I suspect the challenge is far deeper than the medium-scale details
discussed below. At the core of the problem, we don't know/can't agree
on any of the following three:
a) *What* we are trying to sustain
b) For *whom* it is to be sustained
c) How *long* must it stably persist to be considered "sustainable"
That said, it would seem difficult to describe *any* system as
sustainable based on what they are doing *now.* We simply don't know if
it will last, or even work for more than the next ten years. In 1989, a
Chinese historian, asked to comment on the impact of the French
revolution of 1789, said "It is too soon to tell." As one very simple
example, virtually every economic activity in the developed world today
is mentally predicated upon a substrate of inflation (and inflationary
Even a half-way attentive reading of economic history, however, makes
it quite clear that there is an ongoing wave of inflation / deflation
--- with an average peak-to-peak period of 235 +/- 50 years for the
last 25 centuries or so. There are excellent (but temporally limited)
data demonstrating the same phenomenon in the Babylon of nearly 4000
years ago. For an approach to be sustainable, therefore, it appears it
would have to persist successfully through at least a full inflation /
deflation wave, and could only be described as sustainable ... in
We must, therefore, content ourselves with reasonable guesses. We must
assume we're wrong. We need to build in a sensitive monitor to confirm
whether or not we are on the right track (or the wrong one). And we
ought to have a repertoire of alternate approaches to implement in
response to emerging shifts.
For example, such a monitor would need to evaluate *accurately* (not
necessarily precisely) how a farm is responding to a shift in regional
climate (say towards drier and cooler seasons) as well as how the farm
is responding to a shift in economic climate (say to the high rates of
*real* interest that characterise the early phases of a transition from
inflation to deflation --- 'real' interest being the nominal interest
rate minus the inflation rate).
To have a reasonably good chance of persisting, a farm must be able to
respond *ahead* of the main shift(s), respond to *multiple*
simultaneous* shifts, and respond in a manner that does not jeopardise
the system if the shift doesn't become entrenched, or even returns (if
only temporarily) to previous conditions. Using the example above, the
farm could be prepared to switch from beef (which prefer warmer,
moister climates) to sheep (prefer cooler, drier climates).
Simultaneously, the operators would need to be *de-financing* (getting
out of debt) as rapidly as possible (selling land, renting it back;
unloading machinery; whatever it takes ...).
Pulling off a shift in emphasis while simultaneously effecting drastic
debt reduction is not something a lot of folks can pull off. Yet that
is precisely the type of approach that will ultimately determine which
operations are actually sustainable. Only a part of this equation is
A big part is understanding that the farm/economic/biological system is
one of DYNAMIC complexity. We have collectively tended to study these
things to death from a perspective of DETAIL complexity. So a beef
farmer might end up focusing on the details of increasing average daily
gain by 0.1 lb/head --- and go farther into debt to do so (!) --- at
the very time that effort would be vastly better applied in figuring
out how to allow for a shift to sheep while getting *out* of debt. In
this detail-focused approach, unfortunately (s)he is enthusiastically
encouraged by universities, extension, product suppliers, and bankers.
>SD: Anyone who is sustainable has to be economically viable. Right? Do organic
>SD: farmers not need to make money to survive? The ecological part of
RV: There are farms which are moving towards ecological sustainability
RV: (which is what I perceive to be the pinnacle/ideal of organic
RV: but they are not economically viable (and therefore outside your
RV: sustainability circle) for at least three reasons:
RV: [paraphrasing] ... ecological damage, institutional bias, (usually)
only money is used as a measure
Two changes in farm accounting procedures would make a big difference
in management, right away.
Firstly, each major aspect of the operation should be accounted as its
own enterprise. As an absolute minimum, land ownership, machinery
ownership, crop production, and livestock should be run as
free-standing businesses. Most farmers are losing their backsides on
machinery ownership (for example) and don't even realise it. Most
livestock producers would be ahead of the game to concentrate on
producing their own protein *well,* and buying starch (which is cheap
--- read #2 Yellow Corn). Money-losing parts of the operation need to
be tightened up or dropped.
Secondly, farmers need to be taught to use the EBITDA type accounting
increasingly prevalent in real businesses. That's Earnings Before
Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortisation. This approach would be
tremendously helpful in evaluating the enterprise-by-enterprise
profitability of any farm undertaking a massive ecological restoration,
a significant expansion, etc. One of the valuable aspects of this
accounting approach is that (as above) it isolates financial
components, making it substantially easier to determine where profit is
being generated, and where it is being destroyed.
I suspect it could also facilitate a clearer elaboration of just where
true costs are being externalised --- and where they are being
*internalised* --- which is the beginning of a much more realistic
system of comparison. Misha's new outfit ought to be able to do
something along these lines, I should think.
Finally, we need to develop some sense of the "capital value" not only
of things like soil organic matter, but system resiliency as well.
Manufacturing and merchandising businesses usually have an accounting
category for "good will" (basically, the difference between the book
value of the company and its market value). To some degree, and for
some time, "good will" allows a company to get away with a limited
number of gaffes in the market place. In that regard it is somewhat
similar to this factor of "resiliency," which allows a farm to buffer
not only its inevitable gaffes, but climate and market shifts as well.
In all this, however, I have to wonder whether or not the typical
farmer can ever really have a chance. I know too many farmers who
figure out whether or not they made a profit in a particular year ...
at the time they do their taxes the following April. I'm just not
convinced (based on sitting around a lot of kitchen tables) that folks
like this can learn what they need to learn ... fast enough to survive.
And right now, I'm also not particularly optimistic about what kinds of
hands their land will end up in as they fail/quit/die one by one. This
thing is a *lot* more complicated than planting cover crops or avoiding
I'm convinced (after 30 years of working on the agronomic side of
things) that the real sustainability challenges for the next generation
(or two) are not agronomic --- they're human and conceptual --- and my
reading of history makes it very clear that if we don't figure it out
at least half-way, our polity, culture, and civilisation are most
This is why I keep saying that 'organic' doesn't have the answers for
sustainability. At its best, organic is addressing agronomy and local
ecosystems, which are two minor pieces of the sustainability equation,
but 'organic' is not even nibbling at a majority of the stuff that
really matters over the long term. We've got a lot of serious work and
thinking to do, and it's an unfortunate waste of energy and intellect
to squabble over low-leverage details.
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