Former Congressman Champions Sustainable Development
(April 2020) – As a teenager growing up in Central Florida, James “Jim” Bacchus became a newspaper reporter for the Sanford Herald and then the Orlando Sentinel. He covered all kinds of news, but he soon learned he loved to write about protecting Florida’s environment. It became a central part of a passion that has taken him all over the world since then, with stops along the way including the Florida governor’s office, the executive office of the U.S. president, the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the top spot as chief judge on the world trade court in Geneva, a leadership role in the nation’s largest law firm, and now the University of Central Florida.
Today Bacchus serves as distinguished university professor of global affairs and founder and director of UCF’s Center for Global Economic and Environmental Opportunity (GEEO), appointed in 2017 by former UCF President John Hitt. GEEO’s mission is to help grow and link innovative sustainability initiatives locally, regionally and worldwide.
“I’ve been working on these issues all my life,” Bacchus says. “This is a 21st century approach, and we are well along to establishing the network we believe will do much to help advance the many aims of global sustainable development.”
At a time when the nation’s second-largest university is gaining increasing attention for its research and expertise in areas of science and technology, Bacchus brings the university worldwide recognition in sustainability — or, more specifically, sustainable development.
“When many people hear the word ‘sustainability,’ they tend to think only of the environment, but it’s about all of our environmental, economic and social needs,” Bacchus says. “The classic definition of sustainable development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This is taken from the United Nations Commission on Development report of 1987, and it is a foundational document for all of our work toward sustainable development in the decades since.”
Working with many others throughout the world, Bacchus helped devise the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the U.N. for 2030, which encompass everything from ending poverty and hunger to achieving gender equality to attaining affordable and clean energy to responsible consumption and production. One of the goals is addressing climate change, which Bacchus has done as a legal adviser to the U.N. on the Paris climate agreement.
“The U.N. goals range far and wide beyond environmental concerns, but a key foundation of thinking about sustainable development is that all of these social, economic and environmental concerns are interrelated,” Bacchus says. “They cannot be seen as separate and distinct. They are one and the same. You cannot solve any one of them without solving the others.”
Sustainable development is a topic Bacchus knows well. His second book, originally published by Cambridge University Press in 2018 and released in paperback format in March, is titled The Willing World: Shaping and Sharing a Sustainable Global Prosperity.
“It’s not a New York Times bestseller, but it has more than achieved my modest goals for publication,” he says. “My goal has been for my book to help amplify my message, and it has more than succeeded in doing that. Also, the reviews have been very good. The Financial Times of London named The Willing World one of the best books of the year. I was especially pleased by the last sentence of the review: ‘Read and be inspired.’”
Bacchus looks back to one experience in particular that shaped him for this lifelong body of work. At age 24, he became the youngest aide to Reubin Askew, a man he still calls “the greatest governor Florida has ever had.”
“I had the great privilege of working alongside Governor Askew and others in helping create for Florida a commitment by law to growth management in the state,” Bacchus says. “Growth management then was what we call sustainable development now.”
Bacchus served as deputy press secretary and chief speechwriter for Askew in the mid-1970s and then as special assistant to the governor from 1979 to 1981, when Askew was serving as the chief trade negotiator for the United States. Bacchus went into politics himself and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives representing Florida’s 11th District in 1990 and 1992. During two terms, he accumulated a long list of accomplishments ranging from legislation approving the International Space Station to that creating the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge for endangered sea turtles.
Bacchus chose not to seek reelection in 1994, in part so he could work globally and focus more on broadening and improving international cooperation. From 1995 through 2003, he was a founding member and twice chairman of the highest global tribunal for international trade, the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He served from 2004 to 2017 as chair of the global practice of Greenberg Traurig, P.A., the nation’s largest law firm with offices all over the world.
One day in the second week of November 2016, he looked at himself in the mirror and decided he could no longer justify spending more time practicing law than on working on all the community and global causes that are so important to him. Hitt at UCF had been tugging on his sleeve for 20 years to join the UCF faculty. Bacchus reached out to him and finally said yes.
“This has proven to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Bacchus says. “It helps, of course, that Orlando is my hometown and that I represented Central Florida in the Congress. It also helps that my wife, my two children, my three sisters, my brother, various nieces and nephews, dogs and cats and 93-year-old mother all live in Central Florida. There is nowhere else I would want to be.”
