On our last show, Mike and I recapped some of what we learned as the hosts of Sustainability Now this summer. We highlighted the conversations and work of our guests who work and act on the broad front of sustainability. From energy audits to living machines, from bicycles to community supported agriculture, from the work of local culture and artisans to the disposal of our trash, from the problem of single-use plastic water bottles to the conservation of our own watershed, from renewable energy to community gardens we found a lot of hope in our area. Some people here are acting so that human beings and all life might flourish on planet Earth. There isn't much more beautiful than that.
When we think about sustainable agriculture, for example, we have to think about its many ramifications. Some people, including one of our regular callers, recite the mantra that "Our farmers feed the world." Even if that were true, which it is not, Mike asked, "At what cost?"
Our industrial chemical agricultural system may produce large yields, but its cost to air, soil, and water cannot be sustained. We poison the air, erode the soil, and both deplete and poison water. A recent Department of Energy report states that the U.S. emits about 6 billion metric tons of CO2 annually, about ¼ of all emissions globally. The total annual rate results in habitat destruction and transformation, glacial retreats, snowcap, and icecap retreats, and rising sea levels. Michael Pollan and others have noted that 1/5 of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the sum of our industrial food system - 1.2 billion metric tons and growing. For example, a 2006 Cornell study in Journal of Environment, Development, and Sustainability found that topsoil erosion is occurring at 10-40 times replacement rate: ca. 38,610 square miles a year which is just a little bit smaller than the state of Virginia’s total area in top soil flowing into rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans. Now we have an expanding dead zone in the gulf of Mexico caused by the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that coat much of that eroded soil. Our food system is literally slowly making it more difficult for future humans and other species to feed themselves.
But some states are acting. Florida has now set rules for limits on urban and agricultural runoff to prevent their own dead zone problems. Maybe other states will now follow suit.
If readers and listeners are interested in more on this or any of the other topics we discussed on the show, then they might want to check some of the following resources.
Penn State's Center for Sustainability
The Center for Ecoliteracy
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture
David Orr's Ecological Literacy
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring
Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac
Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma
Francis Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet
Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America
Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved (really for people who'd like to see how the same industrial food system starves many of the world's poor while fattening Americans)
James Garvey's The Ethics of Climate Change
John Ehrenfield's Sustainability by Design
* All book links are to Amazon.com but we encourage you to patronize your local bookseller.*
We do not have anything close to all of the answers. We don't even know all of the questions. But Mike and I are quite certain that as people living in the world's lone remaining political and economic superpower, we have to realign our ethics and our behaviors so that we, our kids, their kids, and the millions of other species that cohabit the Earth with us can flourish.