Now more than ever, sustainability work will continue forward
Author: Robert Liberty, director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University
Posted: December 5, 2016

On November 8, a small group of citizens in three states dramatically changed the direction of the national government. 

Donald Trump’s combined margin of victory in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—which account for his margin of victory in the Electoral College—was 79,646  votes as of this writing. 

How many votes is that?

It is fewer than the number of votes cast the same day in Clackamas County on a measure to consolidate the Boring Rural Fire District into the Clackamas County Rural Fire District. 

It is fewer votes than the losing candidate received in the race for Portland City Commission Position 4. 

And it is quite a bit fewer than the number of votes cast for candidates running for positions on the Linn County (Oregon) Soil and Water Conservation District. 

The margin of victory may be razor thin, but the consequences for sustainability could be wide and deep.

At the national level it could mean:

  • Amendment or repeal of key parts of environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Environmental Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act.
  • Repeal of environmental regulations, especially those intended to reduce harmful pollution from energy plants and cars.
  • Immediate shifts in agency staff priorities away from enforcement of environmental laws and climate change reduction and adaptation efforts.
  • Repudiating the Paris climate accords and other international environmental agreements.

Sustainability consequences of particular concern to Oregonians may include:

  • The sale of public lands and resources. In Oregon, where about half of the land is in federal ownership, the impact of land sales could be dramatic. Additionally, the resources on those lands—everything from timber and grazing rights to beach sand and uranium—could become more vulnerable to exploitation by private corporations and less accessible to local residents.
  • Confirmation of Supreme Court Justices and judges serving on Federal District and Circuit Courts who will interpret the U.S. Constitution’s limits on the power of state and local governments to prevent water and air pollution, to keep our beaches public, and to manage urban sprawl to save farms and forestlands. 

For Portland State University we can expect:

  • Sharp reductions in National Science Foundation grants and other types of federal support for research into climate change and other sustainability and related social justice topics.
  • Shifts in federal programs and funding for public education, favoring private education at all levels. As a public university that serves a diverse population and many students of modest means, reductions in federal loans and grants could have an outsized impact.

Yes, it is a bleak assessment.

But I deliberately began this commentary by referring to the handful of people who changed the direction of “the national government”— not the direction of “the nation.”

But I deliberately began this commentary by referring to the handful of people who changed the direction of “the national government”— not the direction of “the nation.”

Our nation’s future has never been decided just by a handful of people working within the national government in Washington D.C.

Much of the work, and the leadership for building a more sustainable and just world, has always taken place at the local and state level. 

And that work will go on. 

At Portland State, we’ve been fortunate that so much of our sustainability work has been funded not by the federal government but by a grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation. Thanks to that investment, PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions has supported hundreds of projects that move us toward a more equitable, healthy, and resilient future by linking the expertise and passion of our faculty and students with the momentum and strength of our local community.

Together, we have developed a strategy to reduce toxic air pollution in our city and state; we have transformed wastelands into community green spaces that produce food in low-income neighborhoods; we have pinpointed places and communities in our city that are most vulnerable to deadly impacts of climate change; we’ve supported the many young people and community leaders who emphasize fairness and justice in sustainability work as we move toward a future where all people, not just certain groups, have the opportunity to thrive. 

The Institute for Sustainable Solutions will continue to lead these efforts alongside our partners within PSU and beyond the University—in the private sector, in government agencies, in nonprofit organizations, and in neighborhoods. We will continue to seek support for our joint work from private foundations and increasingly from individual philanthropists. This work will continue—regardless of the outcome of future federal and state elections—not just because it will continue to receive financial support, but because it reflects solid public policy and the people’s deeply felt values. 

Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s most famous observation was: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

One of my favorite quotes from Oregon Governor Tom McCall is: “A hero is not a statue framed against a red sky; it is someone who says, ‘This is my community and it is my responsibility to make it better.’” 

PSU and its surrounding city and region have an exceptional number of thoughtful, committed people who take responsibility for making our community and our world better. They are the partners the Institute for Sustainable Solutions has relied on in the past, and that we will work with in the future.

How many? 

I couldn’t say for sure, but I am confident that it is more than 79,646.



Robert Liberty is director of PSU's Institute for Sustainable Solutions, which empowers effective community-university collaboration for a more livable, resilient, and sustainable future.