Sustainably Growing Up

04/20/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

The hunt for a panacea for all environmental ills is becoming ever more elusive. Indulgent and egocentric human behavior, in combination with a lack of international cooperation, simply quicken our already rapid approach towards the biophysical threshold of our planet.

Though climate scientists present a strong argument for possible solutions through a numbers game, graphs and decimals often fail to resonate with the individual. Perhaps as a result of human desire for immediate satisfaction, we have lost sight of the more distal causes of environmental degradation; perhaps we are overlooking the source of the problem entirely.

Environmental stress is largely a consequence of poor resource management. Resource management is dictated through social practices. While obviously a biological issue on the surface, perhaps climate change is a cultural issue at its core.

Currently, our expansive, corporate food regime is managed almost exclusively through institutions. The massive system - spanning through production, transportation, distribution, and consumption - is marked by failed collective action, fragmentation, and a lack of authority and legitimacy. The USDA, FDA, CDC, EPA, NMFS, FSIS, WHO, WTO, et al., fail to establish a comprehensive approach and simply leave us lost in acronyms. The structure frames food as an economic commodity, failing to address any and all environmental significance. These social pretenses are triggering the exploitation of our natural resources.

The Industrial Revolution marked a transition in efficiency, commerce, and, to my point, culture. Today's comfort in luxury, in combination with an unrelenting thirst for both efficiency and success, prevents the adoption of sustainable practice. Radicals argue that capitalism is to blame, placing fault in the idea of private property, but my testimony is much simpler: pure social organization, as opposed to social interaction, is responsible for today's environmental crisis.
While Americans have undoubtedly expanded outwardly, modern society has grown in a more vertical fashion. In the shift from agrarian society to urban life we have been forced to condense - we've reached increasing levels of efficiency by minimizing both time and transportation input. We have stacked buildings, businesses, and peoples on top of one another; urban planning itself has become a viable and popular career choice. Food has, however, apparently been excluded from this equation.

In contrast with the skyscrapers and apartment buildings that shape the allure of city life, agricultural practice has grown horizontally - the majority of new farmland comes at the price of expansive deforestation, supermarkets tend to occupy massive plots of land and build themselves only on one floor, and food is flown from continent to continent on a daily, if not hourly, basis. The typical American prepared meal contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.

Food culture is growing horizontally in order to compliment the needs of our vertically-oriented societies. Thought many are unaware, we are in a race against time to find alternatives to our traditional systems; we must adapt to meet the growing population's new demands. As threats to the food supply will provide a much-needed catalyst for attention to climate change, we might consider an opportunity for improvement.

What if we integrated food and agriculture into our vertical lifestyles? It seems only logical. We would surely reap the benefits of local eating - namely lower transportation costs, lower energy input, increased availability of and access to fresh produce and greater food security. We would enjoy year-round production and our crops would be much less susceptible to natural disaster, weather patterns, and climate fluctuations. These urban farms would make use of abandoned properties, eliminate agricultural runoff, and provide energy via methane generation. Further, it would reduce the use of fossil fuels used in farm machinery and transport. The labor-intensive work could even aid in job creation. This proposal may be our cure-all.

Indoor agriculture is the future. With population, and thus consumption, increasing exponentially we are forced to find alternatives to traditional farming practices; the sheer acres of arable land will simply not be available to support Earth's peoples in the future. City skylines will be marked by high-rise farms and centers of food production; urban farming will take on a new definition. This simple change in our social systems in incorporating agricultural practice into city centers might just be the starting point in working towards a solution to the multifaceted environmental crisis. By transitioning from rural farmland to vertical hydroponic farms we will decrease water waste. Perhaps we will even work towards ecosystem restoration through a kind of laissez-faire environmental practice in which we might let the natural world govern itself once again and return to its unadulterated state.

Human desire for food is both innate and recurrent; food plays a crucial role in both personal and societal health on account of its unique and universal relationship to biological, economic, and cultural issues. It is therefore only appropriate that we address the problem with these three facets in mind, working to create a system through which we may manage, monitor, and distribute resources in an effective, efficient, and sustainable manner. If we appreciate the principle of food sovereignty we may begin to assert our right to define our own food environment and determine our own food and agricultural policies.

With a bit of agricultural feng shui we could be well on our way to a more effective, efficient and enduring system of resource management. Social customs are often left out of the climate change (and thus food system) debate and I simply propose that this exclusion is inappropriate. If culture is the origin of the problem, culture will also be the solution; growing up is natural.