Bridging Strategy to Attain Sustainability
As the arbitrary yet significant UN goal year of 2030 gets ever closer, it becomes easy for sustainability advocates to experience feelings of increased anxiety. We wonder: will we make enough progress in time to save our world, to preserve advanced humanity, to prevent unnecessary extinction of species – many that we know so little about? When this anxiety drives our thinking, we likely have the tendency to become highly judgmental regarding the efforts of others: that company is moving too slow, that industry is dragging its feet; this government doesn’t have a clue; and so on.
Many college students and even professionals that I have worked with in sustainability endeavors over the last 15 years, take a very simplistic view of the efforts of others and are quick to belittle and even condemn these efforts, declaring them to be too small and too slow. I fall into this way of thinking myself sometimes but I want to caution that, this is NOT the P3 way!
We need to be much more welcoming, encouraging and positive to get anybody onto the path to positive business. In some industries, companies and even households, the gap between what is happening now and what is adequate to become net positive is just too large to close with just a few steps in a few years. We don’t have the resources to jump chasms but we do have the time to build bridges that will save ourselves.
The nice thing about these human behavior or social bridges, is that they are governed by a separate set of laws than the physics that apply to engineered bridges that we physically traverse. The bridges we need for adequate progress to attain mostly net positive business by 2030 are built largely in our minds and in our commitments and plans, in collaboration with others. THIS is how we will make the transformation to a sustainable world, indeed, it is probably the only way that we can do it.
One example that I would offer is in agriculture. I am not an expert but my own experience is that in many place, agriculture does not operate in a sustainable fashion. Most farms appear to be far from creating healthy soil, species diversity and improved functioning of surrounding ecology. In India, as in many places, there is still heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizer and of course, tilling the soil to plant seasonal crops.
This approach, to plow and fertilize, has become the normal way of farming for small as well as large farmers in many parts of the world. If you were to ask younger sustainability professionals in India about how farming should work, to be more sustainable, many of them would shake their head as say “no, this is not the way to make a healthier biosphere and move farmers out of poverty.”
For the vast majority of farmers in India, who are small landholders, the jump into a totally organic farming regime is impossible. Many of these farmers are barely making ends meet and organic farming on an appropriate scale would require costs that they could never afford. What is the alternative?
In the case of a farming system based on synthetic fertilizer and seasonal tilling, there can be a very elegant incremental bridge. This bridging strategy, one of increasingly sustainable practice over time, is one that we can readily visualize today. For example, urea (the synthetic fertilizer in this example) can be used in a more efficient way, by injecting it more deeply into the soil instead of broadcasting upon the sold surface, the way we have fertilized for thousands of years.
One calculation that I have recently seen, projects that by directly placing urea just a few inches into the soil, ½ ton of CO2 can be kept sequestered within every hectare of soil each season. This innovation actually increases the organic compounds within the soil, prevents unnecessary leaching of urea fertilizer into surrounding water systems and dramatically reduces the fertilizer nutrient loss when it lies on the surface or blows away before it reaches the roots of plants.
This method is not the final answer for agriculture but it does start a bridge toward sustainability. You can imagine what the next steps might be. Perhaps the current synthetic urea can be made in a more organic fashion. Then the “greener” urea could be combined with more and more organic components. Then the fertilizer could become completely organic. Then the fertilizer would be placed less frequently with less tilling. Then the annual fertilizing and tilling would cease and multi-crop, species welcoming fields would replace the single crop intensive tilled and fertilized farm. This approach, at the end of the bridge could become a trend, and the entire national farming economy could be transformed.
This could really happen! But we have to create the intellectual, emotional and spiritual space to encourage these incremental bridging strategies. When completed, these bridges will enable the transformation of entire industries and restoration of entire ecosystems. We have to give space for innovative entrepreneurs to experiment and adjust. We need to encourage this approach. We should not jump on somebody with only a partial solution and cause them to back away from addressing a sustainability challenge.
We need to become much more humble in pursuing our sustainability work. We don’t have the knowledge of how to move all the way to sustainability in one leap. Even if we could agree on what is ideal to do, the resources to achieve the leaps may not be available. We need to embrace these incremental bridging strategies. They are incremental, they are exasperating but they can and must work. It may be the only way we can get to the land of sustainability that we see across the gap of current practice.