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Hooray for sustainable development

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | December 9, 2011

While this may seem like a cheesy title it represents a newly acquired appreciation for the term ‘sustainable development’. Years ago, my Dean asked me to join the Center for Sustainable Resource Development and as a young faculty member I did not fully comprehend what it meant but I knew that one shouldn’t refuse the request of the Dean, so I complied. Back then, I considered sustainable development to be a noncontroversial slogan that could bring people together but I didn’t realize that it actually represents a very sophisticated vision. It is a vision that recognizes the challenge between the desire for a good, enjoyable life and the constraints imposed by the fragility of our planet. Meeting this challenge and integrating action and caution requires pragmatism and compromise that unfortunately is missing in current policies addressing the economy and the environment.

While the world is full of gray, it may be useful to paint a picture in black and white, to contrast the perspectives of developers and environmentalists at the extreme. Developers are interested in quick change that improves immediate wellbeing, sometimes poo-pooing concerns for the health of natural systems. One example of development at any price is the depletion of the Aral Sea for the sake of cotton production. This example illustrates the importance of ‘thinking before doing’ and the need to restrain the desire for immediate gain due to the irreversible damage to nature. The perspectives of many environmentalists do not align itself with the pragmatism of sustainable development and may lead to uncompromising and counterproductive positions.

Environmentalism is often a defensive paradigm with practitioners that are ready to fight against ruthless violations against nature. Some of its key operational terms are ‘defense’ (like the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Fund), ‘protection’ (Environmental Protection Agency), and conservation (Natural Conservancy). This makes sense. Nature has been ravaged by unbridled development, which had to be restrained. Without environmental activism, many reforms would not have happened and the earth would be in a much worse shape than it is. But extreme environmentalism can be counter-productive and when it is being suspicious of new knowledge and techniques, it often leads to nay saying rather than negotiating strategies that combine both material progress and environmental wellbeing.

As a student of basketball, I learned that the best teams integrate offense and defense and sustainable development is meant to do just that. This notion of cautious action behind sustainable development is very important as society addresses challenges such as climate change. However, frequently solutions that are considered to be ‘sustainable’ do not meet these basic pragmatic and compromising principles that are the essence of sustainable development. One example is in agriculture. For some, sustainable agriculture mostly consists of organic farmers and ecological practices that shy away from the use of chemicals, genetically modified organisms or supply management practices used by big corporations.

However, feeding a growing population with an ever growing appetite will require use of all the tools of science in our arsenal and continued experimentation of learning. The reason that I am so keen on science-based agriculture is that with all of its faults, modern agriculture increased corn yields in the US by six fold in about sixty years and GMOs doubled the yield of cotton in some developing countries in just fifteen years. Global agriculture enabled us to triple grain production since the 1950’s with less than thirty percent increase in acreage. Thus the land use footprint on a per capita basis has drastically declined.

Of course this record of science-based agriculture has many blemishes and is facing new challenges. It generates too much pollution, is dependent on too many renewable chemicals and exploits natural capital; but science-based agriculture has had a short history. It started only 150 years ago. And the key of science is admitting and learning from mistakes. In the future, I expect modern science and technology to usher in a transition from monoculture to polyculture to take advantage of synergy among crops. Production practices will adjust to variations in conditions to increase productivity and reduce input use. Modern biotechnology, ecology and information technologies can provide a base for a more productive and environmentally friendly agriculture.

The key for any scientific progress is learning from mistakes and moving forward. The lesson of “Silent Spring” is not that we should quit using chemical pesticides. That is like suggesting that after the first human was burned by fire, we should have abandoned this dangerous practice. Rather the true lesson is that chemicals, like pesticides must be used with caution and that we should develop farming practices that provides an abundance of food and that allows nature to thrive. In the case of chemical pesticides, I actually see them as a temporary solution and I believe that with correct ecology, genetics and other technologies, we can control pests with minimal application of chemicals.

While modern science has provided us with tools that have afflicted much damage on humanity and the environment, it has been a source of great progress in the last two centuries. It is the best tool we have for fighting climate change, containing population growth and enabling sustainable development. So give science a chance. We should embrace cautious experimentation rather than Draconian precaution. Sound and cooperative application of science can lead to human prosperity, environmental integrity and peace. This is what sustainable development is all about.

Comments to “Hooray for sustainable development

  1. This reminds me of the Marshmallow test. Children ages 7-12 who loved marshmallows were brought into a gymnasium where there were long lunch tables with a Marshmallow placed in front of them. The children were told that they could eat the single marshmallow now or if they sat waited until their facilitator returned they would receive an entire bag of marshmallows. These children were tracked for the next 25 years. The ones that waited for the bag did better scholastically, socially, financially and were healthier overall.

    Sustainable development means waiting for the bag vs. eating the marshmallow that is in front of you. So you really believe a guy like Dick Chaney is going to wait for the whole bag and do the right thing and leave the single marshmallow sitting. In fact, I bet he would figureout a way to get the whole bag by bribing the facilitator while he sat there and eating the first marshmallow as well.

    The issue David is consciousness and delay of gratification. Lets talk about stem cell research and how many people/souls suffer and or lose their lives because a few think they know.

    Thank you for your interesting thoughts David.


    Peter Baksa

  2. Science is great when used for public good. For years now, there is no proof that that is the case. It’s just too bad that people have to wait 30, 40, 50, or more years for science to realize their mistakes while the Big Corps have all the time they need to make their billions Can’t help but make one feel cynical…and worried. Whatever happened to the Precautionary Principle? Science should be learning from and working with nature for improvement, instead of changing everything from the bottom up!
    New technology is making people sick and few realize it. Ethics are a thing of the past. While we love honest science, we are tired of the money grab science.

  3. Well said! Cautious experimentation is a curious concept. Is this argument for controlled, gradual phase-in of new technology? Zoning of (new) GMO crops, say? Makes sense, particularly in stemming ever accelerating development of resistance to pest control technologies. Is that even remotely integrated in FDA, EPA or the (truly minimal) USDA regulatory approval processes? Should it be? It might be a much more rational application of the Precautionary Principle…

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