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What Sustainability Means To Dr. Cowan's Garden

What Sustainability Means To Dr. Cowan's Garden

July 12, 2018

Sustainability is a frequently used word in today’s world.  People talk about sustainable buildings, sustainable agriculture, sustainable economics — even sustainable medicine.  I’m not sure a clear definition exists within any of these contexts, but I’d like to share what sustainable means to.


Particularly in the context of food and agriculture, I take my cues from a book by Thom Hartmann, “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight,” as well as the work of Rudolf Steiner.  Hartmann gave a very interesting and, I think, precise definition of sustainability when he claimed that to be truly sustainable, one must harvest only the products of one year’s sunlight.  In other words, because of the influence of sun, soil, air and rainfall, you will get a certain amount of vegetative growth in any one year. To be sustainable, that is all you can harvest and no more.


You can harvest all the wheat, corn, beets, etc., grown in one year with the expectation that you will be able to sustainably grow this amount year after year.  With trees, they will add a certain amount of growth each year, and when you average this amount over an entire forest, that is the sustainable amount of wood to be used in one year for such things as shelter, fiber and tools.  This definition of sustainability precludes the use of any mined products, as these are the stored reserves of the earth, built up over millennia; when they’re used, the reserves of the earth are depleted.


Amazingly, traditional cultures by and large lived with this level of sustainability for centuries, and to a certain extent, it worked fine.   Modern agricultural practices, even the ones that claim to be sustainable, are nowhere near this level of sustainability, largely because of infrastructure demands and the need for industrial tools.  The drip-irrigation systems we all use are made of non-sustainable materials. The solar panels on today’s sustainable farms are made from materials mined from the earth’s reserves, as are the materials used to make modern farm implements.   So, although I agree with this useful and technically correct definition of sustainability, I don’t see it as a doable goal at this point.


Steiner’s agricultural system of biodynamics gives us a perhaps more lenient view of sustainability.  He taught that once the basic infrastructure was in place (tools, buildings, irrigation), the farm should produce all its own needs from then on, with no outside inputs.   All the fertility, all the pest and weed control, all the energy used by the farm needs to be derived from the farm’s own harvest. This picture captures the essence of biodynamics, which inevitably brings one closer and closer to the ideal of using only the products of one year’s yield of sunlight.  In the biodynamic approach, we should eat the vegetable products of a single year, feed our livestock with the grasses and fodder produced in that year, and build our dwellings from the wood harvested from one’s year’s growth (averaged across one’s forest).


This approach is one of the main reasons I am so excited about working with biodynamic farms and produce.  Not only do we get the most nutritious plants possible, but we also are supporting a worldview that promotes true sustainability.   If you think about, if we are not promoting sustainability, then we are harvesting the reserves of the earth and robbing future generations of the very foundations of life.    


In health,
Tom Cowan, M.D.



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