Sustainable" is a word that is used in almost every possible way. It is contorted, misused and even abused. We find it everywhere, from Sustainable Agriculture to Sustainable Development to Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Civilizations to Sustainable Bio-Energy Systems to Sustainable Life to Sustainable Tourism and the list goes on. In many ways the meaning of the word "sustainable" appears to have taken on life itself and is self-replicating and evolving into similar yet diverse interpretations.
Our present concerns with sustainability are not new. Throughout the ages, from the times of earliest recorded history, there is evidence that men and women have been concerned about the basic concepts of sustainability. Perhaps they couldn’t help but notice that some cultures, some civilizations did not persist, at least they didn’t continue to progressively evolve; their culture eventually declined and some collapsed. The hey-days of Sumerian culture and civilization came and went; so did Babylon, Greece, Rome, Egypt; the great cultures and civilizations of China, India and the Maya and Angkor.
To not expect that our present civilization will eventually go through a similar cycle may be too optimistic and so our concerns about sustainability may be justified. The current trajectory of our lives will certainly change, our culture and civilization will evolve. In this process of change who will win and who will lose? How might we improve the likelihood that our lives and those of our posterity will be better? Perhaps a consistent thread is that we don’t know as much about sustainability as we like to think we do. The future remains largely unknown and what challenges face our civilization we know not.
The concern is that some of the activities in which we engage, some of the ways we live may well not be sustainable. Human-built systems almost always have a failure mode inherent in them. They can fail socially, ecologically, economically or politically, to mention just a few. The institutions we create can fail due to the corruption which comes from competition which is too intense and lacks the boundaries created by moral values. Systems can fail of inflexibility, of arrogance, which is the knowledge we deprive ourselves of due to pride and overconfidence. On the contrary they can fail from lack of stability and complete flexibility and lack of confidence. We must be able to form reasonable expectations of the outcomes of our actions. A mouse placed in a cage with half the floor black and the other white will, if shocked while on the black, go to the white, or if shocked on the white, go to the black, but if arbitrarily shocked while on the black or white with randomness, will retreat to a corner and quiver in inaction not being able to form any reasonable expectations of the future.
To help us think better we need to be more specific about what we mean. At times the word "sustainable" is used very casually and off-the-cuff without much forethought as to what is really meant. Too often it is an attempt to describe some action or plan which we think is somehow better, different or greener, which itself tells us nothing. Three key questions help to inform this sustainability discussion, in our case U.S. Agriculture, but the same questions can improve the way we talk about any of the subjects to which sustainability is applied:
1. What is it that makes something unsustainable?
2. Why and how is something different, more sustainable?
3. Sustainability infers resilience over a period of time. Few things last forever; if something is sustainable, over what period of time are we claiming it will last?
Most would agree that the present issues of sustainable agriculture in the U.S. were initiated in the Great Depression, but were interrupted for ten years by World War II. We saw it then pick up momentum again somewhere in the 1960s and early 1970s. The problem then was that population was growing, world health, food adequacy and living conditions were all parts of the heightened social awareness of that era. It was really a typical Malthusian Economics paradigm of too many people and too few resources. Personal memories of the Great Depression persisted. Our parents and grandparents had vivid, keen memories of being displaced, of land depletion and degradation. Ecological damage was a plague on the productivity of every farmer and was every day all too apparent. It was the impetus behind such books as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and later the interdisciplinary academic work The Limits to Growth (1972). We saw the "Back to the Land" movement in the early '70s, and heighted interest in organic agriculture.
The problem is that we are locked into thinking the way we have in the past as the world changes away from us, leaving us sometimes dysfunctional.
Population: While population continues to rise slightly, it is not from increased birth rates, but better infant mortality rates and longevity due to better food, dental and medical care. Immigration in the U.S. also plays a major factor in population growth. Birth rates are and have been declining in the U.S. and around the world. At present the worldwide average number of daughters per woman is just one, and falling. In western countries it is much less than one. Serious demographers understand this and within ten to 20 years, population will be decreasing around the world; sooner in western countries.
Resources: In 1972 some of the best academic minds on four continents using some of the first attempts at computer modeling compared the expected population growth with the consumption rate of the known resources and published it as The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. In it, on pages 56 to 59, they predict that we would have run out of petroleum in 1992; natural gas in 1994; tin in 1989 and gold in 1981. They were obviously wrong. Today, the International Energy Agency notes that North America (the U.S. and Canada) in 2014 will produce more oil than ever before and more oil than OPEC. An oil glut is expected, along with a drop in prices. U.S. dependency of foreign oil is diminishing as is OPEC’s influence on U.S. foreign policy. Who would have ever thought it possible, 40 years ago, this month, at the height of the Arab oil embargo and start of the energy crisis.
