What Does Sustainability Feel Like?

Ever try telling someone how to ride a bike? Or to cook your grandmother’s best dish based on her written recipe? Neither works well because “we know more than we can tell,” to quote the brilliant twentieth century polymath Michael Polanyi. The knowledge required in either case could not be reduced entirely to words. The same goes for sustainability. It is not enough to know it through words. We have to be able to feel it.

multicolored corn

A small sample of biocultural diversity: Peruvian corn. Credit: Creative Commons/ Jenny Mealing.

Tasting Biodiversity

Differences in taste and culinary preferences play a large role in sustaining agricultural diversity—a key component of sustainability. “Biocultural diversity” is a term that acknowledges this sort of interrelationship between biodiversity and culture. Thanks to decades of research by anthropologist Virginia Nazarea, we know that differences in consumers’ sweet potato preferences in the Philippines have played a key role in sustaining the crop’s diversity. Looking to our neighbors to the south, the great diversity of Mexico’s corn landraces will survive only so long as the country’s culinary diversity remains. Less than 3 percent of the 250,000 plant varieties available to agriculture are presently in use. If we wish to maintain agrobiodiversity, we must maintain cultural diversity, which includes maintaining a diversity of tastes for food.

Recently I interviewed Marisa Lucas, a community activist from Chicago of Mexican descent. Her mother came to the United States as a teenager. One of her favorite things to make, a taste passed down by her mother, is blue corn atole: a hot corn-based beverage—one of the traditional drinks of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. It is not hard to guess what its primary ingredient is. Nor is it a surprise to learn that you will not find blue corn at the local grocery store.“You can’t make it with #2 yellow dent,” she told me, referring to the single variety of corn blanketing thousands of square miles of the U.S. Corn Belt each growing season. “I need blue corn because that’s how mom always made it. And I personally think it tastes best with blue corn meal.” She later remarked, “If I can’t get [blue corn] I can’t make it. And if I can’t make it, I worry my kids might lose their taste for it. What will happen to plants like blue corn if all these traditional dishes go away? I guess it will go away too.” As go these tastes, feelings, and skills, so goes biological diversity.

Toward More Care-Full Science

The danger with science is not that scientists do not care. Every scientist I have ever met is deeply passionate about both the world and their craft. Problems arise, however, when those passions are denied, or purported to been left at lab doors. Science is said to be objective. Not so fast.

Let us begin by looking at what I call “back-end science questions”—those queries that crop up after a technology has been brought into the world, often in the context of regulation and in the language of risk assessment. I have heard scientists and politicians alike claiming how risk assessments are strictly scientific matters—an assertion that seems more like a prejudice (namely, to deny the participation of nonscientists) masquerading as a principal (science needs to be limited to scientists). Suppose it is learned that a given technology kills one person in a million. Or that it makes one person in a 1,000 terribly ill. Or that it disproportionately negatively impacts certain populations, such as infants, the sick, or the elderly. We still have to grapple with the incredibly thorny question of what level of sickness and/or death we are willing to accept in exchange for the alleged benefits of this technology—what is an acceptable level of risk, in other words. Of course, this opens up (or at least ought to open up) still further debates that scientists should not dare try answering “objectively,” such as: what are these alleged benefits? Who is most likely to gain from them? And, importantly, who is most likely to be harmed by them?

This is not about rejecting environmental science. Let’s embrace it for what it is, in all of its forms—as a storehouse of experiential knowledge. Aristotle once pointed out that although ordinary citizens lack the cobbler’s expertise in how to make good shoes, they still know when the shoe pinches. We all posses expertise toward issues of sustainability and the environment more closely, so let’s make room for ordinary citizens and cobblers alike.

Discounting What We Should Be Caring For

A meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia

A meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia of La Via Campesina, an organization of peasants and agricultural workers advocating for the right of to determine their own food and agricultural systems. Credit: Creative Commons/ Kris Krug.

We also need to rethink the practice of “discounting,” a practice used extensively in the United States and with increasingly frequency throughout the world for dictating policy. Following this economic procedure, an increment of value today is worth more than that same increment in the future. Thus, as I have seen calculated elsewhere, at a 5 percent discount rate, one death next year counts for more than a billion deaths in 400 years. Thanks to this practice, it is entirely possible to settle on a policy option that may knowingly result in human extinction hundreds of years from now, but because it also lowers the well-being of a few today, it is deemed unacceptable. One reason we do this is to make everything appear commensurate—equal by way of reducing the world to monetary form. This makes decision-making processes appear rational, objective, and feeling-free. There is nothing, however, objective about assigning a value to a human being or to claiming residents of less affluent nations have a value 1/2,000 of that of an American citizen.

Coming up with alternatives to discounting is admittedly tricky, which is why there is likely a Nobel Prize in it for anyone who does. But I am not sure we want to derive an alternative counting scheme. After all, that goal would only perpetuate a way of thinking that is in large part responsible for the mess we are in, one that conflates what counts with that which can be counted. Rather, I keep coming back to the lesson embedded within Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein. And that is this: we need to keep a careful watch over that which we create, versus abandoning it to run loose among present and future generations.

I recently spoke with Teju Otieno, a small-scale farmer, and member of the worldwide peasant movement La Via Campesina, from Kenya. At one point the conversation steered toward the subject of genetically modified seed. He proceeded to sketch out what it might look like to keep a careful watch over these highly controversial artifacts:

Companies like Monsanto talk only about preserving their property rights with patents. I thought rights presuppose responsibilities. Companies need to assume responsibility for what they create, though that would mean having to involve us more in some way. We’re not against technology but we are against technologies made without a care about how they’ll impact us and future generations. If we could be involved and allowed to care for the seeds made, rather than have those rights stripped from us through patents, I wouldn’t be nearly as concerned about something labeled a “technology.” I’d care for it as if it were my own. 

Asking the Right Questions

Is it really so tricky, to feel sustainability? I worry that in our haste to define sustainability that we have already given up too much ground. As I routinely tell my students, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they do not have to worry about answers.” The questions in this case might be, “What is sustainability?” or, worse still, “How do you measure sustainability?” The phenomena we embrace are embraced precisely because of their exuberance—justice, prosperity, and sustainability. Our failing is that we reach for them with tools that will never capture their essence, be they words, statistics, or dollars. They are within our grasp. We just need to allow ourselves to know them, in all their more-than-we-can-tell ways.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2015 print issueThe Place of Hope in an Age of Climate Disaster. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/climate to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)


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