A tale of two sustainabilities: Comparing sustainability in the global north and south
In this interesting comparison of sustainability in very different geographic and cultural settings—Long Island, New York versus the Chiloé archipelago, Chile—Vercoe and Brinkmann suggest that the societal framework for sustainability requires very different educational efforts. Their in-depth analysis of how these societal frameworks are almost diametrically opposed opens us to understanding how important geography is to the way we formulate our educational goals and systems.
The definition of sustainability, like many definitions, depends upon one’s viewpoint. One’s experience and geographic setting heavily influence the way one sees the world. In this paper, we examine sustainability from two distinct locations, a highly urbanized and suburbanized island setting in the global north, and a remote island archipelago in the global south. Both locations have distinct cultural and geographic heritages. Each provides an interesting way to explore the meaning of sustainability within our current era. Our work suggests that sustainability is a highly fluid concept greatly dependent upon the cultural geography of a region in which the term is applied. Thus, the term should be contextualized for geographic and cultural meaning when educators teach sustainability concepts.
A U.S View of Sustainability
In the global north, the concept of sustainability largely emerged out of the environmental movement of the 19th and 20th century. With roots in the transcendental and romantic movement of writers like Thoreau (1854), environmentalists often note the start of environmentalism emerging from the debates of Muir and Pinchot over the use and management of public lands in the United States. The root question was whether public lands should be set aside or if they should be used for the greater good of society or individuals. This public/private debate over not only common lands, but also water, air, and other natural resources remains a key tension in American environmental policy. In the middle of the 20th century, Aldo Leopold brought forward the idea of a land ethic to better contextualize the issues highlighted by Muir and Pinchot. He argued in A Sand County Almanac (1949) that it was important for ethical frameworks to evolve around the protection of land in order to preserve nature for its inherent naturalness.
Shortly after the publication of Leopold’s ideas, Rachel Carson highlighted the emerging dangers of pollution in her book, Silent Spring (1962). The book illuminated the dangers to ecosystems from industrial pollution, particularly pesticides. Interestingly, industrial concerns tried to discredit her work and attacked her personally. Nevertheless, Silent Spring ushered in a new era of environmental activism centered on pollution that led to the development of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and key laws, particularly the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. These laws remain the foundation of much of the environmental policy rules in the United States and continue to be relevant.
By the 1980’s it was clear that the environment was a key theme in the emerging concerns over global economic development and social equity. In 1984, the United Nations’ charged a commission, called the World Commission on Environment and Development, to develop a better understanding of development and sustainability issues on a global scale and to identify paths for solving identified problems. The former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, chaired the group. The report of the commission, Our Common Future, often informally referred to as the Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987), provides a key definition of sustainable development—development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations—that remains in use today. In addition, the report brought forward the idea that sustainability is not just about environmental protection, but also about sound economic development and social equity. Emerging from this report is the idea that global sustainability goals need to be set and measured. The U.N. Millennium Goals (United Nations Development Program, 2003), developed in 2000 in order to improve conditions in the poorest nations of the world, were heavily informed by the efforts of the commission.
The U.S. environmental movement was highly criticized up until this point as being largely focused on environmental protection without taking into account the needs of people living within communities. However, nearly at the same time as the emergence of the Brundtland Report, Robert Bullard, an American sociology professor, began to publish works on racial inequalities associated with environmental burdens. Specifically, his early work assessed the siting of hazardous waste disposal sites and the exposure of African Americans to a disproportionate amount of risk associated with them (Bullard, 1983). Known as the father of the environmental justice movement, Bullard was a strong advocate for the development of policies that led to environmental equity. As a result of Bullard’s work and that of others, the EPA has an office dedicated to environmental justice.
More recently, concerns about global climate change and associated greenhouse gases dominated much of the sustainability discourse in the United States (Brinkmann and Garren, 2011). Because the U.S. government has largely been absent from any serious discussion about global climate change policy, many sustainability efforts have been made at the local and regional level that promote measuring and benchmarking sustainability indicators. The U.S. Council of Mayors, for example, have a Climate Protection Agreement that over 500 mayors have signed that commits signatory cities to achieving greenhouse gas reduction levels to those agreed upon in the Kyoto Protocol. Another organization, the Florida Green Building Coalition, certifies local governments as green if they reach a wide range of sustainability targets that include everything from water management, to public information (Upadhyay and Brinkmann, 2010). Also, many businesses are embracing sustainability. The late Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Incorporated, a carpet manufacturing company, is largely credited with promoting sustainable business practices in the United States, although large organizations like Wal-Mart have had a profound impact on the development of more sustainable commercially available products (Anderson, 2009). Unfortunately, due to a lack of national focus, many of the local and business sustainability efforts are uncoordinated. The lack of federal will on sustainability efforts is interesting from a cultural geography perspective because local regions in the United States have developed their own approaches to sustainable development and there are spatial differences and specialties that have emerged in recent decades.
