‘Sustainable’ is relative?

A while back, I listened to a webinar about aquaculture*, and the speaker spent most of the 1/2 hour trying to disarm the audience. Trying to get beyond the ‘farmed and dangerous’ branding, I suppose.
He referred to sustainability as relative, and made some comparisons to other relative concepts (i.e. you can’t judge whether or not something is ‘big’ without context). There’s no such thing as sustainable or unsustainable; only more or less sustainable than something else.
I sort of agree with him, in the sense that it’s not typically very helpful to organize foods and food categories into two neat columns with “sustainable” and “unsustainable” at the top. You can’t necessarily say that organic is sustainable and ‘conventional’¬†is not sustainable, because if somebody asked me to compare the environmental impact of a certified-organic package of chocolate cookies made by a major retailer’s store brand, to that of a non-certified-organic (but organically grown) bunch of kale from a small¬†farm…you get the idea. More context is good to have. I’d say wild is currently¬†better than farmed salmon, but I can’t really say that wild salmon is sustainable, because at this point, no salmon is really sustainable as far as I can tell. We should probably be eating filter feeders when we absolutely must have marine protein, until some very positive turn-around happens with the salmon and other large/carnivorous fish populations and the food cycle that they’re part of.
…And to be fair, the webinar presenter did mention that eating different KINDS of marine food is important to sustainability. It’s not just HOW we produce the stuff, it’s also WHAT we’re producing and consuming. I couldn’t agree more with that. (Over-consumption of protein in general was also raised – after all, we can’t store it like fat; we can only pee out nitrogen and stress our kidneys in the process.)
However, I think that when it comes to UNsustainability, in a certain sense it’s about as relative as pregnancy. Sure, you can be a few weeks before your due date vs. a whole 9 months away, but the fact is, you’re still pregnant.
People are not that great about thinking far into the future. We might think ahead to the end of our lifespan if we’re really¬†forethought-ful, or to our children’s (maybe grandchildren’s) time if we’re exceptionally forethought-ful. Even so, when it comes to certain practices,¬†even a mere human can see that we can’t keep doing it for more than a couple of¬†generations, max. If we can SEE¬†on the horizon that some resource will inevitably run out completely, that really says something.
Sure, there are some things we’ve currently labeled as ‘sustainable’ that we will probably re-think in a decade or less. We’ll discover some limiting factor we didn’t realize existed, and we’ll go “oops. I guess we can’t do this forever after all.” So in that sense, the label ‘sustainable’ should probably be taken with a grain of salt, and we should always consider the context in which it really qualifies as sustainable. I agree with that.
But that doesn’t mean that we can throw our hands up and say, “Oh well, sustainability is all relative (meaning, in business-speak, that we can make it mean anything we want), and so as long as it’s not the WORST possible option, it’s still ‘good’ in some senses.” That’s just bunk. If there are better options that are feasible, we should do those. AND, sometimes the best option isn’t going to be good enough. If we know that the best option out there STILL isn’t sustainable, I don’t think we should call it sustainable. That’s misleading. We could say ‘it’s the best option we have for now’, or maybe we should consider doing without it altogether, or looking at more game-changing solutions. For example, if there’s no sustainable way to consume animal protein every day, well then maybe we should think about whether we really need animal protein every day. If there’s no sustainable way to have chocolate available on the global market year-round, maybe it’s time to go easy on the chocolate? But of course, industry isn’t so great at game-changing solutions. They’re better at tinkering and ‘reformulating’ (or better yet, re-branding) their existing products to make them (seem) ‘new and improved!’ They do this with healthy food claims too of course.
*By the way, I’m actually pretty encouraged by some new systems of integrated multi-tropic aquaculture being developed. Wasteful or inappropriate¬†fish-feeding processes, making crowded pathogen breeding-grounds, and producing concentrated waste products were some of the most alarming aspects of conventional aquaculture that I was aware of, and several of those issues can be dealt with pretty effectively by re-structuring the fish ‘farms’, farming new and different kinds of species, and feeding differently.

