February 17, 2013

This week, a flat-footed and unfunny comment on sustainability. My apologies to anyone who came here for respite or relief.

The thought that you can ruin a farm is old, and the idea that we’ve set off on a path that leads nowhere in our general approach to farming has been sounded loudly since the 1970s. In the 80s, a key report introduced the idea of sustainable development. Sustainability became a buzzword, but for a good decade and a half, most people who heard the word suspected that people who thought they knew what they were talking about when they used it were suffering from some kind of delusion. When I came to MSU in 2003, there was a general reluctance to associate any idea or program with the idea of sustainability. Then as if by magic, everything changed. Sustainability was on everyone’s lips.

What happened? Answering that would be long and too boring even for me. But one thing that happened was that lots of people keyed in on the idea that there was money to be made by looking for ways to use natural resources more efficiently. And another thing that happened—this one more miraculous than the first—is that it became acceptable to question the justice and fairness of certain economic arrangements when sustainability was on the table. These two developments meant that science and technology types long focused on efficiency could break bread with social change types advocating for fairness and justice. Within limits, organizations like massive international corporations and local city governments showed themselves willing to participate in this sustainability conversation. If these new efficiency gains could be distributed fairly, that would be sustainable.  Let’s go for it!

Except that as people began to think more carefully about the way that economic activity and social change occur within a broader environment—what our ancestors called “nature”—they started to understand how both can threaten ecosystems. Many people on the forefront of this learning curve are now ready to move beyond sustainability. They are itching to embrace resilience. I understand this. If you thought that sustainability was all about “having enough”, it was natural for you to think that finding ways to get what you want by using less would be a good thing. And it was not that difficult to link your desire for “enough” to a big ethical question: Enough for whom? When that question is on the table, you are talking pretty straight-up social justice, and it’s not that hard to see that future generations are part of the story, as well. But now you’ve figured out that this problem is actually a little more complicated than that. If you break the underlying natural system that produces a flow of resources—water to drink, fish to eat, soils to grow in, stable weather (this list gets very long)—well, you’re screwed. It’s time to rethink this puzzle.

And rethinking it in terms of resilience is not a bad idea. Most ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of stress without breaking. They “bounce back,” like the way that when you push down on a buoyant object, it pops right back to the surface. Resilience is a name for the features that allow a system to absorb stress and then return to its original parameters. But you can push an ecosystem beyond its ability to bounce back. What we need, you’re now thinking, is NOT sustainability, but resilience. It’s time to go beyond sustainability; it’s time to think in terms of resilience!

Except for two things, and I am here today to tell you what those two things are.

Number one is that resilience was always part of sustainability. If you thought that sustainability was simply about having enough, that was your problem, not a deficiency in the idea of sustainability that bunches of us have been pushing for over forty years now. As for my own self, I’ve been pointing out that there’s always been tension between people who understand sustainability to be a problem of resource sufficiency, on the one hand, and those who stress functional integrity, on the other. But that’s too complicated for a blog. Read my book.

Number two is that sustainability is both more comprehensive and more complex than resilience. One of the problems that we face in achieving sustainability is that some of the socioeconomic systems we’ve come to rely on are too resilient. We need to break them and look for something better. Sustainability is a great way to start a conversation, and we shouldn’t give up on the idea just because that conversation makes us re-think our assumptions a little bit. When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams sat across the table during President George Washington’s cabinet meetings to have a conversation about democracy, they discovered that each of them understood this idea that they had just fought a war over somewhat differently. We can be thankful that they didn’t give up the conversation to look for some new word.

Sustainability is still a good idea. Let’s not give up on it just yet.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University



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