Yet, in many ways, there is little that an enlightened American can do to make a significant difference in global climate change through daily normal activities. There are millions of cars, hundreds of power plants, and thousands of sources of greenhouse gases. To many, the problem is overwhelming and reflective of broader problems with our post-industrial society. Thus, many have turned to what they can control—their food source. Michael Pollan, in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), highlights many of the problems associated with food in American culture. We are eating heavily processed food that is part of an industrialized farming system. As a result, we are fatter and less healthy than in previous modern generations. The agricultural system that is in place is highly profit driven and there are concerns over the broader sustainability of the land and of agricultural communities.
Food as a Theme in the US Sustainability Movement
Many who are concerned with the current industrialized agricultural system have developed strategies to bypass this system in order to reconnect the eater with their food sources. These include organic farming, community sponsored agriculture, community gardens, and farmers markets. Organic farming is a federally regulated system of agriculture that requires farmers to use natural agriculture techniques and that forbids the use of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and unnatural growth boosters such as hormones for animals. While only 0.7 percent of the cropland and 0.5 percent of pastureland in the United States was dedicated to organic practices in 2008, the amount of land increased by 15% annually between 2002 and 2008 (USDA, 2011). Plus, organic farms tend to be smaller and achieve greater yield than industrial agricultural farms. Thus, the impact of this growth is a significant development in American agriculture.
Community sponsored agriculture (CSA) farms are subscription-based farms that provide fresh fruits and vegetables, and sometimes meat and fish, to subscribers. Often the farms are small, intensively farmed organic operations that provide food during the growing season. These farms are often located in the suburban fringes of cities and sometimes serve as centers for sustainable education and community events. In 1990, the number of CSA’s was around 60. By the end of the decade there were over 1000 (McFadden, 2011). Currently, there are over 3000 and new ones are forming all of the time (Local Harvest, 2011).
Community gardens have also seen similar increases and there are now approximately 18,000 community gardens in the United States and Canada (American Community Gardening Association, 2011). Community gardens are shared plots of land, often in cities, where individuals or organizations can grow fruits and vegetables for seasonal production. Food production is only one benefit of community gardening. They also provide open space, opportunity to educate the public about food production, places for exercise, and opportunity to build community. Also, according to the USDA (2011b), there were 1,755 farmers markets operating in the United States in 1994. Today, there are 7,175. One interesting adjunct of the community gardens movement is the growth of school gardens (Kitchen Gardens, 2011). While school vegetable gardening has been around for decades, many schools have used the new interest in sustainability to teach children about food production, soil, water, and plant biology using vegetable gardens on school grounds. This innovation, along with the growth of the other new approaches to agriculture, suggests that there is a shift in the culture around food in the United States that is part of the broader interest in sustainability. The following section details how this shift is expressed culturally on Long Island, New York.
Food Sustainability on Long Island
Long Island, New York, here defined as the two-county (Nassau and Suffolk Counties) region of the island outside of New York City, consists of a variety of different types of land uses that are imprinted on an historical Native American and Colonial historic landscape. While much of the area was agricultural up until the mid-20th century, areas of the island did have small urbanized nodes with historic significance. However, the development of Hicksville and Levittown, arguably America’s first suburbs, changed Long Island forever. The suburbs of Long Island were heavily influenced by the vision of Robert Moses who built a series of roadways that connected the suburbs with New York City. The roadways allowed the suburbs to expand across the island and today, nearly 3 million people live in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Certainly most of the food is purchased in traditional grocery stores, but there are a number of food initiatives taking place on the island.
