I recently interviewed a biodynamic farmer who did not like the label sustainable, and he is not the only one. Many people who want to treat nature well are choking on old vocabulary. Sustainability, environmentalism, carbon-neutral, green living and organic farming are becoming four-letter words. Why the confusion?
Increasingly these terms are used to market products. Consumers carry a collective guilt about compromising the environment. They want to minimize damage. Putting an organic label on supermarket produce absolves them of thinking about where it came from and what other impacts it might have. The benchmark for sustainable industry has become zero carbon pollution, overlooking other ways in which it may harm or deplete the Earth.
The human population is approaching a critical point. Providing food security for everyone will become a significant challenge in most of our lifetimes. We must figure out how to feed everyone without poisoning ourselves and creating a dubious future. We have wanted more than the world can provide for far too long.
It does not help to quarrel over whether environmentalism is misguided. The argument distracts us from creative solutions. Sustainability is as sustainability does. We need to begin looking behind the terms to understand whether the technologies help us live more lightly on the land. In the end, we must work toward zero impact and even restore some of what has been broken. For most of us, this demands compromises and learning to live more simply.