August 24, 2014
Is there a robot out there who can help me with one of my more importunate research problems? Some time ago—maybe four or five years back—there was a particular aphorism that was circulating in sustainability studies. I wouldn’t say that it had gone viral, but I must have heard a half dozen different speakers recite it during the course of talking about sustainability. It went something like this: “If you are heading to Canada and you are driving 100 miles an hour in the direction of Mexico, slowing down to 20 miles an hour won’t help.”
When I heard this, I used to think, “Well that’s not right. Have you ever tried to execute a 180° turn at 100 miles an hour?” Not that I have tried to do this, but you get the idea. However, the point (I think) that people were trying to make with this was a good one. A lot of work in sustainability just focuses on increasing efficiencies that would slow the rate of resource depletion, but that “stuff” (water, soil, energy, rare earths) is going to be gone sooner or later in any case. It’s better to think of sustainability by identifying the appropriate “living space” for the human species and then aiming to work within those limits. I’ve tried to get at this by talking about people who think that sustainability is about “resource sufficiency” as opposed to people who understand “functional integrity,” but perhaps that’s just a symptom of my own peculiar Asperger’s disorder.
So maybe this Mexico aphorism makes the point better. I’m reasonably sure that half the speakers I heard reciting this little tidbit had no idea what it meant. They just thought it was sounded cool and was mildly thought provoking. Or they thought it was just a generic criticism of stupidity. Of course, it could be the case that they just disagreed with me, and that I was wrong. But this is my blog, so we’re certainly not going to take that possibility seriously here.
So for some time now (at least twenty minutes) I’ve been trying to figure out the original source of this heading to Mexico thing. And don’t tell me that it was Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs (Pack my bags; don’t be too slow. I should of quit you baby a long time ago) or James Taylor (Wo-oh, down in Mexico, I never really been so I don’t really know). I might have been William McDonough, but the robots have not really been much help. McDonough is the guy who came up with “Waste = Food” and cradle-to-cradle. The robots keep directing me to things about immigration or they presume that (like Miller and Scaggs) I’m actually thinking about going to Mexico myself. If it was McDonough who coined this idea he should have put his little meme into a song lyric or ring tone so that commercially motivated search robots would have some incentive to find it. What is a lazy researcher to do in cases like this?
At this point I’m about to resort to actual human beings. And don’t forget, the tomatoes are finally in in Michigan.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University