A Twenty-Six Year (and counting) Path Toward Sustainability


President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

I recently had the great pleasure and honor to meet Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland as part of the ceremony that the Woods Hole Research Center held to award her the Lawrence S. Huntington Environmental Prize. As a young scientist, I was inspired by the challenge articulated by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 to use science to identify and define paths to sustainable development. Thirteen years later, I wrote a book entitled, You Can’t Eat GNP, which described to a general audience the links between ecology and economics and how knowledge of both are needed for sustainability. Not knowing that I would share a podium with her in yet another thirteen years, I quoted in my 2000 book one of my favorite passages from Dr. Brundtland’s writings:

“While we should not try to refrain from utilizing resources, we should do so only on a scale that leaves room for future generations. We must consider our planet to be on loan from our children, rather than being a gift from our ancestors.” – Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, Director of the World Health Organization

There have been many attempts to define sustainability, but none so elegant as this quotation. As I wrote my book, I tried to expand upon that definition so that the reader could better grasp the challenges of sustainability:

By holding down the right foot pedal on a piano, you can release the keys after playing a chord and listen to the harmony resonate for a minute or two or more as the pedal sustains the chord. While sitting there on the piano bench listening to each pitch gradually fade, it can seem like the notes keep ringing indefinitely, albeit ever so faintly. The right foot pedal is called the sustain pedal.

A popular buzz word these days in the realms of agronomy, forestry, fisheries, and development is sustainability. One goal of sustainable agriculture, like the sustain pedal on the piano, is to try to keep agriculture going as long as possible. In other words, we should not do anything now, like let the soil erode away, that would hinder us and our children and grandchildren from maintaining or sustaining productive agriculture well into the distant future.

One of the problems with this or any other definition of sustainability is that we do not know what future technologies our children will possess or what unforeseen problems they will have to address in order to obtain the resources that they need. In the case of agriculture, for example, agricultural practices are constantly changing to accommodate increasing demand for food, to redress environmental pollution caused by current and previous practices, and to take advantage of technological developments that improve yields. Unlike the simplicity of sustaining a single chord played on the piano, future sustainability of agriculture and other human enterprises will require composing new harmonies among ecology, economics, and technology that are more sustainable than the current practices.

The challenges of sustainability are not uniform across the globe. On the same day that the farmer in the Congo tills a small clearing in the forest with her traditional hoeing tool, a farmer in Iowa studies a computer screen inside his tractor. His computer is in constant contact with satellites in space, so that the computer can locate the position of the tractor very precisely on a digital map of the farmer’s land. The computer instantaneously displays the latest soil testing results and the latest data on fertilizer and pesticide application for the particular corner of the field where the tractor is located that moment.

How far into the future will the African farmer and her descendants be able to farm the same plot and feed their growing families using the hoe? Will the Iowa farmer and his descendants be able to use their increasingly sophisticated technologies to minimize their need for pesticides and fertilizers, thereby preventing groundwater pollution that might require wells to be closed for centuries? Must development in Africa and elsewhere first go through the same phase of overuse of fertilizers that occurred in most developed countries, or will agriculture in the developing world follow its own course that avoids some of these mistakes?

Can new technologies be developed that are appropriate for the people, cultures, soils, and economics of these very different parts of the world that will improve yields or that will reduce pollution sufficiently so that these practices will be sustainable?

A small army of researchers, extension agents, and development groups is seeking new approaches that might qualify as sustainable management of natural resources.

We know so much more now, in 2013, about addressing these challenges than when I wrote that passage 13 years ago or when the Brundtland report was published 26 years ago. On the other hand, the challenges have also grown in magnitude. Here at WHRC we have one of the best and most effective “small army of researchers” devoting their careers to sustainability science. Our inspiration has been reinforced by Dr. Brundtland’s acceptance speech. There is much work to be done to bring our science to bear, relentlessly, tirelessly, sometimes in the face of discouraging trends, to illuminate the pathways to sustainability.