Ecological footprint…Natural step

A Q&A on sustainability with Greg Bowman ’74

 Greg Bowman ’74, from Bally, Pa., is the on-line editor for The Rodale Institute’s NewFarm.org, as well as a member of the Mennonite Creation Care Network Steering Committee and a planner for the annual Farming with Values that Last conferences at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center. He is married to Ellen Witmer ’74. They are the parents of Janna Hunter-Bowman ’00, Benjamin and Maria, and attend Bally Mennonite Church.

Q: It seems that the word “sustainability” is thrown about a lot and used interchangeably with many other words, which makes it rather confusing. How do you define sustainability?
A: The term began as a subversive invitation to think more critically about how humans in industrial cultures “consume” whatever we touch, left to our own devices. Consume as in use up, as in “consuming fire” in the Biblical sense. This was long before peak oil was staring us in the face. It won currency with people who recognized we had reached the limits of earth’s resiliency in some areas. “Sustainability” then meant looking deeply into true human and ecological costs, with a willingness to admit that many technological and industrial systems just couldn’t last, whatever their apparent economic viability.

Conventional wisdom in the 1980s found this process inconvenient, and repackaged the deep question into a marketable adjective: sustainable. This worked well for oil companies and developers, but ecological leaders soon realized they had been co-opted again. Bob Rodale found the term of little value even before he died in 1990. “How would your wife feel,” he asked rhetorically, “if someone asked you how your marriage was going, and you said ‘Oh, it’s sustainable.’” Sustainable is better than unsustainable – especially in marriage – but for living systems and relationships that are meant to thrive, it’s too fuzzy until you figure out where the edges are. I always ask more questions to find out how seriously the term is being applied.

In the simplest terms, a process is sustainable for humans if it can be done today in a way that leaves each person involved satisfied, whole and fairly compensated while not diminishing the potential for doing it the same way on into the future. This means not depleting any resource faster than it can be restored, not interfering with the profoundly complex “ecological services” that happen naturally in Creation, not displacing a cost downstream or to a poorer person overseas or across the border, and not leaving the next generation with diminished potential.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about incorporating sustainability into personal and work practices?
A: The biggest misconceptions about sustainability lie at the extremes, either that it is impossible – usually meaning unprofitable in the current market – or is just a ‘green conference’ away. It is also wrong to think that it is a destination, when it’s truly a path comprised by a matrix of interconnected decisions that always asks: “Is there a better way?” Sustainability begins when I honestly answer the questions I know relative to what I am using up in my spending, working, driving and recreating. It deepens when I learn to ask better questions, which inevitably confronts me with new choices about how serious I am about living out my values. When individuals or businesses face these hard questions, the answers they allow themselves to contemplate depend in large part on their ability to believe there will be support for their changes. Who will be there to help me cook the local fresh green beans? Who will carpool with me? Where will we find customers who will see value in paying more for a greener product?

To move past the misconceptions means to let go our fears about the short-term costs of sustainability which prevent us from making the investment to re-design, re-tool and re-imagine our way to where we know we have to go.

Q: How does your faith impact your views on sustainability and your desire to work in this field?
A: The Biblical call is to a posture of humility and gratitude: humility about how well we can really “till and keep” creation the way Creator God managed the garden, and gratitude to be given the chance to try while we receive life, breath and the very stuff of our bodies from a dynamic universe that is still beyond our knowing in many ways. God dignified our material world enough to be incarnated among God’s special creatures in its midst. Jesus lived and taught with all his senses, constantly explaining the Kingdom of God with the ways of nature. He redeemed creation by conquering death. To me, sustainability is groaning with creation to find out what we shall be, while also celebrating that we have been freed to really live in the trying. Christian faith in the area of sustainability means I trust systems God put in place more than human fixes, even if it means creating new economies and new communities to let God’s systems work.

Q: What would be your advice for consumers and business owners in terms of the top ways to practice sustainability?A: Be bold in seeking partners to get started, and to keep moving. Joining in decision-making on the path of sustainability raises the stakes and gives us more to work with. Find out where your lifestyle and production choices are having the biggest impact, and compare those areas to what brings the greatest joy to your life and the most resiliency to your business. Quit measuring the best things you need in dollars, then leave behind what you can no longer afford.

Reduce dependence on fossil fuels, cut the ecological costs of electricity (use less from dirty and risky sources, transfer more to renewable sources) and eat more food in season from as close to home as possible that is well raised by people you can relate to over time. To quantify your “ecological footprint” in various parts of your life, use one or several tools at: www.ecobusinesslinks.com/ecological_footprint_calculator.htm.

Q: Where is sustainability, and sustainable agriculture more specifically, headed? Where are the cutting edges?
A: William McDonough’s simple formula for sustainable design is this: waste = food. We are heading to new systems that more closely approximate this equation than the systems they replace. Just hiding or burying the waste is no longer acceptable. We’re too far in debt, environmentally, to settle for anything but restoring and regenerating resources – not just sustaining them.

Non-sustainable agriculture is in a terminal condition, trapped in a brittle, input-dependent system that is consuming the crutches that have propped it up – and taking lots of farmers down with it. Rising up throughout North America is a new agriculture based on a broader set of values – people who see food production that cherishes the earth and builds community as a high calling. They are ready to work really hard to develop production methods that fit the land and their bioregion, to market their goods to people who care and to collaborate with an array of new groups who want them to succeed in a culture that values health, human connections and ecological integrity.

Most needed is creativity for the “farms of the middle” with 100 to 1,000 acres growing commodity crops in rural areas. These farms are too big to use the bulk of their land for high-value crops, too far from populations to engage in relationship marketing, too cash-poor or debt-encumbered to convert to new enterprises and too isolated from would-be supporters to make easy connections. These farmers are caught in an unsustainable system and face daunting paradigm shifts to find a way forward.

Some answers might be community bio-fuel systems that produce net energy without depleting soil carbon, local food systems that slash food miles, cropping that sequesters carbon to combat global warming, grass-based livestock, farms scaled to prevent environmental pollution and inhumane treatment of animals, urban agriculture, wide-spread composting that stabilizes nutrients and improves water quality, creative land access for young and beginning farmers, fair trade domestically and globally, and basically re-working agriculture and its economies through innovation by people being faithful to their highest values.

Q: There are persistent tensions that never go away in your work with sustainable agriculture (value vs. values, pragmatism vs. idealism, incentives vs. mandates, low cost vs. fair wages, guilt vs. conviction, etc.). How do you respond to these tensions personally?
A: I ask questions about what’s true and what really matters. I listen to voices from the non-over-developed world and the marginalized people closer to home. I equivocate about doing a little good for a lot of people (say using compact fluorescent light bulbs) or doing something major for a few (say, going off the grid with wind and solar). I pray and feel music deeply. I try to remember that people matter more than things, and that transforming faith is where hope comes from to live for the other. I wait for strawberries in season, and give the first fruits of my heirloom tomatoes to my pastor.

Q: Can you name a recent success in the sustainability movement that felt personally significant to you or gives you hope in general?
A: More gratifying to me than Wal-Mart embracing organic food of late is the upsurge in grassroots demand for direct farmer connections across a range of foods (raw milk, fresh produce, on-farm processed goods, pastured meats and freerange chickens) and venues (farmers' markets, regional farm brands, Community Supported Agriculture, farm-to-school food contracts). Sustainability grows best when individuals engage in a process built on dialogue and relationships, with the products coming as a result.