I was wrong about sustainability. Well, sort of.

I’ve changed my mind about sustainability.  Well, sort of.    

Perhaps I’ve just been a bit curmudgeonly, but I’ve bristled at the often-used word “sustainability” in the context of food and agriculture. Sustainability seems to be one of those feel-good, vacuous buzz words that is thrown around to support whatever cause the wielder of the word wants to support.  In fact, in The Food Police, I wrote:

the sustainability movement largely represents an elitist attempt to ration scarce resources using social pressure, guilt, and regulation

On the one hand, it is hard to argue with the concept of sustainability.  Wikipedia simply says it is the “the capacity to endure” and to remain “productive over time.”

That doesn’t sound so problematic.  Who doesn’t want to endure and remain productive?

I’ve come to realize my problem is not with the concept of sustainability per se but rather with the way many people propose to achieve the outcome.

In food and agriculture, “sustainability” has come to be interpreted as synonymous with organic, “natural”, and local.  In this sort of vision, the way we endure and sustain our production over time is that we have a smaller population, we need to spend more time working the land, we need to spend more money on food, and we need to learn to like to eat different kinds of foods.  Maybe that kind of future sounds good to some folks, but for my taste, if that is the kind of future that will be sustained, count me out.  I suppose our cave-man forefathers could have carried on quite “sustainably” for a very long time, but their “sustainable” life is not one I’d prefer being born into.  This “natural” future is not the kind of future in which I want to live, and I think that is why I’ve been bothered by the word “sustainability.” 

The thing that is missing in the local, slow, organic vision of sustainability is any serious consideration of the role of scientific and technological advancement.  Sustainable doesn’t have to mean stagnant.  Rather, I posit that any future worth fighting for is one that is dynamic, innovative, and exciting; one in which there will be many fellow humans, with bountiful opportunities to eat and work as their hearts desire.  In all likelihood, there will be another billion people show up on this earth in the next 40 to 50 years, and if we are to “endure” and remain productive and prosperous, it will require advancements in food and agricultural technologies.      

We don’t have to take a step back to sustain our current living and eating standards.  We can continue to enjoy the wonderful abundance of food and even improve our living standards.  But technological optimism won’t cut it.  We actually have to invest in research and development.  We actually have to be willing to adopt new food and agricultural technologies.

I am a proponent of technological advancement in food and agriculture because it is the root underlying cause of our gains in prosperity.  That’s why I now am in favor of sustainability.  Because, as I see it, in an ideal future, they’re one in the same.