arnold Tukker
TNO Built Environment and Geosciences, PO Box 49, 2600 AA, Delft 2600 AA Netherlands (email:

Citation: Tukker A. 2007. Response to How EPA research, policies, and programs can advance urban sustainability by Alan D. Hecht & William H. Sanders III. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 3(2):52-53. Published online Dec 18, 2007. http:///archives/vol3iss2/0708-020-response.tukker.html


Alan Hecht & William Sanders provide an interesting contribution and certainly offer an impressive vision of the future of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Their article illustrates a range of compelling initiatives and explains how these programs relate to urban sustainable development, a topic of utmost importance due to the fact that it is directly related to housing and mobility, the main activities driving environmental impacts (see, for example, Tukker & Jansen, 2006). The article concludes that many elements are in place for EPA to become a “virtual agency for sustainability” with respect to sustainable urban development, but that “an integrated approach” is missing.

So far, so good. It is indeed laudable that ranking EPA personnel have developed such thoughtful visions, see that environmental problems need to be tackled systemically, and want the agency to engage with such challenges. Yet, it is all too clear that admirable intentions—even among officials who occupy senior positions—are not nearly enough.

The work in the Netherlands of Elzen et al. (2004), Geels (2005), and others convincingly shows that achieving systemic change is tremendously hard. This truth holds whether we are considering a value-chain perspective (production and consumption systems) or a spatial perspective (urban or regional systems). The interrelations in system elements usually hinder improvement: one part cannot be modified without changing the rest. And mainstream approaches at the level of social practices are typically “molded” to macrolevel structures and developments beyond the reach of individual actors.

Let me provide a concrete example. As a cosmopolitan European, I am stunned every time I visit the United States and witness the extent to which primary transportation is organized around the automobile and the airplane. At home, I live quite contently in The Hague without even owning a car. My apartment is virtually atop one of the city’s main railway stations, with trains to virtually any destination in the country every 15 to 30 minutes. In fact, using a car, enduring the frustrations of continual traffic, and having to find parking would be far more inconvenient than anything that I encounter as a regular user of public transportation. However, in most parts of the United States, even in the largest metropolitan areas, life without a personal automobile means a home-bound existence. Large detached houses, sprawling suburbs, and operationally bankrupt public transit systems perpetuate an autocentric life (though cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco provide instructive alternatives). Indeed, the small minority of Americans that forsakes automobile ownership carries a heavy stigma.

A few years ago, I had occasion to cross the border between Windsor (Ontario) and Detroit. The customs agents were astonished that a well-dressed man, claiming to be a scientist en route to a conference in nearby Ann Arbor, wanted to walk with a luggage cart into the United States. It jarred their mental picture, and they cross-examined me with disdain for over half an hour before finally letting me proceed.1 “He’s clean!” the customs agents told the boarder officer, a sure expression of my suspected criminal status—or worse.

These personal anecdotes of how systemic interrelations and social expectations determine individual transport choices are emblematic of more general circumstances—and it is astonishing that an urban sustainability strategy for the United States would fail to consider innovative alternatives to car travel. Systems theory makes very clear that once a dominant configuration is in place, its underlying parties will oppose change and vigorously protect their vested interests. And, usually, they will succeed. Change advocates typically have to start from scratch and do not have the institutional networks, the critical mass, and the access to resources that the main players have stockpiled. People who run the circuits in power centers—be it Washington or Brussels—will have no difficulty confirming how hard lobby groups work to maintain the status quo. The automobile and petroleum industries are clear examples of this phenomenon. Insurgents are usually only successful at the margins. In the environmental field, this implies implementing an end-of-pipe measure here, banning a totally unacceptable substance there, but nothing that stimulates truly radical change.

The present question is whether EPA can become a systemic change agent given the staunch opposition that the agency obviously faces. From a European perspective, I see little reason for optimism. Despite Hecht & Sanders’ earnestness, the United States is not exactly well regarded for its contributions to the global sustainability agenda, particularly over the past several years. When unsustainable production and consumption was discussed at the 1992 Earth Summit, President George H. W. Bush famously announced that “the American way of life [was] not up for negotiation.”2 The current President Bush went out of his way to make sure that the Kyoto Protocol never received even passing consideration. The administration’s primary policy objective seems to have been ensuring access to critical resources, rather than reducing dependency or to mitigate the country’s large ecological footprint.3

Over the past several years, I have had the privilege of speaking with various EPA officials during trips to the United States. My impression with each subsequent trip was that the agency was becoming more restricted and its room to maneuver more delimited. I have great respect for Hecht & Sanders, but remain unconvinced that the present American political leadership is prepared to endorse a powerful, systemic, and unambiguous approach to resolving the country’s (and the world’s) sustainability problems.

So, sure, it would be wonderful if EPA could reinvent itself to become a “virtual agency for sustainability” and truly start programs designed to promote systemic improvements. However, the realization of this vision probably depends on EPA being granted political space that is currently not available.


1 I had the opposite experience in Japan. After a conference in Tokyo, I was due to travel to Thailand and arrived at the airport wearing old denim jeans and carrying a battered backpack. I could have hardly looked more suspicious. The Japanese customs officer smiled at me and gently asked if he could search my backpack. After a few minutes of rummaging around, he found my conference books, but nothing questionable. He smiled again, helped me to pack my belongings, and apologized for the inconvenience.

2 This frequently recounted comment is related in Vaitheeswaran (2004).

3 As widely discussed in recent media reports, former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan conveys this perspective in his new memoir, observing that the Iraq war has been largely about ensuring continued American access to oil.

Elzen, B., F. Geels, & K. Green, eds. 2004. System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Geels, F. 2005. Technological Transitions and System Innovations: A Co-Evolutionary and Socio-Technical Analysis. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Tukker, A. & Jansen, B. 2006. Environmental impacts of products: a detailed review of studies. Journal of Industrial Ecology 10(3):159–182.

Vaitheeswaran, V. 2004. Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Arnold Tukker received his PhD in 1998 from Tilburg University and has worked for the Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment. He is currently the manager of Sustainable Innovation Programs at not for profit public research organisation TNO, the Dutch research and public policy consultancy. He has published widely in the fields of life cycle analysis, industrial ecology, and sustainable innovation and has edited or authored several books including Frames in the Toxicity Controversy: Risk Assessment and Policy Analysis Related to the Dutch Chlorine Debate and the Swedish PVC Debate (Springer, 1999); Partnership and Leadership: Building Alliances for a Sustainable Future (with Theo de Bruijn; Springer, 2002); and New Business for Old Europe: Product-Service Development, Competitiveness, and Sustainability (with Ursula Tischner; Greenleaf, 2006). He is currently the director of SCORE! (Sustainable Consumption Research Exchange), a European Union-funded project to develop a research and policy network on sustainable consumption.

©2007 Tukker. CC-BY Attribution 4.0 License.
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