Thinking of Sustainability and the Future
By Yoshio Nakayama
Tokyo International University (two year program-transfer student) '12
Home town: Tokyo, Japan
Language is mysterious. Based on my experience and what I can speak, no matter if the language is English, Japanese, or Chinese, oftentimes, a word has more than one definition. Sometimes, a word can mean completely the opposite of one’s initial intention. When we speak or write, we must use care.
“Sustainability” is a something of a “mysterious” word, a word that demands care. It emerged about twenty years ago defined by Swedish scientists, and as time has passed and people’s awareness toward this idea has increased, the word has become popular. Especially in today’s education system, as we are studying at Zena farm, there are many programs that focus on this word, “sustainability”. I feel as this word becomes more commonly used, it starts to contain broader context. In general, people think “sustainability” is something good. But good for what? Ourselves? Our health? Our future? Our descendants? The environment? The mother earth? Consumers? Producers? Our nature? Our culture? I feel that the word is starting to cover too many senses and losing its central core. The standard definition from the Brundland Report is that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the future generations to meet their own needs.” Then, the question is what are our today’s needs and future needs? How far should we go? Needs for what? Basic necessities? Luxury goods? Cars? Beer? The internet? The answer varies depending who we and where we ask. Our Willamette University Sustainability Council has four Es, Environment, Equity, Economics, and Education to define and approach sustainability. It makes sense to divide the word to smaller groups in order to increase understanding. Once we have these groups, it is much easier to approach to the question, what is sustainability? And where are we going?
Concerns about the current and future environment have become a critical factor of sustainability. Especially, there are intensive debates on how to feed rapid increasing population and how to preserve enough energy for future. The world population has been growing exponentially from the beginning of the twentieth century. By the late 2011, it is said that the population would reach to seven billion, and ten billion by 2050. However, resources—for instance, landscape, soil, food, water, and energy—are limited, and thus only a number of limited people can live on the earth. In order to survive, human beings need calories that come from the sun through several levels of food chains. Because of the law of conservation of mass and loss of calories at each level of food chains, the population size should become smaller as going higher levels on the food chains. For example, plants and animals can preserve only approximately ten percent of total calories that they have obtained, as going one level higher in the food chains, the population size should be one tenth. This is the law of nature, and no one can go against. In this theory, human population is going to reach what it is supposed to be. Then how are we maintaining it? One of answers is fossil fuel. Because we can’t obtain/transfer enough calories from the sun with current practices, we consume fossil fuel to generate alternative forms of calories. In other words, we are using some credits from past for paying our debt off now. But the credits are limited as well, so in a long run, this is obviously not sustainable at all.
Some of the methods for approaching these concerns include birth control and energy alternation. I think that though there are some difficulties, both solutions are possible to be applied. My mother country, China is successfully implementing birth limitation for reducing population pressure on the environment. Of course, some objections and confusions would occur. For instance, when China began its birth control, a lot of infanticide, particularly killing female children, happened in rural areas due to the patents wished to have male children who were likely to earn more income for the households. However, as legal and social structure have become more established and people’s awareness have increased, this problem seemingly became a less concern. As time passes, the decision to save the entire human race should be understood. In addition, even though we are heavily consuming limited energy resources and the credits would become zero in future, it does not mean we should go back to old primitive age. In fact, human beings never went to back in the history and will not to do so. Innovating and adapting new energy resources, wind power, solar power, and atomic power could solve this problem.
Although it is quite possible to control further population growth and energy consumption, the problem is that how we can fairly distribute resources. Some countries need rapid growth and energy consumption in order to get out from poverty and feed their populations. Unlike today’s advanced countries which have already spent incredible amount of resources from the earth for development during the twentieth century, these developing countries are still facing to meet basic needs. In addition, led by movements of colonization and warfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, resources and rights to access to them are not equally distributed among nations. As Clive Ponting notes in A Green History of the World, “One of the main reasons for Europe’s success in breaking free from the long struggle to survive that had dominated the experience of nearly every society since the development of agriculture lay its changing relationship with the rest of the world and, in particular, its ability to control an increasing share of the world’s resources.” I was really moved to read that, If the world were a village of 100 people, “about sixty percent of the wealth and resources on the earth is occupied by only six people. And all of them are Americans.”
