Sustainable development has been a central concern of Alaska’s government since the state’s founding. Concepts such as the “sustainable yield principle” for managing natural resources “for the maximum benefit of its people” are baked into Alaska’s constitution (Article 8).
With such a pedigree, one might expect Alaska would rank highly in the recently released Sustainable Development Report of the United States 2018. It does not. Alaska ranks 43rd out of 50 states. And with the current fiscal approach of budget slashing, it seems that Alaska is in a race to the bottom of the table, where Louisiana now resides.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (see photo) were approved unanimously in 2015 by the United Nations’ 193 member states, establishing a rare consensus agenda and accompanying targets to be met by 2030. The SDGs are a sequel to the Millennium Development Goals, and through a unified human rights framework, seek to achieve environmental sustainability, social inclusion and economic development on a global scale. They focus on key human-environmental systems in relation to long-term planetary wellbeing, including climate, education, energy, food, health, infrastructure, terrestrial, marine and other critical systems. These systems are intertwined and their fates inextricably linked.
Alaska’s ability to achieve sustainable urban development, for example, depends directly on the health of its rural network of communities and their infrastructure and ecosystems. Beyond some of its renewable resources, Alaska has not attended to all the SDGs equally or with long-term sustainability consistently in mind.
Alaska scores best in Life on Land (15) (and Life Below Water (14), though it was not formally measured), a legacy of its large stocks of productive forests and oceans (natural capital and biocapacity), and its constitutional mandate to manage them sustainably. The federal government deserves much of the credit for these high marks, with its vast protected areas and regulation of off shore zones.
Alaska also garnered a comparatively strong mark on Climate Action (13), due largely to Gov. Bill Walker’s development of a climate action plan, though it has since been shelved by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The state also boasts a favorable effective carbon rate (USD/tCO2).
Despite a few bright spots, Alaska does poorly overall in meeting the 17 SDGs, especially goals 4 (Quality Education), 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure), 5 (Gender Equality), 9 (Affordable Clean Energy) and 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption). Again we can see how failures with respect to specific goals are inextricably intertwined.
Top-ranking states, like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, invest significantly in quality education across the arts, sciences, and vocational fields, which correlates with strong outcomes in Good Health and Well-being (3), Decent Work and Economic Growth (7), Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (9), and Responsible Consumption and Production (12).
Across the U.S., states on average are weak in Goals 1 (No Poverty), 10 (Reduced Inequalities), 13 (Climate Action) and 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions).
One can quibble with the metrics, as they are not systematically collected across states, but the basic results are sound. We know inequality is increasing rather than decreasing across the nation and much of the globe, and the consequences are generally disastrous for sustainable development. Inequality breeds discontent, distrust and oligarchy.
With its rich and diverse natural and human capital, including vibrant long-sustained indigenous cultures, Alaska can do much better than 43rd out of 50. How? It is important to focus on those goals where government can make a difference and which will have a cascade of positive effects.
Viewed through the lens of SDGs, massive cuts to public education (K-12, University of Alaska), climate action (mitigation and adaptation), critical infrastructure (e.g., ferry systems) or other key systems, constitute reckless rather than responsible governance. Not only will these systems cease to contribute to sustainable development, they will undermine other SDGs, such as sustainable economic growth, poverty and inequality reduction, innovation, gender equality and even Alaska’s two gold stars: Life Below Water (14) and Life on the Land (15).
A better approach is to behave more like the top states in the report. This means investing not only in our human capital through education and (re)training, but also in economic sectors where we have an advantage in the transition to sustainability. In this respect, Alaska’s bets on the Blue Economy (Life Below Water) can be especially well-placed.
Alaska has half of the U.S. coastline and its cleanest, most productive waters. A strong K-12 and university education for Life on Land and Life Below Water (including its potential for sustainable food, energy, climate action, decent work, innovation, economic growth, etc.) can boost Alaska’s sustainable development metrics in ways the framers of our state’s constitution envisioned and the promulgators of oil industry tax credits did not.
• Thomas F. Thornton is Dean of Arts & Sciences and Vice-Provost for Research and Sponsored Programs at the University of Alaska Southeast. “Sustainable Alaska” is a monthly column appearing on the first Friday of every month and written by UAS Sustainability Committee members. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Alaska Southeast.