Sunday, February 9, 2014

What is Sustainability?

Yesterday, at a beekeeping workshop, one of the speakers made a statement about "sustainable beekeeping" that caught my attention. During a brief introduction of natural and sustainable beekeeping he defined sustainable beekeeping as maintaining the same number of hives from one year to the next. This is certainly not how I would define sustainable beekeeping, and it caused me to think about the way in which definitions such as his weaken the term.

I'm not picking on this gentleman specifically. I see many examples of sustainable being used in a way that I disagree with. Most often it seems, like with this sustainable beekeeping definition, the vision for sustainability doesn't extend past the farm, organization, or relevant industry. I've seen homesteaders describe the term sustainable as being an activity that generates sufficient income to allow the person to not hold an odd-homestead job.

According to the USDA the legal definition of Sustainable Agriculture is: "... an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

I find it interesting, though, how different this definition is from the definition of the individual words. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary sustainable is defined as "involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources". Nowhere in the definition of sustainable agriculture, however, is there mention of ensuring that natural resources are not depleted. The focus seems more on the benefits to the farmers, the society, and the economy.

In Miles Olsen's Unlearn, Rewild, the author asks an important question about ideas of sustainability. He provides the following example, 
"The Brazilian rainforest is being cleared at at alarming rate to make way for vast plantations of soybeans. Hundreds of thousands of acres of genetically modified monoculture. What if those tractors were powered by biodiesel? What if they were powered by methane trapped from composting human feces, which was then used to fertilize the field? Imagine that picture as an example of sustainability - vegan food being farmed using green fuel and human compost."

Then he asks the real question, "But why would anyone want to sustain that?" Olsen makes the point that we are trying to find convenient ways of somewhat reducing the environmental impact of our lifestyle, and calling that "sustainable". No matter how much we invest in alternative fuels and renewable energy, however, we are never going to turn the modern "civilized" lifestyle into something that is sustainable without making significant changes.

That is not to say that renewable energy and alternative fuel sources do not have their place in sustainability, because they certainly do. Those things, alone, however, are not sustainable, especially when paired with damaging practices like Olsen's Brazilian rainforest example.

We need to view sustainability in terms of overall impact to the environment, natural resources, and society, and not simply whether it can financially sustain our lifestyle or allow a given industry to continue for some period of time.

Sustainable beekeeping, in my opinion has nothing to do with how many hives one has. In fact, I see no reason one can't expand every year and still be practicing sustainable beekeeping. The key to sustainable beekeeping is ensuring there are bees and forage plants for them to feed on. I suspect that reducing chemical pesticide use, both in agriculture and landscaping, is a much bigger factor in sustainable beekeeping than anything an individual beekeeping may do in his/her apiary.

Many people will tell you that sustainability is subjective. It should not be, however.

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