We’re not here to save the planet


Just as some people react badly to fingernails being scraped across a blackboard, the expression “save the planet” and all its variations get my hackles up. The planet is going to be chugging along well after the human species has disappeared. But don’t get me wrong, I am convinced that the current trajectory of the global economy is untenable. Changes need to be made, but change does not have to mean “rigor” and “deprivation”. Change can, and should, mean betterment. Sustainability should not be about some missionary zeal to save a planet that will outlast us. It should be about making the human condition better for everyone.

That’s why this nugget from an article in The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Blog really struck a chord with me:

“Sustainability” is perceived to be a loaded term, more often associated with stewardship than prosperous development. Our collective reliance on achieving a state of sustainability is leading to inaction, endless debate, and disagreement. Once and for all, let’s move beyond sustainability as synonymous with altruism, with “do goodedness”, and with liberal agendas. Instead let’s view action, and not merely debate, as synonymous with raising our collective resilience today while inoculating our global environment against the hand of man over time. [emphasis added]

Resilience in agriculture means having farming systems that cope better with the vagaries of climate…regardless of whether those vagaries are caused by humans or not.

Resilience in food production includes decent livelihoods for the people producing our food. When farmers regularly have to choose to sell their output at a loss or see it spoil, something is wrong. 

Resilience in nutrition means that no one should have to go hungry and that a well-balanced diet should be accessible to everyone. When we have almost one billion people suffering from hunger and malnutrition and more than a billion who are obese, something is off balance.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Bioversity have just released a new book called Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity, which urges us to shift the way we  look at food production from a purely quantitative lens to add a qualitative one.

At a political level, that will require a fundamental change in many countries. The transition may not be easy, but the results should be worthwhile. Nearly a decade ago, I attended a debate between the ministers of agriuculture from France and New Zealand, two OECD countries with very different agricultural policies. The minister from New Zealand noted that his country had dismantled agricultural subsides largely out of need: the budget was in such a bad state that there was simply no money to continue the programs.

A representative of New Zealand’s farming community spoke up. The transition was brutal, he said. Many farmers had suffered. But, he continued, of those who were still standing, he didn’t know a single farmer who would go back to the old system. Released from the dictates of subsidies, farmers became more creative about farming: they diversified their production and started serving niche markets. They were less subject to boom-and-bust cycles and were receiving better prices. Their situation had ultimately improved.

At a consumption level, people need to look closely at what’s on their plates and how it gets there. And we need to revive the cultural transmission of know-how about food and cooking. I recently read a blog post (unfortunately I can’t remember where) that talked about how food and cooking know-how used to be passed down from mother or grandmother to daughter. With the rise of the two-income family, there is less oppoetunity for that transmission. Instead, many urban dwellers are learning how to cook from television shows which make it seem very complicated and hard. So instead of preparing simple homemade meals, they are too-often falling back on convenience foods (which are often highly processed).*

And then, of course, there are all the issues about economics of distribtuion, etc. 

At Prospero, we work with our clients to build the resilience of their organizations. That may mean re-examining management models to foster creativity, innovation and employee engagement. Or it may mean look at how the company’s core business can have a more positive impact on suppliers, consumers and other key stakeholders. Contact us to learn about our advisory services, workshops, or an integrated program tailored to your needs.

*I don’t want to demonize processed food. It has a place in a balanced diet, but it is often consumed in an unbalanced way. 

Photo credit: iStockPhoto




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