Brooklynn Shively: Hello Dr. Reynolds! How are you doing today?
Dr. Reynolds: I'm great Brooklynn, glad to be here.
Veronica Rooney: So we read up on some of your research, specifically on your work about local agriculture. One of the biggest things that you write about, or how you begin your study, is you begin by talking about the difference between basic and applied science. Why do you think that it's really important to clarify the difference between those two?
Dr. Reynolds: Well, I wanted to clarify that because sometimes applied science is undervalued by basic scientists. So some basic scientists hold that basic science is somehow purer or better than applied science. But, both basic and applied science are valuable.
Both employ the scientific method so they're both working by that same process: observations, questions, hypotheses, predictions, tests. Really, the difference between basic and applied is really in what drives that method. In basic science, pure curiosity is the motivation. It makes the difference between pure and applied science. So, the method is the same, the motivation is different. It’s curiosity in basic science. Applied science is wanting to address some speciific societal challenge of some sort. Society altogether improves—we gain in understanding and in addressing challenges when we support both of those types of science.
Brooklynn Shively: I was wondering if you could talk about the distinction between resilience and sustainability.
Dr. Reynolds: Sure, so the famous definition is meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Now that's a very vague definition, and one that has been developed and refined. What I always teach my students is that sustainability is meeting needs present and future within the regenerative capacity of Earth's ecosystems. You're not using resources any faster than the Earth can generate it, and you're not producing wastes faster than the Earth can absorb and detoxify them. In order to achieve that, you have to recognize three important spheres which are environment, economy, and society.
And, so sustainability is about what I said—that process of meeting needs without exceeding earth’s limits through understanding that you need to integrate those three spheres, environment, economy, and society. So, with environment, that’s where you get to the idea of not exceeding Earth's limits, not exceeding regenerative and assimilated capacity. And then with society, you're thinking about equity and social well-being. So, you want people to flourish, but you just want to do so in a manner that doesn't exceed Earth's capacity. Then of course the economy is a subset of society, and you need a vital economy, but again, you can't do it at the expense of either social or environmental well-being, so with that all, sustainability is constant. In recent years, as we recognize that we really are exceeding Earth limits. And we really are creating, you know, massive change and disturbance and climate change is just one example. And so that has shifted the focus to “wow, we really need to think about how to make our systems resilient to that change where resilience can be formally defined as the capacity to sustain well-being and functioning in the face of disturbance.” <missing words here>
So, I want to say that sometimes scholars are now saying that all sustainability is passé and resilience is, you know, the latest buzzword, it's superseded sustainability. And I say no, not at all. The two are complementary. We still need sustainability, the more we build resilience into our systems, the better off we'll be, but we really have to pursue both, both goals.
Brooklynn Shively: Yeah, kind of building off of that, I was wondering if you could expand upon the shifting narrative from economy, society, and the environment being not only intersectional but actually all-encompassing and how we can apply this to our current infrastructure or rebuild our current infrastructure.
Dr. Reynolds: Sure. So, sustainability was originally commonly illustrated as a Venn diagram. So a Venn diagram, right, it's three intersecting circles? So, in this case, our circles are environment, society and economy. And so sustainability was conceived of as the place where those three circles intersect, and they've reconciled there. You know it's the place—the sweet spot— where we're, we're trying to reconcile all three of those things.
And that's not a terrible representation of sustainability, but a much better representation in my mind that more faithfully represents that full definition that I gave you, is imagine the three circles are nested within one another, instead of intersecting where the outer circle is the environment, the next circle inside that is society, and then finally the central circle is economy. That explicitly recognizes that, first of all, economies are of course they emerge from societies; they are shaped by society so economies are a subset of society. And then both economy and society are a subset of the environment, meaning the earth, you know in totality—the whole earth biosphere, which again recognizes that everything we need in society and for our economies comes from the earth and the ecosystems within it. The biodiversity, the water and mineral resources, all of those things are the foundation for healthy, you know, or for any, human society and economy. So we have to recognize that our biosphere is limited, you know, we've got a limited Earth. That means we can't have an ever growing economy or human population, as is, unfortunately, often thought otherwise.
Veronica Rooney: So you write a lot about the relationship between industrial agriculture and the growth economy. And I'm wondering why that relationship is so important to you and why you've written a lot about it and how that fits into what you were saying earlier.
Dr. Reynolds: Sure, and I was very much reflecting on and, you know, drawing from the work of many other people. But when I wrote that I was specifically thinking about how scientists who conduct agricultural research need to keep in mind the economic forces that influence their research agendas. And, so they should consider, or they may want to consider, whether they want to be supporting those economic forces and the agricultural methods that those forces produce, so if, yeah, so by considering that you can decide, you know, what kind of agriculture maybe your research—your research might be benefiting or not. So, industrial agriculture, let me just start with that, represents a very highly centralized, corporate, petrochemical, and machine-based approach to food production. You know, it has a place, maybe in moderation and balance but, arguably, you know, we have this food industry that is arguably about corporate profit as much as it is or maybe more than about feeding people. And, and, in the process of feeding people and respecting local cultures, and soil, and biodiversity, and the overall health of Earth's ecosystems.
Because it is so tied to corporate profit, then there's a drive for ever increasing food production because the assumption is you're going to have ever increasing economic growth where the economy is just the product of the human population and per-person consumption.
Okay, so if you're going to grow the economy which is the goal of most entities today and certainly is the goal of conventional economics, you're going to either have to grow the population and/or grow per-person consumption. And so, you know, you're setting up a situation where you're always, it's like you're always increasing the need for more food right now. And so then, there's a focus then too. If industrial agriculture is very efficient, it can be very efficient in the short term and produce a lot of food, but it is doing so, at the expense of the foundation, again, of agriculture itself. It's, you know, causing soil depletion and erosion. It's depleting biodiversity; it's destroying local cultures and the local agricultural wisdom that has been built.
