Tuesday, October 21, 2008

So, what is it?

I heard a college kid explain to her father that "...sustainability is just another term for environmentalism", as I rode home on the Metro yesterday evening. The word "sustainability" has been bandied about here and there, especially since the UN's World Summit on Sustainable Development dispersed the idea in 2002. But, it seems that lots of people still don't get it.
So, what is sustainability? Is it purely an environmental idea, as our student suggests? Have sustainable ways of life ever existed? Do any exist now? If we were to shift our current way of life to a sustainable one, who would win and who would lose?

Image source: Wikipedia

17 comments:

Progressive said...

I think it can be argued that sustainability currently resides within the walls of environmentalism - which makes sense. The practices of sustainability - those that can be maintained in the present without compromising the ability for future generations to act out those same practices - are inherent to the current environmental movement.

It can be argued that the push for a new energy plan is based on a sustainability need. Climate change points out the unsustainable actions of suburbanization, rampant fossil fuel consumption, large agricultural businesses, and the like.

I've seen "expert" talk about current unfair trade agreements as being unsustainable for the US. Same could be said of population booms in China and India.

So, while sustainability is housed in the environmental movement, it is in fact a very multidisciplinary subject as the examples point out. Engineering, policy, economics, social science - really everything that makes up BIA - are important to define and understand sustainability.

Your final question merits its own individual post, I think.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Prog: I disagree. Sustainability is NOT within the "walls of environmentalism" (as currently defined) by any stretch. Today's mainline environmental movement is heavily focused on preservation. Sustainability is a much better fit with conservation. Conservation is a mindset that predominated the early environmental movement of the late 1800's and early 1900's. Conservation also describes many agricultural producers -- even some of the large ones. It is a lifestyle of sustainability because the land is their livlihood. To see it in action you might have to get away from the coasts and visit the heartland of this country -- the part that feeds the world.

Progressive said...

So you don't think there has been a large scale shift to include "sustainability" in the ethos of "environmentalism"?

You are correct in stating the environmental movement, historically, has been preservation based, but I think there has been a movement to include conservation into their line of thinking.

I refer to environmentalists like Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus who have written extensively about sustainability being a key factor in the environmental movement.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

No, I don't. I think there has been a shift among some of the leadership -- the followers aren't all following.

Progressive said...

Then what is your individual sense?

Is sustainability an environmental issue? How would you define it?

Sue said...

Chris your statement To see it in action you might have to get away from the coasts and visit the heartland of this country -- the part that feeds the world, is mind boggling in its arrogance. check out http://www.ers.usda.gov/StateFacts/
and you will see that 33% (one third) of America's agricultural/farm production takes place in the states that line the Pacific and Atlantic coasts despite the fact that they represent less than a third of the nations total land mass. Moreover no state produces more agricultural product for both domestic consumption and export than California (which produces 12.8% of total production and is #1 in exports -- compared to only 6.7% for Texas). You don't get any more "coastal" than California!

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Prog: Sustainability is an environmental issue -- but not exclusive to it. It is a life issue. But, like so many other words, it is loaded with sub-issues. You point to one when you point to Big Agriculture. One thing we must sustain is human life. How do you do that? Food is critical.

Sue: Perhaps I should have been more careful with my wording. Yes, California is number 1 -- but not on the coast (the cities). You need to get into the interior valleys to find the ag. production. I've been from Red Bluff to Brawley -- it is all agriculture. They also have very different world views than the people in San Francisco, San Diego and L.A. Florida is another large ag producer. Again, you must get into the interior of the state to find it. Drive the I-75 corridor from the Georgia line to Okeechobee -- you'll see agriculture -- from dairies to pine plantations to orange groves. Again, it is a very different world than Tampa and Miami.

No arrogance intended. Merely defense. Most city dwellers think only negative about agriculture -- especially in relation to the environment. In reality, the greatest plague on the environment is the cities themselves. I'd like to see a "sustainable" city -- one that feeds and clothes itself. Now, that would really be sustainability.

Sue said...

Perhaps, Chris, it is ignorance rather than arrogance, because you obviously don't know much about the reality of agriculture in California, or Virginia, or North Carolina, or South Carolina, or Georgia, where agriculture IS on the coasts. Take for example, San Mateo County, the county where I grew up for 17 years in California. Just south of San Francisco, San Mateo county spans the San Francisco penninsula, the Bay side of the peninsula where I grew up, is today solid city, but was dotted with dairy farms when I was a child, but the OCEAN side of the penninsula is where the agriculture happens (both today and in the past), where the artichokes, pumpkins, brussel sprouts, and several other types of vegetables are grown, in fields from which you can view the ocean. San Mateo county is far from the only California county in which agriculture flourishes in view of the ocean. My mother grew up in a farming family, in a farming community (which is still a farming community), in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where fingers of land crisscut into fields of tomatoes, potatoes, melons, soybeans, etc. reach out into the Cheasapeake and the Atlantic. So don't tell me that agriculture doesn't happen on the coasts. Moreover, you know that isn't what you meant in the first place.
And how do you know what "most city dwellers" think about agriculture and the environment? Aren't you a "city dweller" (you live in a town of more than 2,500 people, and not on a working farm.