The case for the shorter work week

I wanted to share this article from the New Economics Foundation on the case for the shorter work week. 

This follows nicely from the video I shared from SCORAI where Halima Brown talks, in part, about high incomes corresponding with relatively high carbon footprints. Sometimes it seems a bit ridiculous to talk about higher income as being a problem. Especially when there is an urgent need to get many deserving people up to a basic living wage. But in fact, I think these concepts complement each other quite nicely. A decent living wage that also factors in a reasonable number of hours of work per week is a great target. Over-work due to low wages or the perceived need to earn more $ creates all kinds of social and health issues. And (depending on the industry) some employers will offer extra hours to workers looking to make more money; this brushes off or ignores the need for more reasonable wages.


Food Donor Tax Incentive

So this is kind of old news, but we aren’t done with it yet, so I thought I’d write a few words on the food donor tax incentive.

A few years ago I probably would have thought that this is a great idea. And probably a lot of people who want to see it implemented everywhere have their hearts in the right place. But I have some big problems with this incentive. Maybe some of these can be addressed with some ‘fine print’ like making sure it’s enforced and represented properly.

My problems with the tax incentives are:
– First, why should big food businesses (mostly retailers) get $ for dumping their unwanted surplus food onto charities? Why not fine them for putting good food in the garbage (it’s illegal in France, although the result is that that French supermarkets have arrangements where they give their excess food to charity anyway), or better yet, fine them for implementing irresponsible practices that are known to lead to preventable food waste? We need to prevent food waste before it happens rather than just ‘recover and redistribute’ food that’s practically on its way to a landfill…
You could also go with the ‘carrot’ approach if you like (oh fine, go be nice to the corporations…it’s probably more effective anyway) and incentivize businesses to implement¬†the types of procurement practices and relationships with manufacturers/producers – as well as the kinds of marketing/storage/sales practices – that are likely to minimize waste. i.e. make it pay off for them to avoid waste to begin with.

– Secondly, charities have¬†a tough time sorting through these unsolicited donations and sometimes have to pay to dispose of them because they’re moldy or rotted. (They may look good at first glance, but a lot of the donations of food dumped onto charities are not safe to eat by the time they arrive.) It’s sometimes an undue burden on the charities, who may¬†feel pressured to take (bad or less-than-useful) donations so that they don’t damage relationships with the public. Which is why, once again, I say that it’s better to avoid food waste than to encourage food retailers to say to themselves, ‘Well let’s continue with business as usual, over-purchase for the full-shelf effect, and then we can just donate the excess to charity…and get a nice tax incentive!’

– Thirdly, the tax shouldn’t be represented as a way to solve hunger, because it doesn’t. That’s false advertising. Yes, we landfill (or compost) a lot of food and it makes intuitive sense that if we could funnel it into the mouths of hungry people, we’d solve hunger, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. Redistribution is arguably putting recovered foods to a better use than sending it to the landfill, but it’s no solution to systemic causes of hunger like poverty, unemployment, dependence on an increasingly unstable pool of waged work in order to feed oneself (gig economy anyone?), and so on. It’s also not a reliable source of food for hungry people. Free meals are usually available sporadically, and the quality and nutritional content varies widely. This is not a criticism of charities that distribute free food – most of them do what they can with what they’re given – it’s just reality.

Sustainable lifestyles – SCORAI

I wanted to share this video. Some take-away messages, as I understood them, are:

  • Economic growth in the US, as it’s currently being defined and measured (GDP), is very much dependent on growing consumer spending.
  • We know that consumer income translates itself into carbon footprint. (Higher income, higher footprint.)
  • However, improved services can and do increase quality of living, without increasing carbon footprint.

Overall, I think this makes the argument for redefining progress (we can’t keep increasing spending and GDP); making sure that the super-wealthy get taken down a notch (it’s simply not sustainable for the top 2% in the US to be as wealthy as they currently are); and working towards good (but not excessive) quality of living for people through better services, more livable cities, and infrastructure that takes sustainability and ecology to heart; not as an afterthought.