Jepson's Rejoinder to Ernst

I am sorry that Robert Ernst found little to agree with in my comments (Jepson 2012), because I find many things in his reply that I agree with. For example, his observation about the "infamous" Agenda 21: there are certainly some people who view it negatively (although a huge majority of the respondents to a recent APA survey attested to having no opinion of it). And I certainly agree that environmental issues have become "infused with political and ideological rhetoric." My own readings have affirmed that science is often rejected when it clashes with shared ideological values and beliefs. And I agree that cities like Los Angeles and New York cannot stay within their local carrying capacity (although there are steps they can take to become more self-sufficient).

Still, Mr. Ernst promotes several misconceptions that I would like to address. First, he notes how I "grandly" and incorrectly refer to sustainability as a science. Perhaps we differ on this, but I suspect that a read of Resilience Thinking (Walker and Salt 2006) would lead most people to the conclusion that there is, in fact, a great deal of science behind the concept of human communities as systems, and their resilience and sustainability. The fact that there are "several hundred definitions" of sustainability does not detract from the reality of an objective theoretical construct that has developed (and is still developing) about cities.

Mr. Ernst's reference to "sustainability science" is also misplaced. Not once in my letter do I use that term, which is the specific name that has been given to an emerging scientific approach to solving the problems of social-ecological systems, or human communities. It has been presented and discussed most comprehensively in the book, Sustainability Science: A Multidisciplinary Approach (Komiyama et al. 2011). The term does not, as Mr. Ernst suggests, refer to the general concept of sustainability as a science.

I would also like to address Mr. Ernst's concern that my use of certain words reveals a "troubling attitude" that harks back to the "bad old days" of planners as arrogant philosopher-kings. Two of those words — necessity and must — I used, not in relation to any set of development requirements or even precepts, but rather to the ability of a community to "collectively anticipate, envision, collaborate, and act." Few kings, philosopher or otherwise, would subject their rule to that sort of open and public process.

As far as my use of the word imperative in the title, it refers to sustainability as a theoretical construct to inform the planning and the development of cities. Perhaps his objection is rooted in our differing concepts about what planning is and what planners do. Not merely facilitators, I see planners as leaders who have a unique knowledge of how communities function. The challenge is not merely how to manage an open and collaborative planning process, but how to both manage such a planning process and find ways to integrate their knowledge of communities as sustainable systems.

The problems that confront our cities will not be met by abandoning the concept of sustainability. There are strategic approaches that can develop the "more crucial but complex public opinion" that will "take us closer to finding solutions to sustainability crises" (Vasi 2012). As the seriousness of our situation becomes more clearly and widely understood, perhaps "the millions" who (Mr. Ernst tells us) find sustainable public policies and actions "highly offensive" will begin to moderate their views. And the collective concern will be about not just the poisoning of "our" fish in "our" river or even the fish in all the rivers in "our" region, but all the fish in all the rivers in all the regions.

Yes, systems theory provides planners with special knowledge about how cities can develop and function sustainably. But the same theoretical framework makes it impossible for them to become the "arrogant" philosopher-kings of the "bad old days."

—Edward Jepson, Jr., AICP
Knoxville, Tennessee


Jepson, Edward J. Jr. 2012. "The Sustainability Imperative." Practicing Planner 10, 1.

Komiyama, Hiroshi, Kazuhiko Takeuchi, Hideaki Shiroyama, and Mino Takashi (eds). 2011. Sustainability Science: A Multidisciplinary Approach. New York: United Nations University Press.

Vasi, Ion Bogdan. 2012. "Public Support for Sustainable Development: A Mile Wide, But How Deep?" Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development 8, 1: 153-170.

Walker, Brian, and David Salt. 2006. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

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