Sustainability is Not Black Or White - "More Sustainable" is Possible

recycling versus landfill photo

Image credit: D'Arcy Norman & timtak (Creative Commons)

When I wrote about industrial agriculture exploring sustainability, commenter Ruben suggested that the idea of something being "more sustainable" was illogical. Citing Bill Rees, the inventor of Ecological Footprinting, he claimed that sustainability was like pregnancy—"either you are or you aren't". I'd like to politely disagree. Like the soil versus dirt debate, there is a danger of getting too caught up in semantics here. After all, Ruben was not rejecting the idea that incremental progress was important. In fact, he stated explicitly that transition was important, and that "we need to get from here to there". On that, I'm in total agreement.

Nevertheless, I think it's important to counter the argument that calling something like industrial agriculture "more sustainable" because it has reduced resource use or increased efficiency is inherently greenwash. Before we greens cast the first stone, it's important for us to remember that even some of the leading green projects, schemes and technologies in the world are very far from being "sustainable" in the truest sense of the word. Backyard farmers still rely on petroleum. Solar panels still rely on scarce and energy intensive resources. Yet a civilization that truly embraced renewables, and diverse, small-scale, low impact farming would, I believe, be much more able to sustain itself into the future than the status quo.

In fact, if we are going to be totally dogmatic about it then true sustainability is, in some ways, a complete impossibility. Unless we follow Stephen Hawking's advice and leave earth to survive (and presumably keep moving), absolutely everything imaginable—from coal-powered giant hummers made of ivory, to solar panels made from dew drops—is on a continuum of being either more, or less, sustainable. Because once our sun gives up the ghost, the most sustainable system on the planet will be less than useless.

From high-end luxury eco-condos to big organics as the enemy, perfect as the enemy of good is a recurring theme on TreeHugger. So while I applaud efforts to keep our ambitions high (and our BS detector engaged at all times), we should be wary of a black-and-white approach to sustainability. The end prize is too important for that.

More on Sustainability in Theory and Practice
Is Industrial Monoculture the Real Path to Sustainable Farming
To Win, The Green Movement Needs to Understand Leverage, Not Just Footprints
Environmentalists Need Strategy: Saul Alinsky and the Green Movement
Individual Virtue vs. Collective Success: Why Environmentalists Must Take Political Action

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