Slow Food and Agritourism. Long Island is home to a number of famous restaurants and chefs. The food celebrity, Ina Garten lives in the Hamptons in Suffolk County and the east end of the Island is known for its small farms, vineyards, and niche agricultural products. Numerous restaurants, bed and breakfasts, shops, and markets in this area provide “local” food, slow food, and agricultural experiences for the suburban and urban individuals coming from the west. This experience is important, and authentic in its own way. However, the costs are high ($15.00 for a pie at a farm stand for example) and the access to enjoy these areas is limited to people who can afford this type of agritourism. The costs are high, in part, due to the high costs of farming on the island. The farms tend to be small and are threatened by the ever expanding suburbanization coming from New York. Plus, land values are very high as the agricultural regions are the areas sought by those seeking weekend getaways and estates. Such developments bring NIMBY types of conflicts because traditional types of agriculture, such as chicken or pig farming, is not always appreciated by newcomers who build million dollar homes next door. Unfortunately, the farmers have no where else to expand and there is great concern over the ability of agriculture to continue on the island. Nevertheless, Long Island is one of the top agricultural producers in the state of New York and it has a distinctive regional cuisine that includes fresh vegetables, fruits, and seafood. Small farmers in the state recently started to meet annually at Long Island’s Small Farm Summit which seeks to promote small farming and sustainable agriculture on the island (Long Island Small Farm Summit, 2011).
Economic Development Planning. In 2011, the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, instituted an economic development planning process that set a competition among ten regions of the state for investment of state resources. Long Island was one of the ten regions. The challenge was to create a plan that brought together a variety of interests in order to develop a way to improve employment. The Long Island plan was unique in that organizers sought input from a variety of leaders in different economic sectors—including agriculture and fisheries (Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, 2011). The plan includes a significant amount of detail about the importance of agritourism and sustainable agriculture and fisheries. It focuses on building infrastructure to support the small farmers and new sustainable approaches to agriculture and fish and shellfish production. This plan is one of the only ones in the nation that provides a clear vision for a suburban agricultural future that is clearly in line with sustainable food production, agricultural land preservation, and fisheries protection. In the past, economic development focused much more on bringing industry to the region and on developing high paying and high-tech jobs. While these themes are present and important within the Long Island plan, it must be stressed that the leaders of Long Island see a future for agriculture that is on par with other business activities and that has sustainability front and center. Thus, in many ways, food sustainability has taken root as an equal partner with other business activities in the overall economic development of the region.
Farmers Markets, Community Gardens, and Community Sponsored Agriculture. As noted above, Long Island has a rich agricultural heritage that continues on the East End of the island. However, most people in the older suburbs of the island do not have regular access to locally grown or raised food, except for that found on the shelves of their local grocery stores. Sustainable Long Island, a local non-profit has worked on a variety of sustainability issues, including food sustainability. They have mapped grocery store access and developed youth-run farmers markets that bring fresh food from the East End to underserved communities.
Long Island has also seen a great interest in community gardens (King-Cohen, 2011). Many have sprung up in recent years and some of them are expanding. Plus, the website, www.localharvest.com lists dozens of community sponsored farms not only on the East End of Long Island, but scattered through the suburban areas as well. Farmers markets are also present in many communities on a weekly basis during the growing season. They feature not only local fresh fruits and vegetables, but also prepared foods, baked goods, and seafood and locally butchered meats. This is part of a national trend that saw only 1,755 farmers markets in 1994. Today, there are 7,175.
Food as a Metaphor for American Sustainability
In some ways, Long Island’s approach to food sustainability is a metaphor for the broader issues with sustainability in the United States. Many are working on food issues in the region through niche and organic agriculture, eco and agritourism, farmers markets, food accessibility, community sponsored agriculture, and community gardens. Yet, while this unique market is growing, it remains relatively small. Food sustainability, and sustainability in general is something that is not present within the mainstream of Long Island society, even though there are options all around. There are large full parking lots around grocery stores during business hours, not around farmers markets or CSA’s.
Yet we want to have sustainable food sources. Thus the presence of food sustainability options are comforting and well-known. They are part of the culture, even though the majority of the population does not engage with them. In many ways, this is similar to how the United States is approaching various aspects of sustainability. We create options that enter part of the culture, but do not transform it. Thus, we see hybrid and electric cars, but we do not change our relationship with transportation. We see wind farms, but we do not see a strong energy or greenhouse gas policy. We promote sustainable agriculture, but we continue to heavily subsidize the corporatized approach to agriculture that emerged in the last 40 years. Thus, the United States is currently schizophrenic in its approach to sustainability in that it supports through policy and tax dollars competing interests. Some U.S. programs promote the tenets of sustainability (particularly protecting resources so that they are available for future generations), while some of them do not.
