Finding the Sustainability Sweet Spot

Source: State of the World 2012

What does a truly sustainable country look like?  How do you measure true sustainability in a country? One way has been to compare how well a country achieves human needs, and at what ecological cost. According to that calculus, in 2007 only one country in the world could be listed as sustainable: Peru. Cuba had been in that sustainability sweet spot the year before, but had just missed the ecological footprint cut-off. Ecuador and Columbia, as well, hovered on the edge of sustainability.

Of course, sustainability is easier for a country blessed with abundant natural resources. Approximately 50 percent of Peru is covered by lush rainforest, providing ample timber and water resources. While much of Peru’s rainforest is conserved, there is a high level of both legal and illegal deforestation due to illegal squatting, road expansion, mining, and petroleum drilling.

Although Peru struggles with wealth inequity and environmental degradation, it recognizes that moving toward sustainable prosperity requires government intervention. Peru’s Environment Minister hopes to virtually eliminate deforestation using international aid in addition to the country's own resources. Peru’s Prime Minister has vowed to not allow environmental pollution, and the government demands environmental impact assessment for mining operations. However, it appears that much of Peru’s sustainability is due to natural resources and a decent level of equity that ensures a basic level of development for most. Of course, there are also a variety of organizations working to protect Peru’s natural resources and thus create a truly sustainable country.

Cuba found itself in this sustainability sweet spot for a very different set of reasons. Cuba’s agricultural system formerly depended to a large degree on exporting sugar to the Soviet Union—a very resource-intensive and fragile farming strategy. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was forced to fend for itself, and in doing so it promoted organic farming and land conservation. In fact, Cuba is one of the few nations that has actually seen an increase in forest cover. Of course, Cuba didn’t have much choice, thanks to the U.S. trade embargo—but one could argue that at this point nobody has a choice, thanks to the rapid breakdown of Earth’s ecosystem services, including climate regulation.

When faced with crisis, Cuba responded with massive agricultural reforms focusing on local, sustainable, and organic agriculture (as the below documentary describes). The government turned over half of the state-held farmland to the people in the form of cooperatives. Farmers were permitted to sell excess yield at farmers’ markets, leading to higher incomes and affordable pricing. Citizens were allowed to take over vacant lots as long as they were used for food production. The Asociacion Cubana de Agricultura Organica was created to promote organic farming techniques, such as crop rotation, composting, and green manure, and to encourage knowledge-sharing. Around 75 percent of Cuba’s agriculture is now organic.

The problem is that most governments are either too deeply in denial or captured by special interests to take such bold steps. Hence, the odds of other countries joining the sustainability sweet spot—with both high levels of development and low ecological impact—are extremely low. But with committed efforts, it is possible, and there are signs of such efforts emerging, particularly in the agricultural sector. Examples abound from places as diverse as New York CityEgypt, and China of more sustainable ways of growing, transporting, and consuming food. And while local and national governments support sustainable measures to varying degrees, many of these developments are being implemented through community organizations. Scaling these up will demand deeper government intervention, which we can only hope will grow more common, and not just after major ecological disturbances demand it.

Alison Singer | March 21, 2012

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