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Generational Goal-setting

Envisioning the Future We Want


Goal-setting for sustainability is a proactive approach based on the idea that a vision of healthy people and healthy ecosystems is a matter of political choice and that scientific, technological, political and social innovations needed to achieve such a vision can be inspired and guided by the development of clear, measurable goals and objectives.  Generational goal-setting involves long-term visioning about and planning towards the future a generation from now.  In contrast to shorter-term decision-making, which operates within existing institutions or mandates, Generational Goal-setting motivates people to work across sectors where it makes sense, and to design new institutions, new technologies, as well as new legal and social frameworks that have fresh capacity to achieve a long-term vision. Because of its timeframe, Generational Goal-setting is an invitation to move beyond planning for incremental change, and instead to envision the possibility of significant cultural shifts that may be prerequisites for changes in business practices, consumption patterns and public policy on the scale needed for sustainability. 

The Dutch government made this comment about generational goals: “A generation of 25 years reinforces the concepts of responsibility upon the current generation for the society that would be passed to its children. It is short enough to be concrete, measurable, and effective, yet long enough to introduce and perfect true behavioral change. It permits flexibility in administration, and some trial and error with correction or acceleration of progress as needed.” 

Visioning and goal-setting start from the premise that we can not know what lies ahead; instead we can envision the future we want and work backwards to develop the objectives, metrics, and institutional structures to achieve that vision.  As the late Donnella Meadows noted, this approach allows: (1) a focus on what society really wants, not what it will settle for; (2) a clarity of goals, yet flexibility of the paths to achieving them; (3) a shared vision so that there is responsibility and accountability; (4) acknowledgement of barriers and constraints in the path to achieving the stated goals as well as developing solutions for overcoming them; and (5) flexibility for updating and evolving the vision and goals as time passes. 

The Lowell Center has studied forward-looking visioning and goal-setting processes used successfully in the U.S. and in other countries to align public policies with the hopes of citizen-based organizations for a sustainable future.  Lessons from this analysis include that the processes for setting Generational Goals should engage a range of people and organizations from multiple sectors.  Broad participation in developing a shared vision and associated goals is critical to popular support for them, and in turn for responsibility and accountability.  The process of setting Generational Goals may in itself contribute to sustainability by fostering collaboration around a common agenda.  As a result, “success” in Generational Goal-setting should be defined not only by steady progress made in the direction of the goal, but also by increased collaboration among sectors around common goals, and by solutions identified and negotiated in the shorter-term.   

Examples of Generational Goal-setting

The state of Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA), passed in 1989, is the country’s first pollution prevention law.  Initiated as a compromise between industry advocates and environmental groups, the bill set a goal of reducing the amount of toxic waste generated statewide by 50% by 1997. To implement the bill, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute was established at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The Institute partners with the Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance in the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs to assist companies in meeting their toxics reduction goals by providing assistance in toxics use reduction planning and technical support. The placement of the Institute in an academic institution and its close ties to the state’s technical capacity have allowed Massachusetts industry to significantly reduce their use of toxic chemicals.  As of 2006, TURA has led to a 41% reduction in the use of toxic substances, and a 65% reduction in the generation of toxic waste. To build on TURA’s success, the state of Massachusetts amended the bill in 2006 to broaden its goals for the future.
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In 1999 the Swedish Parliament implemented 16 Environmental Quality Objectives, a set of issue-based goals to be achieved by 2020. Led by an overarching vision, to “hand down an ecologically sustainable society to future generations…in which the major environmental problems have been solved…” some 80 indicators have been identified as a means of judging progress toward these objectives and their interim targets. A specific agency or groups of agencies has been tasked with managing the progress of each objective.  Progress towards the 2010 interim objectives has been mixed.  The oversight agencies anticipate that it will be “difficult to achieve” about 50% of the objectives, and that “additional efforts” will be needed to meet the targets for the other 50%.  A recent report identifies three issues that will be important to address if interim goals are to be achieved: 1) integration of “environmental efforts in every sector of society”, 2) joint decision making, and 3) national coordination.
Visit the Environmental Quality Objectives Portal for more information...

The Netherlands National Environmental Policy Plan.  In the mid-1980s, the Minister of the Environment in the Netherlands initiated an interactive process focusing on integrating policies, raising public awareness, conducting environmental and economic analyses, and building consensus among multiple stakeholders. The resulting strategy includes goals, targets and policy changes for seven environmental priorities.  Routine reviews have found substantial progress towards the targets, including the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances, the reduction by 60% of industrial waste and the increase of recycling to more than 70% of total waste generated, among other successes. 
More information about the Plan...