Looking Back: The Future of Sustainability

A new study on food production by the Loma people in West Africa throws a new light on conventional ideas of sustainability 

Though it’s sometimes said that ‘sustainability’ has become an elastic, catch-all term, the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’, remains the touchstone for discussion – ‘Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.’

Yet an 18-month study in Liberia, west Africa, lead in the field by Dr James Fraser from the University of Lancaster’s Environment Centre, offers an imaginative alternative to the Brundtland definition. The study, ‘An intergenerational transmission of sustainability’ shows how over generations the Loma people have developed a highly successful method of food production ensuring future generations benefit from current practices. This collaborative research project included, among others, anthropologists from the University of Sussex and the University of Legon in Ghana, and soil scientists at Cornell University. This group signals the extent to which finding innovative approaches to sustainability and climate change increasingly requires multiple skillsets. ‘There is quite a strong movement now for interdisciplinarity in research around big global environmental challenges,’ says Dr Fraser. ‘The discipline-specific questions that people used to ask can’t really deal with global grand challenges, this trend towards research becoming interdisciplinary is a symptom of something wider.’

Carbon rich soil

This survey was set up with a view to exploring the production and use of a kind of soil produced by human activity called African Dark Earths (AfDE). This fertile carbon rich soil produced over time is twice as efficient in producing crops as ‘slash and burn’ rice production. AfDE – produced from the deposits of charred and everyday refuse such as manure, bones, ash, charcoal and ceramics – is most well known in Amazonia where it’s called ‘terra preta.’ However as the study reports, ‘it is difficult to examine this relationship in Amazonia since the societies that produced these soils, and the social institutions and agro-ecosystems associated with them, are virtually extinct.’ 

Dr Fraser and the team set up the survey up with the belief that it would show the soil was more productive for less labour expended. ‘And that was right, they were productive, for less labour in terms of calories produced’ explains Fraser.  But they also discovered a belief system that refused to take what conventional economics would see as the next logical step. 

Social and cultural institutions

The farm kitchen is a highly effective producer of AfDE through the use of organic material from surrounding environment, then recirculating it through depositing charred waste in the soil. The study observes that, ‘single kitchens are dispersed through the bush where people reside during parts of the year requiring intensive farm work while town kitchens are adjacent to people’s households in Wenwuta [a village]’. Yet the Loma people, when reconstructing these kitchens don’t seek a location where they could take advantage of AfDE and at the same time expand the territory of this nutrient-rich soil. These kitchens are always located in the same ground as their ancestors. 

‘The people were supremely uninterested both in the soils and in the possibilities of expanding them,’ says Dr Fraser. ‘If you take just a technical view of the system they have the most productive form of food production yet they don’t seem interested in expanding it. The people are much more interested in the social and cultural institutions which makes the society operate and in particular the presence of ancestors.  Basically if you’re related to certain people you have a more important role, you also have access to land that the ancestors worked.’ 

It’s a highly efficient method of food production organized around their relationship to their ancestors, but doesn’t fit with conventional measures of economic growth, as the Loma forego, for example, slashing sacred agri-forests to increase production. ‘It’s interesting to see people’s reactions to this,’ says Dr Fraser. If you don’t get outside the “normal” mode of thinking, the western as it were, it doesn’t make sense. There is a lot of precedent for this. Time and again this has been shown with non-Western societies that are more collective, that aren’t founded on the idea that we are individual self-maximising actors, that the point of life is to accumulate as much as possible.’ 

The study points out that the food production of the Loma works on a different timescale where resource management is formed by an active relationship to past generations and is ‘optimal’ on a much longer timescale. The future is preserved by practices organized around a living past. In a striking conclusion, the study argues that, ‘this reverses the original Brundtland definition of sustainable development. For the Loma, sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of past generations to meet their own needs.’ 

It’s a conclusion underlined by Dr Fraser. Ultimately, ‘we ended up questioning the western view of growth-at-all-costs mentality, which is the prime driver behind the current global crisis in climate change.’ There is still a belief in developed economies that science and technology alone will produce a ‘silver bullet’, but this study offers a vision that generating different, more creative social and belief systems are an essential component to addressing sustainability and climate change.