Sustainability: what does it mean exactly?

No. 2 in an occasional series of articles covering agroforestry-related topics in greater depth

‘Sustainability’ has become a buzz-word in everyday conversation. But I wonder how many of us have thought about what it actually means? If we buy food labelled as organic in a supermarket, for example, does that mean we are supporting a more sustainable form of agriculture? Unfortunately, the answer is probably “no”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘sustainable’, in the context of development or agriculture, as “not leading to depletion of resources or degradation of the environment”, and I guess that the concept of sustainability has been around since time immemorial, in the sense that humankind has always needed to manage its resources and environment to make sure of the next meal. The word itself seems to have originated in 18th century European forestry to mean never taking more from the forest that it can itself regenerate.

By the 20th century, ecological issues were being more seriously considered, perhaps as a counter to the rise in factory farming, and from mid-century, the scope of sustainability was now accepted to cover the whole range of biological systems, the fact that ecosystems of all kinds needed to continue to operate and maintain diversity in order to regenerate. Implicit within this was the notion that humans need to take care of how they live on the planet, for the benefit of future generations – an important development. In other words, a balance had to be struck between human and planetary needs to ensure that the system was self-propagating. And at the same time the rise of the consumer society brought economic considerations to the fore, another key factor.

So by the beginning of the 21st century, environmental, economic and social needs became the three pillars of sustainability. But in the previous three or four decades, warnings had begun to be sounded about climate change, the rise in CO2 levels and the unbridled depletion of the planet’s resources. This led to several initiatives, one of the most notable being the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 (originally with the lofty ideal of eradicating world poverty), which were eight internationally agreed targets for the health of the planet and the populations it supports, including one for ensuring environmental sustainability. These were superseded by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2016, a shift which redefined the MDG’s in the light of lack of progress, and gave greater emphasis to environmental sustainability (see graphic below).

That all seems pretty logical and straightforward you might think; the trouble is, it isn’t, because we are not keeping to our side of the bargain, and the last 100 years or so has seen, and continues to see, an exponential rise in abuse of the natural balance, so that today we are in a situation which demands urgent change. The fundamental rule is broken – we are not living sustainably. Economic considerations and rampant consumerism override environmental and social needs, with the result that the planet can no longer regenerate itself fast enough.

To return to the example at the beginning of this piece, and it is just one example of many, the big supermarkets have allowed economics, marketing hype and profit to dictate their policies, and ‘organic’ is taken to mean elimination or just a reduction in the use of agrochemicals in food production. A good thing as far as it goes, but in order to maintain their margins and the levels of production required for mass distribution, the supermarkets still demand products grown under intensive agriculture, with the use of monocultures, massive amounts of irrigation and poor soil management, for example, quite apart from the human rights and community issues involved in how the labour force is set up and used in many areas – in other words, ignoring environmental and social considerations.

So sustainability really is the bottom line, and of course, it is not all bad news. There are many good things happening all over the world in what is hopefully a general awakening to our plight – for example, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, one of several urban ‘agrihoods’ in this troubled Michigan city, or large-scale polyculture farms, and forest gardens.

One word I have noticed being increasingly used, not just around where I live in France, but generally in the media and at the online conferences I attend, is ‘local’. The Covid crisis seems to have stirred something in the public psyche that we need to stop moving produce around the world, with the environmental and ecological upheaval that that entails, and support local production of more nutritious food. I hope it continues.

Further reading: Two books, one from 1962, the other from 1979, which are just as relevant today as when they were first published. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was one of the first to highlight the dangers of agrochemicals, and is still regarded as a milestone in environmentalism today. In Gaia, James Lovelock, now 100 and still writing, sets out his theory on the life of Mother Earth (Gaia), and how unsustainable use of the planet’s resources will affect us.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin (USA) and Hamish Hamilton (UK).

Lovelock, J. (1979). Gaia, a New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, UK.

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