Unlike the simple decision to practice birth control, this is a tough situation regarding balanced growth and distribution while maintaining the environment. All countries have a desire to gain wealth for their citizens’ well-being. Also, I feel the idea of sustainable development is not as commonly understood in developing countries than in advanced nations. For example, in China, “rapid growth, and catch up world” is a national slogan today. They demand rapid growth. Through readings from current classes, I think, however, that growth does not have to be evil because if we define “sustainability” as “meeting one’s current needs…” facing hunger and poverty can’t satisfy the condition. Thus, the approach toward this social problem should be focused on fair distribution. Not only sending foreign aids, but rich countries also could provide their higher education system, technology, and information as open source for encouraging people’s awareness toward the worldwide problem. Looking a little bit background of myself, I was born in a developing country China; I moved to Japan when I was six; now I am studying in the U.S., the most advanced country in the world. I am very fortunate to be able to stay and receive wealth from the U.S., but I still love where I am originally from. I strongly believe that I should return this fortune to others through my knowledge which I have obtained in the U.S. Allowing more intercultural exchange, especially from advanced countries to developing countries, enhances people’s well-being and reduce inequity.
Economy plays a major role regarding sustainability, and especially it addresses today’s rapid development and negative impacts of capitalism. Particularly, I believe that radical modifications in U.S. agriculture practices are required in order to meet our long run well-being. That is, economically many farmers are not able to support themselves due to low profit of today’s agriculture that caused by consumer spending habits and government policies. Eating food is one of the essential needs of being human. Therefore, it is the first thing we want to obtain when we have ability to access. However, once we eat enough, we will no longer spend our income on food because simply we do not feel to eat more. Rather than purchasing additional food, people find their interests in investing on beauty, entertainment, luxury, and travel. In fact statistically it is shown that Americans only spend about eight percent of their total incomes on food, which is surprisingly low proportion. In addition, other data shows that more than seventy percent of labor force work for service sectors in our society. (Although service sectors include some food chain stores). As a result, food demand is very inelastic. On the other hand, in order to encourage a high food supply and a stable price, the U.S. government has been offering subsidies to farmers based on how much they produce, particularly for commodities known as corn and wheat, for example. Farmers wish to receive more subsidies by increasing their yields with massive use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizer. However, this simply results in over supply and damages to the environment. Thinking an easy economics—if there are over supply and inelastic demand—food prices stay at lower level continuously. In the book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michel Pollan uses the example of corn producers to show that under this low food price levels and government subsidy programs, the only way for farmers to make their living is produce more and more. However, the outcome of this is just resulting in greater economic difficulties.
The second desired modification in the current agriculture system is about certification of “organic” and organic movement itself. Similar to “sustainability”, the word “organic” has also come to mean many things. People’s interests of knowing where the food they eat comes from, and protecting the environment and animals via their choices have been pushing more demand to “organic” food. It is almost like a magic word. When we hear the word “organic”, we somehow associate “green”, “healthy”, “environmental friendly” and “better than other non-organic food”, and willing to purchase it. In truth, the organic food market has been expanding its share rapidly over the past five years. Then, in our capitalism society, food producers would not pass up this great business opportunity. Since the USDA regulations of being an organic farm are vague, large conventional productions have shifted some of their landscape to organic with modest changes. Organic farming holds hopes for not only for the economic problems of farmers, but also to deal with the environmental problems such as energy consumption and ecological damages around agricultural landscape. Nonetheless, what is happening is that food with the “organic” certification sticker is produced through heavy chemical and machinery processes and comes from several thousand miles away.
Under these two current systems, economically it is not sustainable for people who produce food and socially it is not sustainable for our future availability of resources. I think one best way to solve this problem is to increase people’s awareness. If people know how their food is actually produced and what hidden costs are, many of them would willing to pay a higher price to ensure food safety and ethics. Also, organic food does not have to be expensive if there are sufficient demand and supply. Then, the problem is to alter the organic certification. Personally, I actually think it is a great start that many large and monopolistic productions have begun to apply organic methods. Although still expensive amount of energy is consumed in the production, but at least, some concerns such as pesticide, herbicide, and synthetic fertilizer uses have become less problematic. Moreover, these businesses significantly expand organic market size and increase people’s consciousness to this new type of food source. So this is one step toward advance. From now, USDA should slowly squeeze and raise the standard of the brand “organic”, to achieve the original goals of organic movement.
