This week I spent two full days on a process workshop, learning about the ‘product owner’ role in an agile software development or business process. That might not sound like it has much to do with farming or sustainability, but you’d be surprised.
I’m not going to bore anyone by describing the agile process, but it’s basically about efficiency, about doing more with less and getting results quickly. And if you think about it, often when we talk about sustainability, we’re really talking about efficiency.
We absolutely want to protect and maintain the ecological systems that support us, that provide us with fresh water and clean air and nourishing food. We want to have forests to walk in and oceans to swim in and wild animals to look at and feel good about. (Be honest, that’s what you get from wild animals existing, isn’t it?)
But we don’t really want to give up the lifestyles we’re accustomed to. We want clean energy and nutrient-dense food and awe-inspiring old-growth forests and for there to be baby whales in spring, and we also want an abundance of space to live in and food to eat (cheaply and conveniently available, please), and good healthcare, clothing and housing and toilet paper, and roads, and computers, and the internet. We don’t want to decrease our own standards of living. Which is understandable, since it’s pretty good to be us right now. *
(* And by “us” I mean those of us lucky enough to live a wealthy country, to have education and jobs available to us, to have enough personal wealth to fall into the ever-shrinking middle class, and enough leisure to care about the future.)
So what we want is to achieve the same standard of living, the same goals, with fewer resources – so that there’s more to go around for other people and for ecological health and for the non-human species we share the planet with. We want to live more efficiently. We want to do more with less. And if you think about it that way, it becomes clear that we’re probably not on a winning path, because (as any IT professional will tell you) there’s a limit to how much more you can do with less.
That isn’t to detract from some of the ideas which are being implemented. More sustainable agricultural production and agroecology are a great idea. Renewable energy is a great idea, even if photovoltaic is one of the worst options for true full-life-cycle sustainability. Improvements in building and fabrication technology, using 3D printing to build houses and fabricate industrial parts is amazing, and I’m excited to live in a world where that’s happening. Growing your own food, or participating in local growers collectives is a fantastic way of reducing inefficiencies due to food transport. But none of those things address the core problem, in the same way that recycling is great but doesn’t address the core issue of garbage creation by a throw-away society.
I don’t necessarily have a solution. But I think we need to start reframing the problem, and coming up with ideas that are more workable than ‘give us the same ever-improving lifestyle, but use fewer resources to do it, regardless of the ever-increasing human population’. Because that one just isn’t going to work long term.