Note: The following is a rationale for a sustainability-plus model that I prepared for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System administration in late 2009. For more specific details on the Sustainability-Plus concept, see our FAQ: “Sustainability-Plus: Questions and Answers.”
Quoting from Shakespeare, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”
A number of serious challenges now occurring in our state, nation and world present us with a marvelous opportunity to demonstrate our continued relevance to our clients and stakeholders.
These challenges stem from a host of causes— environmental, economic and social — but virtually all of them to one degree or another relate to sustainability: living and working in ways that address present-day needs without eroding the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Environmental challenges stem from many different sources: climate change, unrelenting demands on limited supplies of fossil fuel and water, and perennial concerns about the effects of overpopulation, to name only a few.
Writing recently in the New York Times, columnist and author Thomas Friedman expressed fears of the immediate effects of atmospheric carbon buildup, especially the possibility that
…the next emitted carbon molecule will tip over some ecosystem and trigger a nonlinear event —like melting the Siberian tundra and releasing all its methane, or drying up the Amazon or melting all the sea ice in the North Pole in the summer. And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.
Partly for this reason, agriculture — historically speaking, one of Extension’s core competency areas —is facing some of the most acute challenges. The agricultural model constructed in the 20th century was critically dependent on petroleum and water — two resources that are predicted to be in perilously short supply in the 21st century. Even so, agriculture over the next few decades will be called upon to achieve what to some seems almost unachievable: to feed a burgeoning population in spite of these shortages and in the midst what is widely considered to be global climate change.
Yet, these challenges are only a few among many other pressing 21st century concerns, which also include biodiversity and land use, the prevalence of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in our waterways, air pollution, waste-management problems, and a steady depletion in the supply of oceanic fish, to name only a few.
Many economists, policymakers and pundits cite growing levels of public and private debt as long-term threats to the nation’s future. Debt levels accrued by federal, state and local governments now comprise about 24 percent of U.S. GDP. Darrell J. Stanley, professor of finance at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, writes that government expenditures at these levels “could have a very negative impact on the nation’s ability to consume goods and build plants and equipment for future economic growth.”
The size of federal government debt alone has increased from $2.13 trillion in 1986 to $9 trillion today — a level of growth that prompted this observation by Thomas Friedman:
…one need only look at today’s record-setting price of gold, in a period of deflation, to know that a lot of people are worried that our next dollar of debt — unbalanced by spending cuts or new tax revenues — will trigger a nonlinear move out of the dollar and torpedo the U.S. economy.
Private debt presents yet another challenge.
One worst-case scenario could involve a future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to undertake the public investments necessary to secure the future of upcoming generations of Americans.
Yet, that is only one harbinger among many others of a troubling U.S. economic future. The median family savings rate has also declined substantially. In 2006, for example, the U.S. savings rate was negative, even though it stood as high as 8 to 10 percent from 1960 to 1990.
For Americans to be assured of long-term economic viability, levels of personal savings must increase not only to support retirement but also to provide capital for long-term investment, Stanley contends.
Both Stanley and Friedman believe these economic trends are unsustainable in the long run. For his part, Stanley doubts the historically high U.S. standard of living can be maintained, “unless there is a change in social and economic behavior.”
Equally unsettling is the prevailing state of health in the United States and the threat this poses to the sustainability of the healthcare system.
Fully two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, and about half of these are classified as obese. Among African-Americans and Latinos, the rates are even higher. Childhood obesity also has emerged as a serious long-term threat to the U.S. health system: Among children between 6 and 19 years of age, about 15 percent, or 1 in 6, are overweight. An additional 15 percent are at risk of becoming overweight.
Obesity-related health costs already are estimated to run more than a hundred billion a year. The threat to the U.S. healthcare system stemming from obesity-related diseases — diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer — will increase as obesity levels rise.
The Common Thread
All of these challenges share one thing in common: the way their effects are perceived and interpreted by policy makers, pundits and the American public in general. Many people fear that we are dealing with more than just an ailing economic order. Some even fear that this multitude of challenges threatens our very survival. While still holding out hope, Stanley maintains that fundamental economic reforms are needed to shore up the American economic order and to stave off what conceivably could be disaster in the making.
Will it [the United States] continue under the new world realities? It will not, in the opinion of the author, unless there is a change in social and economic behavior.
To be sure, a change of mindset appears to be taking hold. Mounting concerns about the perilous state of the economy have sparked a nationwide “crusade for economic restraint,” according to New York Times columnist David Brooks. And while these issues may not yet have bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently described as “a different mental place.”
Moreover, many policy makers, political commentators and other tend to perceive these challenges as linked rather as isolated problems. A good example is farming: Whether justified or not, production agriculture is perceived as a major contributor to many of these challenges, not only degrading the environment but also contributing significantly to spiking obesity rates.
Whatever the case, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word: sustainability.
The Advantages to Extension of a Comprehensive “Sustainability Plus” Effort
All of these challenges present Extension with a remarkable opportunity: A chance to demonstrate to our clients and stakeholders how we can play an integral role in developing and fostering new production systems and other approaches to address these mounting environmental, economic and social concerns.
Once again, farming serves as a prime example. As one administrator observed recently, Extension played a major role building the so-called factory farming system. Now, for the sake of our long-term organizational survival, Extension must demonstrate how it will play a major role in fostering what Jonathan Foley, of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, has described as a “third way” approach. This approach would combine the elements of two principal farming paradigms: the high-efficiency version, distinguished by its “benefits of economic scalability, high output and low labor demands,” and its organic counterpart with its emphasis on local and scalable farming methods.
Extension is also uniquely equipped to undertake another important mission: to show how sustainability relates to all of us. Yes, we can serve an important role demonstrating the values recycling and adopting greener production systems. But we have an even greater role to serve: introducing our clients and stakeholders to the bigger picture by demonstrating how all the major challenges of the day are best addressed by adopting sustainable practices.
Simply put, we have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the value of “sustainability plus” — sustainability as it relates to every facet of our lives.