Sustainable is not easy

The expression sustainable agriculture is cropping up all too often. I find the phrase both amusing and disturbing. The proponents are for looking outside the box at the big picture while readjusting the paradigm. I would counsel those that are excited by sustainability to drive by Gillette, Wyo., and take a look at the coal seams that they are mining there. That coal is compressed vegetation that grew hundreds of millions of years ago when Wyoming sat along the equator. It was buried, compressed then floated for thousands of miles on liquid rock to be lifted nearly a mile high while all the once living creatures involved went extinct. It is an illusion to believe that nature is ever in balance.

But maybe it isn’t fair to use such a vast scale of time for comparison. If we adjust down to human terms we might find the suitable measure for sustainability. If we looked at the last 150,000 years we would see some disturbing events such the last eruption of Yellowstone that buried eastern Nebraska eight feet deep in ash and disrupted the weather for years. Even a few thousand years ago we would see strange sights such as people farming what is now under the sea off Scotland. So to be sustainable we have to be luckier than a trilobite on the geologic scale and able to dodge the occasional volcanic eruption and fluctuating sea level in the near term.

My greatest frustration with sustainability is that it implies that we are allowed to solve problems. People with such optimism have not encountered the people that make the rules and deny you the tools. When the pasture you intended to rest is being grazed by 500 protected elk then your sustainability might be in question. There is nothing holistic about regulations.

If I was asked to design a sustainable system, I would insist that a stable political system be the first requirement. Collapsing political systems have a nasty way of laying waste to agriculture. Soviet agriculture did not achieve the level of grain production harvested before the revolution in 1917 until the 1950s. More recently, Zimbabwe has destroyed most of its agriculture despite the importance of agricultural exports to its economy. So true sustainability would require a political system that protects private property and maintains peace and trade. It isn’t just the land that needs to be left in better shape by each generation.