Ecology: While globalization presents its own set of problems, with the passing of the continental expansion mindset of a century ago, most U.S. farmers are learning stewardship of their home farms. What farmer of today is no longer concerned about soil compaction and the cost to alleviate it? No longer can the land be abused, used up, then discarded as the farmer moves on. Ecological progress has been made. There is significant improvement in some ecological areas. We are using softer, more specific pesticides. Interest and practice of organic agriculture is growing. Fresh water remains a major issue, as is the heavy use of inorganic fertilizers which contaminate the groundwater with nitrates. The long-term use of GMOs remain a concern as the technology is really so radically new and the long-term effects of it unknown. Biodiversity is improving albeit slowly, yet too much of the farm landscape remains as huge monocultures. Many endangered species have returned and in certain areas of the U.S. they are becoming problematic again. The most endangered species on the farm may be the farmer himself. We are simply losing too many good farmers. In my understanding, the overriding agro-ecology problem today is caused by farmers trying to force too much money out of their farms with higher production, knowing, but not personally comprehending the destructive forces of that high production which will drive down prices and push farmers out. We are our own nemesis, the unexpected victims of our own greed.
Going forward: With fewer people, the demand for food will be less. Obesity is currently more of a problem in the U.S. than hunger and starvation ever were. If production continues upward, low prices will result. If farmers are thus caught with high debt levels that limit their ability to adapt and change, it could be catastrophic. This is especially true if farm subsidies are minimized in the coming age of austerity. If there were U.S. farm surpluses in the past, they will be huge in the future, as will be the corresponding drop in farm commodity prices. Farm subsidies will likely be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated altogether for the reciprocal reason that they started: because of the voting power of the number of farmers. Two generations ago there were enough farmers that national elections could be won or lost on the farmer vote; today, we have too few farmers. The tug-of-war over the federal budget will have a different outcome. There are larger interests which will win the scarce budget dollars.
The Malthusian view of the world has changed and today lacks relevance. If he submitted his thesis today it would be rejected as lacking a valid premise. But we persist in thinking economically in typical Malthusian terms. Many economists think: "It is the economics that we were taught, it is what we do well, if I am to be employed I must use it". That does not change the fact that it is the wrong tool and gives us wrong answers for the present problems in U.S. agriculture. Without the U.S. Government willing to subsidize and pay farmers for their excess production and then to distribute (some say dump) that food to other countries, prices will drop and not a little. U.S. Agriculture may falter first for political reasons rather than social, economic or ecological ones. If our agriculture would be sustainable, we may need to practice it without farm subsidies or, at the very least, learn to keep a greater proportion of the subsidies that pass through the farm.
The world around us is changing. There is more than one farmer of the 1970s who started using horses to farm with because they thought fossil fuels would run out. However, on their farms today working horses persist on a mixed-power operation simply because they have found a practical place for working horses and enjoy doing so as do many of their children and grandchildren. It is not that the horses are economical, in and of themselves, placing four horses in the south pasture will not make your farm more efficient. But, the caring, thinking farmer with a little aptitude for animal husbandry and innovation can develop the working horse into an economical and practical asset on the modern farm.
The real genius behind sustainable agriculture is that it's a great forum around which we as farmers can and have discussed the key issues and deeper questions of how we should farm and how we should live. The questions of how should we live and farm cannot be breeched unless we are also willing to discuss our motives of why we live and why we farm in a civil manner. This, in turn, must allow the discussion of moral values, ethics, spirituality, religion and purpose of life. It is a discussion that thinking and caring people must engage in for the well-being of their society, their posterity and civilization.
(A) Rebecca D. Costa; 2010, The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, Vanguard Press.
(B) The United Nations Population Database; Detailed Indicators, Net Reproduction Rate; Low Variability; 1950-2100, by country. http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/unpp/p2k0data.asp
(C) Timothy Beardson; 2013, Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future, Yale University Press. See also http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/04/19/chinas-declining-working-age-population/
Note: Alvin D. Hansen was President of the American Economic Association during the Great Depression and was a significant influence to John Hicks, Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow and James Tobin. He explained that real economic growth without population growth was difficult, if not impossible. His answer was continual large Government injections of financial resources, i.e., Keynesian Economics. However, in the likely coming age of austerity, farm subsidies will be much smaller and without population growth we are left with stagnation or negative real economic growth. New economic theorists and models are needed. We must learn to think differently. See The American Economic Review, March, 1939, Economic Progress and Declining Population Growth.
P.S. Climate change is still a topic for discussion.