May 16, 2012
The Trouble with "Sustainability"
Last Saturday, a truly great American died. Norman Borlaug, known throughout the world as the father of the green revolution, was 95. A farm boy from Iowa, Borlaug revolutionized modern agriculture by developing new seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers that exponentially increased agricultural yields and today sustain more than 6 billion of us globally.
One of the great stains on the modern environmental movement was its opposition to Borlaug's work. Stanford professors Paul Ehrlich and current White House science adviser John Holdren famously argued in the late 1960s that halting food aid and sterilization would be more humane than new agricultural technologies. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned that pesticides would be humankind's downfall. And many prominent environmental groups remain largely hostile to Borlaug's work, for which he won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
There's little doubt that chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been abused. But to focus exclusively on the unintended consequences of those technologies while ignoring the extraordinary accomplishments of a revolution that virtually ended famine and malnourishment in most parts of the world is ingratitude at its worst. And Borlaug's innovations, along with those of other agricultural pioneers who came before him, did more than save lives.
If you make your living today doing something other than agricultural labor, as virtually all of us do, you can thank Norman Borlaug, and thousands of others like him, for the innovations that make such lives possible. Three hundred years ago, when virtually the entire human population devoted its labors to growing enough food to sustain themselves, such lives would have been unimaginable.
Yet, even in Borlaug's death, some environmentalists today ask whether or not modern agricultural technologies are "sustainable." But since when did we evaluate technologies for whether or not they lasted forever? We don't, thank god, use the same machines or agricultural practices of our grandparents much less our Neolithic ancestors. The existence of technologies that allow us to feed a growing global population while liberating almost all of us from backbreaking agricultural labor is something we should celebrate - and improve.
Recently, two friends of Breakthrough, Colin Beaven and Adam Werbach, have come out with books that raise their own questions about the meaning of sustainability. Colin's book "No Impact Man" (Farrar 2009) is about a year-long experiment that he and his family undertook to massively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. For Colin, sustainability is more about achieving personal fulfillment non-materialistically than it is about reducing emissions and waste. He describes the journey from being an environmental scold, berating his wife and himself for basic acts of consumption, to merrily proselytizing for community-building, through charades with neighbors to Sunday strolls to biking to work.
So often environmental books demonize our high-technology lifestyles as "unsustainable" without any expression of gratitude for the kind of comfortable lives these technologies allow us to have. For this reason, the best part of the book is when Colin and his wife attempt to hand-wash their clothes. It turns out to be hugely time-consuming and difficult. They quickly -- and justifiably -- abandon the effort to use the laundry machine in their apartment basement.
Adam's book, "Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto" (Harvard Business Press, 2009), calls on firms to go beyond easy fixes like carbon offsets to embrace larger changes of continuous innovation and creative efforts to improve the quality of life for their employees. Adam became controversial after working for Wal-Mart. But what few people know is that his work there was about broadening the definition of sustainability to include Personal Sustainability Programs for employees, all while advocating that firms look beyond themselves to the larger world of policy and politics. A single firm cannot decide to pay much more for clean energy, for example, or else it will suffer a competitive disadvantage. Rather, it must engage in the larger world of business, policy, and politics to support society-wide innovation in how we generate energy and recycle materials.
In our view, these new books by Adam and Colin are reminders that we should have gratitude and even awe in our modern technologies -- from hybrid seeds to washing machines -- and to the shared investments in innovation that made them possible. This gratitude should motivate us to make investments in the next generation of technologies to power our civilization in ways that allow our species to thrive while also protecting, creating, and nourishing those nonhuman animals and systems upon which we depend.
All of this may lead us to question the elevation of sustainability as the principle that purports to organize ecological thought and action. The response by Borlaug to imminent famine was not to sustain natural systems but rather change them. This is what humans have done since time immemorial and it is precisely this adaptive and innovative spirit that has indeed sustained us.
-Michael and Ted