Education and my Thoughts
Before being economics major, I am a university student. Thus, as well as considering economic sustainability, I would like to put a great emphasis on education. I strongly believe through education, we can increase our awareness toward current issues, and change the world. In fact, led by universities, nowadays, there are notable numbers of programs which provide opportunities to people for learning about sustainability, and Zena farm experience is one of them. Through this contribution, the philosophy of “sustainability” has been well-known to people and society. However, I feel this phenomenon only applies mainly in advanced countries, not in developing countries where this idea is most needed regarding their population growth and future resource consumptions. For example, in my Japanese university, there is a farm called Santome at which students can learn about sustainable agriculture and its philosophy. Whereas, in China, I have never heard such a word, and I think not many people know it. It makes sense to think that in the poorest countries where people are facing immediate dangers—hunger, disease, and war—, it is almost impossible to care about future sustainability. They do not have the ability to study it in a nice classroom, or have an opportunity to experience it.
To deal with this difficulty, I think hands from developed countries are needed, and providing opportunities and incentives for less fortunate people to learn about sustainability is one of the best ways. Through this proposal, not only approaching to today’s problems, but those people can also achieve further well-being for both themselves and societies. To speak the truth, I dropped out my high school at the first year. After that, I was working at McDonald’s for making my living. Compared to the poorest countries, my situation was much better, but still I was facing economic difficulties and wondering how I could survive every day. Receiving scholarships from schools and financial supports from my parents changed my life. I restarted schooling, and am studying about worldwide issues in the most advanced counties now. Learning what sustainability is at Zena farm, it not only increased my understating toward subjects that I discussed previously, but also improved my perspective about lives and what I can do using my knowledge. Now I have much better sense of how food is actually produced. A lot of people in developed countries tend to think food lightly. They would think anytime and anywhere they could obtain wherever they want to eat. Like a vending machine, they would think just put in some quarters, and then food is ready. Farming work at Zena increased my appreciation to food. After coming back home, I ran to grocery shopping, and found that the kinds of food I purchased were completely different than before I started Zena farm program. I did not want to buy processed food and food from somewhere very far way. I stop to eat out as often than before. I begin to enjoy cooking and provide what I make to others with telling some stories and things I know about the food. I would continue this and tell more stories to my family and Japanese friends when I have a chance to see them. This new habit will not only build good diet and values up for me, but also help organic farmers’ lives, improve my friends’ perspectives, and ultimately contribute making better societies. Therefore, considering how much I have changed since I dropped out high school, I strongly believe education—speaking to others–is the start point to move toward achieving better societies and sustainability.
Lastly, I think education could enlighten “animal” nature of human. Through our history, even today, human beings fight each other in order to survive. The development of agriculture resulted in emergences of the strong and weak. The strong abuses the weak and occupies resources unequally. In the past, the strong have built empires and colonies. Now, the strong takes capital power to exploit the weak for its own benefits. By providing education to the weak, it reduces the differences between the two. In addition, human beings also have “social animal” nature. People can sacrifice themselves for others’ well-being. Now, facing a global issue whether or not we can sustain ourselves, there should not be the strong or weak. There should only be human race. Through education, it increases people’s consciousness and encourages actions. If more people pursue achieving better society, social psychology effects would occur and others would follow the movement. Thus, education system creates the first group that leads others toward better outcomes. Through my learning experience at Zena farm, I shall return what I have learned and lead people from my mother countries, China and Japan.
- "Into the Woods" - Kristin Light
- "Farming, eh" - Amanda McCLelland
- "Thinking of Sustainability and the Future" - Yoshio Nakayama
- "Journal Entries for the Zena Farm Program" - Yoshio Nakayama
- "A Brief Anatomy of Zena Farm" - Sarah Spring
- "Real Food: My Lifelong Quest for True Flavor" - Michelle Tynan