What Does ‘Sustainable’ Mean to You?

  • Although I have long used the word ‘sustainable,’ it wasn’t until recently that I stopped to think about how subjective that word can be. And in D.C. where the word is used to sell food (including salmon) to consumers, the nebulous nature of the word can be problematic. “In an eco-conscious era, “sustainable” and “green” food are buzzwords that sell,” wrote Jane Black in a Washington Post article. Because these are powerful words and will often be used to make money rather than express axioms, it is up to all food consumers to push beyond food industry jargon and discover what sustainable means for them personally.

    For me, the long term health of the ecosystem where the food is derived is absolutely central, but these other factors are no less important:

    • The Producers.
      Producers need to care about food, the long term health of the land and the people they are feeding. The presence of large corporations in the production of food precludes this possibility. This is the reason that buying from small producers is so important. For me, there is so much value in meeting the man or woman who grew the carrots, raised the chicken or caught the fish I buy to put in my body. This relationship between myself and the producer is valuable because of the amazing friendships that can sprout, the accountability and trust inherent in these relationships, and the knowledge and resulting empowerment we gain from one another.
    • A Culture of Food.
      While most of us were once part of a ‘food culture’ generations ago (think Europe), many of us in America now feel that food is little more than fuel––something to fill the belly as quickly as possible. But food and culture are not separable and attempting to pry them apart is detrimental to human happiness, health and natural ecosystems. To foster healthy culture, bodies and ecosystems we need to develop a modern culture of food here in America. Fortunately, the community and family-building nature of appreciating high quality and sustainable food and enjoying it together with friends, family and neighbors is second nature to us. We only need to allow our nature to bubble up and reclaim the joy of eating and living harmoniously with the land.
    • Traditional Cultures.
      In producing food we must always consider the cultures that were there harvesting before us. In Alaska this is of the utmost importance because, for many native Alaskan people, salmon are the backbone of their food and often their religious traditions. Furthermore, the wisdom we can gain from these cultures in both harvesting and conserving plant and animal species is no less valuable than the most expensive modern research.
    • Food producers Harvest to Eat.
      Food producers need to harvest as though they were going to feed themselves and their families with that food. This is second nature to most small food producers––another reason to abandon the industrialized food system.
    • Ecosystem Health.
      The natural food systems we tap into for our meals need to thrive sustainably FOREVER. For this to work, small food producers need to model their process off of the same natural systems that have kept the planet verdant for eons. This means gleaning wisdom from native cultures, science and above all, employing common sense. With nuclear power all over the news these days, I cannot help but draw parallels between the current models of industrialized food production and of nuclear power. Both harness the power of science but wield it like black magic––it answers prayers but the cost is totally unknown. These industries operate on the assumption that there is indeed a free lunch to be had, and of course, there is not. While the health of the resource is absolutely essential in planning for food production, the health of the surrounding ecosystem is no less important. Nature is synergistic and all things rely on one another, us humans included. Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethic’ is probably the best model yet for living harmoniously with the natural world. Leopold’s land ethic enlarges our ethical sphere to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

      This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

    Understanding Leopold’s land ethic is not hard, it is ingrained in every fiber of our being. It is human common sense. In order to live sustainably, we need to do nothing more than trust our own inclination to know where our food comes from and to protect the natural integrity of that system so it will support us, the surrounding ecosystem and future generations.

    I would very much like to hear how you, as a human eater, feel you fit into the natural food system of the world.


    April 19th, 2011 | Traveler | No Comments |

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Traveler Terpening

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