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Col. Mark "Puck" Mykleby talks sustainability at Northeastern University

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LISTEN: Col Mark Puck Mykleby

by Angela Herring

America’s biggest national chal­lenge today isn’t ter­rorism, health, or even cli­mate change, according to retired Marine Col. Mark Myk­leby, senior fellow at the New America Foun­da­tion. Nor is it com­pe­ti­tion with China, or secu­rity threats from al-​​Qaida or other ter­rorist orga­ni­za­tions, he added. Instead, it’s how all of these things and many others con­tribute to global unsus­tain­ability, Myk­leby said during a lec­ture on Tuesday at Northeastern’s Amilcar Cabral Center.

He said that in 1953, the country used a policy of con­tain­ment to address its biggest chal­lenge at the time, which was across the pond: com­mu­nism. While it worked then, Myk­leby said the world is much dif­ferent today—and yet the United States still fol­lows the same gen­eral approach.

“We’re so focused on threat and risk that we’re willing to sac­ri­fice and expend our national pros­perity in pur­suit of secu­rity,” he said. “A secu­rity that is mostly defined by our 20th-​​century past, not our 21st-​​century reality.”

Con­tain­ment, he explained, was a con­trol strategy. It lever­aged force and power and it worked because the world almost acted as a closed system back then. “You could push on cer­tain vari­ables toward a deter­min­istic end,” he said. The same is no longer true today and yet we’re still pushing.

Mykleby’s lec­ture, enti­tled “Sus­tain­ability: A 21st-​​Century Amer­ican Grand Strategy,” was hosted by the Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity. The event closely aligned with the university’s focus on use-​​inspired research to address very impor­tant soci­etal prob­lems, said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. “Two of those areas are sus­tain­ability and secu­rity,” he said, “and this is a com­bi­na­tion of the two.”

Before joining the New America Foun­da­tion in 2011, Myk­leby spent more than two decades with the Marine Corps, ulti­mately landing in the U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand devel­oping strategy. Then, in 2009, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, com­mis­sioned Myk­leby and Navy Capt. Wayne Porter to develop a new grand strategy for the country.

Myk­leby and Porter quickly real­ized, how­ever, that the answer was not a typ­ical strategy at all. It was a nar­ra­tive about America’s place in a global strategic ecology. They ulti­mately com­pleted their doc­u­ment, called A National Strategic Nar­ra­tive.

In nat­ural ecosys­tems, Myk­leby explained, “Every little player inside the bios­phere has got a role to play. We’ve got to start thinking about what is our role in the world.” Our new role is to take on the chal­lenge of folding another 3 bil­lion indi­vid­uals into the global middle class as places like India and China con­tinue to grow and con­sume, he said. If they follow the Amer­ican par­a­digm, it’ll take four-​​and-​​a-​​half planets worth of resources to sus­tain us all.

Since that clearly won’t do, Myk­leby and Patrick Doherty, a col­league at the New America Foun­da­tion, are devel­oping a frame­work for imple­menting what they see as the key eco­nomic sources for a sus­tain­able nation: walk­able com­mu­ni­ties, regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture, and resource pro­duc­tivity. These three, he said, directly link to the four eco­nomic sec­tors that reap the largest returns on invest­ment: man­u­fac­turing, agri­cul­ture, con­struc­tion, and trans­porta­tion. The U.S. economy, he said, is cur­rently focused on less pro­duc­tive areas such as ser­vice indus­tries and retail.

“There’s this great quote from [the book] Beowulf,” Myk­leby noted toward the end of his lec­ture. “It goes, ‘Behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people every­where.’” He reflected a moment, and then said, “We’ve got to get to admirable behavior. We have to get on with the doing.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on September 27, 2013

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