While this paper is in no way critical of the advent of sustainable approaches to agriculture on Long Island, it is important to consider it within the broader cultural ecology of the region. Some seek to participate in the sustainable food production system as either producers or consumers. Most, however, do not. Most are passive observers. This is the case with many broad sustainability initiatives in the US. Traditional capitalistic approaches toward food and agricultural production make sustainability difficult to infuse into mainstream society because the costs of food produced through industrial-scale agriculture are low in this current era. In many ways, those involved with sustainable food production are pioneers who are slowly diffusing the new technologies into a society highly divorced from the sources of their food.
Sustainability and Traditional Agriculture in Chile
Sustainability education must therefore include a discussion of the global contributions to biodiversity and agricultural heritage being made by traditional, rural communities in developing areas of the world both in the global south as well as the north. An awareness of environmental sustainability depends upon the persistence of cultures as well species and varieties. As Carl O. Sauer acutely pointed out almost half a century ago, cultivated plants are the living artifacts of culture’s intimate development with its environment (Sauer 1969). If we are to learn, educate, and practice sustainable agriculture from the threatened diversity of environmental and cultural landscapes which currently predominate in the global north, and increasingly in the south, we need to look to all regions and systems for insight and knowledge: past and present, traditional and modern, urban and rural, cultural as well as natural.
In contrast to the situation in Long Island, there are those in other parts of the world engaged in sustainable agriculture rooted in hundreds of years of tradition and practice. Traditional agricultural areas are sources of heirloom biogenetic diversity, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and models for sustainable agriculture. These human-environment systems balance the diverse influences of long-term human land-use and cultural practices with the dynamic processes of ecosystem diversity. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) identifies such systems as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) (FAO 2006). GIAHS’s are described as systems that have resulted in the “maintenance and adaptation of globally significant agricultural biodiversity, indigenous knowledge systems and resilient ecosystems, but, above all, in the sustained provision of multiple goods and services, food and livelihood security … these systems are linked to important centers of origin and diversity of domesticated plant and animal species, the in situ conservation of which is of great importance and global value.” (FAO 2008) An agricultural heritage system, therefore, is a manifestation of a sustainably balanced, long-term, and intimate interaction between humans and their environment. One of five pilot GIAHS sites identified by the FAO/ Global Environment Facility is the Chiloé region in southern Chile (FAO 2006).
The Chiloé archipelago consists of the Isla Grande and over 30 smaller islands form a protective barrier from the open Pacific Ocean to the west and the inner fjords where the Andes drop directly in to the sea to the east. At 42º south latitude and exactly equal longitude, this coastal agricultural area could be considered a southern sister to Long Island. However, there are some important differences of climate, culture, and history that qualify its own contributions to the discussion of sustainability in education. The coastal temperate climate of the Chiloé region averages 50º F year-round with annual precipitation ranging from 6 feet on the western islands to over 20 feet in the temperate rainforests in interior fjords only 100 kilometers to the east (INTA 2001). This region is home to the Chilote people, a unique mestizo hybrid formed from hundreds of years mixing between Spanish settlers and the indigenous Huilliche. The Chilote have a strong cultural identity, renowned as sea-farers, wood craftsmen, and potato-farmers with a unique mythology blending pre-Columbian beliefs and practices with hundreds of years of Catholic traditions. The 200-400 year-old wooden cathedrals throughout the Chiloé islands are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The islands of Chiloé are one of the Vavilov centers of origin of crop diversity for the domestic potato. Recent DNA studies have confirmed that more than 99% of the genetic material in most potato varieties currently produced in the world are directly descended from the Chilote potato (Solanum tuberosum) (Yao 2010). Over 10,000 years of co-evolution with human livelihoods have resulted in 200 varieties (Solanum Tuberosum) (FAO 2006). In recent years the largely sustainable subsistence lifestyle of the Chilote has come to be considered threatened by international resource extraction and development activities such as intensive logging of native forests and contamination of the seas due to industrial salmon aquaculture (FAO 2006).
Threats to sustainability in Chiloé
Chile has long been an exemplar of neoliberal economic development policies even being called the “Chilean miracle” by Milton Freedman (Oseland et al 2011). With some of the highest economic growth rates in Latin America, much of Chile’s financial growth has come from the bounties of the land and sea provided by local labor. One such example is that Chile has become the second largest producer of farmed salmon in the world with annual sales of over $2.4 billion USD. Strikingly, 80% of the value comes from the Chiloé region (Terram 2008). It has been argued however, that much of Chilean miracle has come at the cost of social equity and potentially irrecoverable loses to ecosystem health (Garretón 2001, Winn 2004, and Oseland et al 2011). These industrial activities in the Chiloé region are having dramatic impacts on the traditional social equities long practiced by this agrarian-fishing culture, other traditional cultural practices, and the natural environment. Chilote men and women that engaged in subsistence fishing, harvesting shellfish, and small-scale, self-supporting agriculture have “sold their lands, impoverished their families and developed undesirable habits (increased alcoholism), thus contributing to the loss of a distinctive culture in Chiloé” (Barrett et al 2002). This is the issue of social sustainability that the Brundtland Report and initiatives such as the GIAHS seek to address in areas of critical cultural as well as agricultural diversity.
