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Can sustainable farming really feed us?

A recent episode of NPR’s “Here and Now” featured author Ben Hewitt, discussing his recently published The Town Food Saved.

After a vivid and thoughtful discussion of the organic farming practices and the positive effects of a strong local economy that has in many ways rejuvenated the town of Hardwick, Vermont, the host, Robin Young, asked a pricelessly dense question: “but can sustainable farming really feed us all?” The thoughtless presumption of the question is that unsustainable farming might possibly be a better approach, that we ultimately have any choice but to follow sustainable practices, at least if we wish to sustain our civilization.

The answer I would have liked to have heard is: “but is unsustainable farming really sustainable?” Mr. Hewitt, however, politely sidestepped the question and used it as an opportunity to discuss an alternative way of labeling his farming practices: “restorative farming,” he said, is a better, more compelling way of describing what he was advocating, especially because of the way “sustainable” was beginning to lose its edge, as anyone who was listening to the conversation with any focus or ear for meaning would probably have realized by then.

It is true that language must often be fresh in order to have any impact, and that words may have a half-life, a half-life that grows increasingly short as words are centrifuged by the unceasing wills of marketers. The word “green” as a way of describing earth-friendly, sustainable practices, for instance, has lost most of its original meaning. But unlike the word “sustainable,” the notion of “green” is entirely figurative: there is no way of testing whether something is “really” green, because “green” things were never supposed to be really green.

“Sustainable,” as well its meaning-giving opposite, “unsustainable” is measurable. While one cannot definitively prove or disprove that CFLs are truly green, it is possible to have a conclusive debate about the sustainability of, say, using 85 million barrels of oil a day. This fact alone does not ensure that “sustainability” will remain a viable way of communicating certain (and urgent) notions about our interaction with the larger natural world. Hewitt may be right that we need to accept rhetorical reality and find another word.

But I wish to reflect upon the notion of sustainable and unsustainable farming, at least one more time, before these words pass on into the netherworld of dulled swords and overused words. For the idea of a practice or behavior being sustainable or unsustainable has a meaning that I am not ready to hand off to replacements such as “restorative,” as dire our need for restoration may be.

It is clear, then, that the NPR host either had no real working knowledge of what “sustainable” means, or that she was suffering from something far more frightening. As I have suggested, if a given practice is not sustainable, then it is unsustainable. And if something is unsustainable, that means it can’t and won’t continue to work. To ask if sustainable farming can really feed us implies that unsustainable farming might. This is pure foolishness, for of course unsustainable farming can’t work, at least not for very long. A far more informed or thoughtful question would have been: “okay, since of course we need to find some sort of sustainable farming, can your version actually feed everyone, because of course unsustainable farming can’t.”

It is likely that our relatively informed and linguistically sensitive NPR host used the word without thinking through its implications, and in that sense was operating without a real working knowledge of the word’s meaning, at least at that moment. It is likely that she used the word very much like one might use the word “green”: in its entirely figurative and overly marketed sense. She might instead have asked, “can your cool, hip, and NPR-worthy farming practices really feed everyone?”

But I am afraid that this perhaps momentary lapse of rigor was informed by something far more frightening and perilous. Junkies often acknowledge that their drug use is not sustainable, that they will either find relief from their addiction or will die from it. This sort of wry admission appears as a regular aspect of addict conversation. Unfortunately that knowledge, as often as it may be articulated, has little effect on the daily pursuit of the drug of choice. For the goal, when crushed by the weight of addiction, is not to find and follow a sustainable path. The goal is to find a way, any way, to survive for one more unsustainable day.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that addicts are more likely to understand and even admit to their entrapment in this vicious cycle, to acknowledge that in it they are spinning out of control and towards oblivion, than are hosts of NPR with regard to the unsustainable eating, consuming, and energy using practices of our society. Our NPR host may as well be asking: “but by quitting heroin, can you really expect to ward off the terrible symptoms of withdrawal?” This is so, even as the question is posed seriously and as if unsustainable farming were indeed a serious and viable option that we, as a society, might responsibly choose.

I take this as a sign of how deep and generally unnoticed our collective addiction to fossil fuels, industrial farming, and the widespread availability of a continued luxury economy runs. Its strengths and weaknesses aside, NPR is one of our culture’s better sources of critical knowledge. It is more likely than most sources to have the tools and resources with which to question our epidemic of myopia. Yet its failure, here, is suggestive of something more depraved. Does our society really accept the stench of the toilet-stall, willingly scrape the carpet for one more crumb of a rock, indiscriminately pull tricks with indifference to ourselves? Do we allow our children to suffer from neglect, will we expose them to our self-abuse, accepting this as a normal part of the daily pursuit of the next fix.

Editorial Notes: You can find out more about Ben Hewitt's book here.

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