Progressive said...

I'm just going to skip taking offense to my city roots and note that while I may not have grown up on a farm, in a rural town, or outside of the "east coast," I'm not naive or uneducated on the subject.

With that said, I think you and I have some commonality, we just may not be using the same terms.

You speak of sub issues and this was the point I was trying to make. Sustainability is not just one discipline or thought process, but it is telling and important to realize that the current environmental movement is taking up the "sustainability" mantle more and more.

And, yes, sustainability is a way of life in much the same way that "street smarts" is a way of life in a city - its how you survive.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: I have traveled in most of the agricultural production areas of the country -- I even found a couple of dairies in Maine. In Alaska I have seen amazing vegetables (size -- I'm not much of a veggie eater). I suspect that I have a fairly broad view of ag production in the U.S. I've been in all but a couple of states -- mostly on work-related travel. My business for the past 26 years has been agriculture. I know there is ag production in coastal areas. Coastal plains are often very rich in productive capability -- of course, much of that productivity has been paved over today.

Here's a site that might interest you. You can choose by state and get a good profile of agriculture within that state -- the numbers. Actually touching the soil and visiting with the producers in those areas is truly the best way to get a feel for what those producers do.

By-the-way Sue, I spent last week in Georgia visiting with farmers and ranchers. The cotton harvest was in full swing as was the peanut harvest. I was in the southern part of the sate -- most of the time in the Valdosta/Moultrie area. I am currently in Victoria, Texas, which is about 620 miles from my home which is in the country although near a town of about 15,000 and not far from a city of about 200,000. Ag production in Victoria (located in the coastal plains of Texas) is varied but predominately livestock, feed grains and cotton. I will be here most of the week meeting with ag producers -- it's what I do.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: Here's a link to a fun tool. You can create maps on a county-by-county basis for various crops/livestock, etc.

E. R. Dunhill said...

All,
This has been a great discussion so far. One issue I'm seeing repeated is that there are clearly different world views competing to define sustainability, even if they might at first seem fairly similar. Another is that of scale, both geographical and temporal.
The issue as the city as something sustainable is an interesting question. Clearly, my little plot of heirloom corn and vegetables and my American hazels (which, as yet remain purely hypothetical) can't go very far to feed me and my family. I would raise the question though, how could we support a population of 6+ billion people (and the industry and trade that support them) without cities? I pose this question not to be contrary, but in pursuit of an answer. Is a world without cities possible? Do we have to realize negative population growth for that to happen?
My personal thoughts are that cities are necessary as part of a larger sustainable system, given the current state of population, affluence, technology, and the environment.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: My point in the comment about cities is this: We're all in this together. Agriculture needs the cities to produce steel and to make tractors, plows, etc. Cities need agriculture to help feed them. We need coal mines and nuclear power plants and services and factories and.... It is all interlocking.

Often, "environmentalists" point at "Big Agriculture" as one of the major culprits in the so-called environmental wreck that they claim our planet is in. They don't stop to think about where their food comes from. Many of them sit in their homes in a city and complain or drive the Mercedes their Daddy bought for them to the forest and chain themselves to trees (but I'll stop there because I left my soapbox at home). I hear pie-in-the-sky schemes for "natural" foods and production practices -- they won't get the job done. Just as you allude to your own food production as inadequate for your own needs, the same could be said for virtually everyone. Unless we divided the globe into 2?-acre plots of equally productive land in ideal climates, the idea of each producing his own food is not going to happen. We have big agriculture due to specialization -- just like a factory that makes some widget to go into a car, there are efficiencies gained by specialization in agriculture.

All of us need to escape narrow thinking and think in macro-systems from time-to-time. We must realize the interdependence that we have. Our inconveniences are someone else's convenience and our advantages are someone else's disadvantage. Cooperation (which is why we have cities) is forced upon us because we are unable to be self-contained entities. We are not designed to stand alone -- which in a way points toward a macro-sustainable system. It is a system of abundance that is perpetual. It is a system in which recyclability is part of the design. It is NOT a system of "lack" that is designed around minimizing consumption.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris,
Thanks for your comments. I only have a moment.
First, I haven't had a chance to read it all the way through, but I just heard about this article. It seems apropos.
Second, if stereotypes of agribusiness are unfair, why aren't stereotypes of urbanites or environmentalists? I know lots of enviros, but virtually no overpriv'd, protesting sheep.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I hadn't seen that article but I have seen a number of others that were similar. All they need is good governance and to be rid of AIDS and it might be doable. More power to them.

As to stereotypes, yep, we all put people into them. It's the way human minds work.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris,
That's rather enlightened, for a gun-slinging, football-obsessed, boot-wearing, oil-drinking Texan.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Actually, ERD, I prefer Scotch with a wee bit o' water....