The Austerity Conundrum

Reader Contribution by Staff

You’ll read here and there these days that industrial agriculture is more environmentally friendly than organic agriculture or traditional, diverse farming practices.

The writer is, almost without exception, someone who makes a living, directly or indirectly, from industrial agriculture. That doesn’t change the fact that they are, in their reasoning, perfectly correct. Industrial agriculture pollutes in ways organic and traditional growers do not, but its efficiency also creates environmental benefits.

As humanity’s population grows and we sprawl across the planet’s empty spaces, the efficiency of our food production becomes more and more important. As much as I believe in organics and grass-feeding, I don’t believe that I can produce 100 calories of soybeans or a pound of hamburger in a smaller space than the industrial farmer. I need more room, and generally more time, to do what I do.

If I have a hungry world to feed and I feel a sense of urgency, then it’s time to cultivate, irrigate and spray. It’s time for genetic engineering, herbicides and artificial fertilizers. That’s the way to produce the maximum amount of food using the minimum time and space.

I’m not talking about sustainability. I’m talking about efficiency.

Our toughest philosophical problem these days is what I call the Austerity Conundrum. A lot of people believe in human dominion and unfettered expansion. That leads us to a world in which we will, eventually, have minimal resources available to each person. We can’t expand production forever, so if we continue expanding demand we end up stretching our resources thin. It’s a grim certainty.

Unfortunately, many of our conservation efforts lead us to more or less the same conclusion.  When conservationists suggest that everyone should ride bicycles and that no human being should use more than five squares of toilet paper per session, they are tacitly endorsing the goal of maximum human efficiency, a goal that willfully averts the gaze from the underlying issue of population growth.

This is not to discredit the power and beauty of the conservation movement. Conservation ignites the human imagination. An aesthetic of simplicity is inherently a part of the spiritual practice of frugality and generosity. What we, as individuals, do not consume will be consumed by other living things. And the planet will benefit from our stewardship.

But our logic is flawed if we believe efficiency will solve our puzzles.

The only sustainable human future is a stable human future – a future in which both our population and our consumption are stabilized. While we focus on efficiency we ignore more compelling issues.