Bacchus spends his time teaching, writing and speaking worldwide about aspects of sustainable development. He has affiliations with universities and think tanks on a part-time basis on several other continents and is actively engaged in numerous global initiatives. He holds a chair in international law at Zhejiang University in China and usually travels to China several times a year. His travel schedule earlier this year included trips to Indonesia and Europe. He acts as an ambassador for UCF, carrying Central Florida’s message to the world and bringing global knowledge back to the university.
One of his colleagues on the court in Geneva — an Egyptian man almost 40 years his senior — once told Bacchus that the best way to stay young is to work alongside young people. It’s a piece of advice he has gladly followed, especially now that he’s surrounded by UCF students.
“The students may be improving my understanding more than I’m improving theirs,” he says. “The young people today do not have to be persuaded that we need to protect the planet. They know we do. But they do want to know how best they can do so, now and going forward. Where I can be the most helpful is with the how. That’s a principal purpose of GEEO.”
One challenge Bacchus and GEEO are addressing is the relationship between the effects people are having on the health of the planet and the effects the climatic and other ecological perils of the planet are having on the lives, livelihoods and well-being of people.
“A recent national study showed that of the 10 metropolitan areas in the country most likely to be adversely affected economically by the impacts of climate change between now and the end of this century, eight are in Florida and four are along the I-4 corridor,” Bacchus says. “This is not some distant issue. It’s here now in our back yard.”
He is helping spearhead two local efforts to measure, monitor and mobilize economic, environmental and social advances in Central Florida. That’s because all efforts should start locally, he said. “I do not believe our challenges for sustainable development can be met worldwide by imposing top-down solutions from global summits at the top of the world. Global solutions must emerge from innovative local solutions all over the world that are scaled up and linked up. For me, the principal focus is locally and regionally.”
In one local project, Bacchus serves on the steering committee for the East Central Florida Regional Resilience Collaborative, a new intergovernmental effort launched by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council. The eight-county initiative is intended to promote economic, environmental and social resilience.
“We cannot have resilience without sustainable development,” Bacchus says. “We will be starting with some specific fact-finding to figure out where we are as a basis for figuring out where we need to be in preparing our region for the future. For example, we will be doing a regional inventory to determine the extent of our current greenhouse gas emissions. We need to know what they are now so we can begin measuring as we try to reduce them.”
The second project is the Central Florida Higher Education Partnership for Sustainable Development, planned for a launch at Rollins College, where Bacchus served as an adjunct professor of politics in the mid-1990s. Rollins offers students a new sustainable development minor that connects environmental studies and business. On behalf of UCF, Bacchus is coordinating with Susan Singer, the Rollins provost and vice president for academic affairs, to enlist other local higher education institutions to join the initiative.
“We will be focused on improving sustainability in our own institutional operations, on improving the ways we teach the need for sustainable development in the curriculum and on community action,” Bacchus says. “The principal initial form of our community action will be to provide from UCF, and from all the other participating institutions, technical advice and expertise sought by the Regional Resilience Collaborative.”
Getting colleges and universities involved will guarantee intergenerational participation in sustainable development, Bacchus says. He serves as a leading adviser for the U.S. effort to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and will share what is learned and done in the Central Florida projects with the people involved in the national initiative.
“I am still a grassroots activist. That’s how I ended up running for Congress in the first place,” he says. “Governor Askew always told me, ‘Because you can’t do everything, don’t refuse to do all you can do.’ This is good advice when trying to approach the steep incline of all we need to do to achieve global sustainable development.
“There is something all of us can do, and we all have to resolve to do it. We also have to do all we can to be prepared to do it. That’s where higher education comes in and that’s part of why I believe sustainable development must become a common thread in all we teach in higher education.”
Bacchus sees all this activity as a new chapter not only in his life, and perhaps in another book, but also in the way Central Florida contributes to global sustainable development: “I have an abiding commitment to a life of service. After decades of trying my best to serve, beginning at the age of 13, I feel like I am just getting started. I am grateful to UCF for giving me the opportunity and the base to enable me to keep going. I also believe UCF is just getting started.”