The Chiloé Perspective
The Chiloé Project, as proposed by the FAO within the GIAHS initiative, is intended to encourage global public recognition of Chiloé as a source of culture, traditional knowledge and genetic biodiversity, stimulate sustainable development in the area, and create social awareness, both globally and locally, of the importance of conserving biological and cultural diversity in the world (FAO 2008). Local and regional supporting organizations are conducting educative workshops to maintain and transfer traditional knowledge and practices with in the communities. Additional support is needed to store genetic material and seeds for future use, and aid in the development of alternative economic development activities that address poverty issues while maintaining the integrity of biodiversity in the ancient agricultural heritage system. The conservation and continued sustainable management of these systems has been identified as an ecological/cultural resource of global significance that depends on the preservation of the local culture and traditional knowledge such as that held by the rural Chilotes. This calls for what the FAO terms an “Eco-Cultural Landscape Perspective” whereby the harmony of humanity and the environment are understood within the context of the fragility of agro-diversity with challenges of poverty, climate change, urbanization, and globalization forces in rural communities (FAO 2011).
In many ways the Chiloé perspective provides an inverse view of the Long Island regional agricultural sustainability process. The Chilote are largely still very connected to their food sources and, by the nature of their traditional practices, are practicing sustainable production. Interestingly, it is not the arrival of industrial agriculture that threatens the continuance of this heritage agricultural system, but rather the social impacts of monetized labor structures required by global interests such as the salmon aquaculture industry that now rings the shores of the islands. The relatively recent arrival of industrial practices such as salmon aquaculture has shifted the valuation of local labor from cooperative, subsistence practices to wage-labor schedules. Previously self-supported fisher-farmer households are becoming dependent on third parties to earn a living in order to purchase their basic needs that they no longer have the time to produce themselves due to the industrial work schedule and migratory labor requirements (Barret etal, 2002).
The task for continued sustainability for Chilote agriculture lies in the re-visioning and re-valuing of subsistence agriculture and its place within the greater social and economic structures that are arriving on their shores and at the edges of their fields. The acknowledgment of the importance of their heritage agricultural knowledge and practices that have provided essential food sources for these rural communities must not only come from the greater global community, but within the very households of Chiloé. Without awareness and education regarding the trade-offs of un-mitigated engagement with global forces, this sustainable heritage system may become as cherished and limited as the farmscape of Long Island.
Two Sustainabilities and Implications for Teaching Sustainability
It is evident from the two case studies detailed above that there are two views of sustainability that emerge. In suburban Long Island in the global north, sustainability is something that is being constructed in reaction to excess development and environmental degradation. It the case of food, most of Long Island’s 3 million residents are not participating in the many options available to them to transform eating habits and concomitant planetary impact. Instead, food sustainability remains a relatively expensive, and perhaps elite choice. While sustainability options are available and largely cheered by the public, most do not engage. Instead, most participate in a heavily industrialized and globalized food system. In contrast, in Chiloé, residents and non-profits are seeking to maintain current conditions to continue sustainable practices. They are seeking to limit or avoid the impacts of global food markets and neoliberal policies that promote commoditizing local natural resources to the detriment of social equity and the environment.
Thus, the idea of sustainability is clearly different in the two settings. In one case, Quixotian efforts are being made to transform long-term trends of unsustainable practices and in the other, a society is seeking to maintain existing balances that have worked for generations. So which sustainability do we teach? While our example focused on food, the same conundrum exists for many other sustainability themes such as energy, building, water, and economic development. Sustainability is an idea that has different meanings in different settings and to neglect this concept is to limit the theoretical breadth of the concept. The growth of sustainability as a discipline in American schools, colleges, and universities suggests that an important transformation is taking place within the understanding of the relationship of the world’s population to the environment. But it is significant to note that the cultural geography of places matter in the understanding and application of sustainability principles. The example highlighted here demonstrates true differences between sustainability approaches in the global north and the global south that are not often part of the sustainability discourse.
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