Atlanta: Birthplace of Sustainability?

Atlanta, Georgia – a proud but generally unassuming city founded in 1837 on the Appalachian Piedmont of the Southeastern United States – has been the backdrop from which the world has been inspired to fundamentally change on two fronts: economic growth and social equity. Interestingly enough, these form two of the three legs of sustainability. So why shouldn’t Atlanta also inspire the third leg: environment? And couldn’t an integrating of these three factors – economy, equity, and environment – serve as the driving force behind the re-envisioning and re-engineering of what is now an unsustainable Atlanta with ripples of reinvention lapping outwards throughout Georgia, the nation, and the planet? 

One aim of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems is to do just that: inspire. Beginning with this essay and continuing in this space in the months ahead, we will host a forum for “BIG IDEAS.” We’re looking for concepts and challenges that seek to change this unsustainable present that we are in, into a sustainable future in which economic prosperity is achieved justly, and within the ability of nature to provide resources and assimilate wastes. From time to time, guest “editorialists” – of prominence and anonymity, of young and old, of black and white, of rich and poor, and of expert and lay – will be invited to share their big ideas through this forum. Can we find the next great idea to follow the “New South” of Henry Grady, or the “Dream” of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Time will tell. The only certainty we have is that the odds are higher when we actively look for it. In this first essay, the challenge is laid down to find it here, in Atlanta, Georgia, and to complete the sustainability triad. 

Atlanta, and indeed most of the South, was very poor after the Civil War. With the end of Reconstruction and the federal aid that came with it, the city was forced to figure out a plan to right itself. Though absent in financial capital, land was abundant, labor was cheap, resources were plenty, taxes were low, and government was tolerant. Such alternative wealth was packaged under a “New South” brand, so brilliantly articulated by Atlanta’s Henry Grady, and sold to investors far and wide. With the subsequent century long infusion of capital, the South, and no city more so than Atlanta, rose from obscurity to prosperity. Others caught on and it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that by the latter part of the 20th and the first part of the 21st Centuries, places like Mexico, and later China and India were soon “out-New Southing” the New South. What Atlanta invented, perfected, and then shared with the world was an economic roadmap for transforming poor and developing areas into wealthy engines of success. This was Atlanta’s first major global contribution. 

Its second contribution arose from the mid 20th Century struggle for human equality. As the “Cradle of Civil Rights,” Atlanta played an important role in redefining the creed that all men are created equal. In a city too busy to hate, leadership and a path forward was found here that shifted American and, by virtue of the example democracy it provides to the world, global perceptions about human dignity, human rights, and human equality. Here at home it transformed schools and neighborhoods, businesses and industries, and written laws and unwritten values. Abroad it transformed perceptions of what constitutes legitimate government and legitimate freedom. Dr. King’s Dream was born of Atlanta and exported to the world. While injustice sadly still exists, it is more readily recognized and vanquished because of lessons learned here. 

Speaking as an Atlantan then, if the experiences of our 19th Century history begat an economic paradigm that would provide for the development and growth of cities, states, and nations, and if our 20th Century experiences led to a new social compass that guided the domestic and foreign agendas of democracies everywhere, certainly it must be reasonable to expect that here now in the 21st Century the tests we face will lead to something just as remarkable. But what are those challenges today that are testing our mettle? The air is dirty. Water is scarce and contaminated. We’re altering our climate. The land is less productive. Native flora and fauna are disappearing and invasive exotics are proliferating. Food safety is being questioned. Energy is expensive. Traffic is congested. Affordable housing is scant. And parks are lagging. Intuitively, it seems a common thread could be woven through these disparate problems (e.g. growth?), but a communal solution seems far from intuitive. There is this third piece of Atlanta that is missing. As the city became more economically prosperous over the last century and a half, and as it became more socially just over the last five decades, it did not necessarily become also more environmentally benign. Even the progress we seemingly did make may have been illusory. When we traded visible smoke for invisible carbon dioxide, the problems were not fixed, but merely transferred or put off. When we built more highway capacity to fix existing traffic problems, we also created inducements for more traffic and even tougher problems to follow. And every water solution proposed for Atlanta only seems to incite our downstream neighbors. 

This third leg of the sustainability stool has as yet, eluded us here in Atlanta and because of it, we now face crises on many fronts. But from these crises are also opportunities. The New South paradigm arose from an economic crisis of mammoth proportions. Civil Rights leaped forward when a few brave souls created a crisis on the bus and at the lunch counter. If Atlanta was the crucible from which these two movements sprang forth, why shouldn’t Atlanta also be the place where a third movement will also originate – a third movement that will complete the sustainability triad and anoint Atlanta as the birthplace of sustainability? We in the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems look forward to your response.

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Michael Chang, Deputy Director, BBISS