Sustainability is an extremely elusive concept: the more one tries to define it the more it slips through one’s fingers. The word seems, as a rule, more general than specific. But it is largely abstract because definitions are often place-less. Definitions have no particular place in mind in which sustainability can put roots down and stick around for awhile. Certainly some generality is necessary, but without particularity holding this generality down it will float away. Applicability is key.
The original Brundtland definition was too abstract and overly anthropocentric. To be fair, anthropocentrism is not necessarily bad: a jellyfish would be medusacentric. And Brundtland’s and Robert Solow’s neoliberal economics are not the only manifestation of anthropocentrism. Wendell Berry could be considered anthropocentric because he is endlessly passionate about the life and health of human communities. But he is also deeply biocentric because he realizes that human life and health cannot come at the expense of what sustains it and because it cannot come at the expense of the life and health of our home and our nonhuman neighbors, who surely have just as much, if not more, of a right to live on this planet as we do. This synthesis is fertile ground for defining sustainability
A good definition of agricultural sustainability will be so burdened with adjectives that any speaker will trip over it. Ecology, the study of the household, is vital in this discussion, because it connotes the complex relationships of mutuality between various parts to create the whole. Health does not exist in isolation, but in beneficial membership to the entire household. Any definition that is worth its salt will recognize the complex relatedness between social, political, economic, ecological, and cultural issues. If the house is divided against itself it will not stand.
Agricultural sustainability imitates the diverse patterns and relationships of local ecosystems in order to sustain human and nonhuman communities in a particular place for as long as possible. Imitation is an important distinction: agricultural sustainability does not necessarily seek to recreate local ecosystems, but instead seeks to emulate local ecosystems. As such, it makes ends and means as commensurate as possible: it will not impede the land’s inherent ability for renewal and it will reduce (and ultimately eliminate) dependence on non-renewable energy except as a rare supplement. Agricultural sustainability contextually emerges from the study and practice of the whole household, characterized by self-renewal and restoration, stability and mutability, rootedness and longevity. It conserves and preserves biodiversity, soil fertility, watershed integrity, and sociocultural equity while maintaining a sustaining yield. Agricultural sustainability is bioregional and organic, which means it fosters community and culture, respects the limitations and gifts of carrying capacity, and defects as much as possible from dependence on an exploitive economy. It necessitates revitalized communities to care for the land, which should be redistributed into more cooperative ownerships or so people have the opportunity to work productive land (which is not just a Jeffersonian vision, but also a biblical-prophetic one and a distributist-economic one). Urban farming and the gardening of cities must also play a key creative role. None of this will happen overnight with the flick of a magic wand. Agricultural sustainability is a dynamic conversion.
Agricultural sustainability requires storytelling, consciously and critically joining the wisdom of the past with concrete practices in the present to address the potential of the future. As such, it builds up local tradition and culture like topsoil that preserves wisdom but also invites, indeed requires, future inputs and improvements. Marginal places and people must be welcomed in reconstituted communities and restructured systems that also imitate ecosystems (balance, resilience, vitality, diversity, mutuality, etc.) and harmonize with local ecosystems. Neighborliness will be emphasized. Limits must be set on production and consumption, which means that the ratio of farmer to acreage must be decreased. Distribution of surplus will be important as well, because distribution of food poses a greater threat to sustainability than the production of food.
As humans, we must address our needs, but we must do so with the realization that we are not the only, or indeed the most important, species inhabiting this planet. Evolution (and some religious traditions) bears witness to our interconnectedness and interdependence with the earth and fellow creatures. This tension will be a tightrope that cannot be walked in the abstract but only in responsible concrete practices. Sustainable agriculture is the mediator between the health of human culture and the health of the earth because it depends on the permanent renewal of both.