Brooklynn Shively: So would you agree then that localization and decentralization of these systems would be a valuable asset to our infrastructure and what would that look like within our economy?
Dr. Reynolds: Yeah, so again, it is about balance and it's not as if I'm saying we just have to totally reject industrial agriculture and those methods, but we certainly need t more balance And I would say that we could benefit from promoting, in part, at least more decentralization and more localized agriculture.
Another feature of industrial agriculture, well, I think I already mentioned that it is, it's highly centralized, and it's very homogenized, right? There's this sort of set of factors: machines, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, and you know, particular crop species that have been developed—very generic— that are imposed on landscapes and homogenizes those landscapes right. If you've got fertilizer and pesticides, you don't need to think about the unique aspects and the differences in particular landscapes, you just sort of brute force your agriculture on top of those and so you kind of snowplow over the diversity that's there. And again, that works in the short term to produce food but in the long term, you are destroying those ecological resources that underlie sustaining agricultural production, and, you know, you're creating homogeneous environments which are arguably more boring environments. We say variety is the spice of life for a reason. And by imposing this homogeneity on the environment, it's just not very resilient, either.
So, having a landscape, it's all planted with one type of crop or just a few types of crop. That's not very resilient and we have, you know, experience after experience of how diversity is such a key resilience builder because diversity provides the raw material for adapting to some unexpected past or to climate change or just some other type of change on the landscape. So if we can encourage, actually, localized, decentralized agriculture that, you know, it's not about industrial profit, but it's about giving local people and promoting their ability to produce food appropriate to their landscape, crops that are appropriate to their landscapes, through, you know, regenerative techniques of organic agriculture. So building soil with compost and, you know, promoting ecological interactions on the landscape like birds that can help control pests. There's a lot of local indigenous wisdom from people. The industrial agricultural model only arose in the 1940s and 1950s, so we had a whole history of really healthy sustaining agriculture prior to that, and a lot of cultural wisdom that went into that.
So if we can bring at least some of that back then we will have created more vital, diverse, resilient landscapes and giving people food security, the ability to grow food on their landscape rather than import it from some, you know, centralized agricultural production, potentially thousands of miles away and so we will have promoted food security, in that sense, as well.
Veronica Rooney: What has been your experience in your research collaborating with locals to find solutions to these agricultural problems?
Dr. Reynolds: Well, I do some agro-ecology in my research. I'm a plant ecologist and I have a broad array of research that I conduct but some of it is agro-ecological research. So I think what you were trying to get at is the idea of working to build local agriculture and by working with local farmers in at least partly a model of something called community-based participatory research. That's something that I'm really excited about, and I've been gradually getting more and more into. The idea is that scientists are collaborating in research with non-scientists, you know, community members. So if you're doing agricultural research then farmers, for example, but there's all kinds of community based participatory research one could do and you know who you're working with would vary depending on what the goals were. But yeah, the idea is it's these partnerships and that this is really obviously it's a form of applied research that is highly informed by the people and places where the research is being conducted.
Brooklynn Shively: So do you think that community-based participatory research should just be motivated within the community, or do you think that the federal government should play a role in motivating this type of research?
Dr. Reynolds: Well, you know, I'm a pluralist in so many ways, and I believe that many, many approaches to a problem or to an activity are generally good, so I would say that it would be awesome for government—I think it's a positive thing for the government to support some community based participatory research and to support to, different, more alternative, local, decentralized agricultural models. But we also need initiatives to come from the grassroots themselves and from scientists themselves, so I think I'd like to see a multi-pronged approach to promoting more of this.
Veronica Rooney: So, because you're so insistent on, you know, finding this balance, one of the things that I was curious about in reading about what you call the steady-state economy, and I don't know if that's originally your phrase or if that was from another scientist’s work, but it became clear to me that the kind of agriculture specifically, and I know you do lots of different research outside of agriculture, but it became clear to me that the kind of sustainability that scientists are seeking might not be possible within the system of capitalism. And so I was wondering, with doing your research and sustainability and all different kinds of ecological systems, does it ever cross your mind that the kind of sustainability you seek isn't possible within the economic framework that we have?
Dr. Reynolds: Oh, Yes. Yes, indeed. The steady state economy was not a term originated by me. Ecological economists like Herman Daily, for example, Brian Check, Robert Costanza. It's a little complicated there in terminology, but in any case, these are some of the experts who have developed this idea of a steady state economy. It is certainly an alternative, a direct alternative to our current conventional economy.
So yeah, I guess what I would say is, I don't believe sustainability is possible to achieve within our conventional economic paradigm, which is that paradigm of ever increasing growth. And it's a paradigm that ignores it doesn't consider that model of the human economy and society being nested within and dependent upon the, the larger Earth ecological economy. So, yeah, I don't feel sustainability is possible unless we change that paradigm. This steady-state economy, developed by ecological economists, is a shift in paradigm. And graphically it's that shift I described very simply of those nested circles, where you're recognizing that the human economy is a subset of Earth's biosphere. And when you recognize that you can develop macro-economic principles that guide you toward nurturing an economy that respects those limits, especially when we take it to, you know, when we consume too much and which we're doing at a societal scale. And then we're undermining the sustainability of the planet. We know we've got issues with climate change, soil depletion, biodiversity loss.
So yeah, personally I believe that we have to shift to a steady-state economic mindset; that is the mindset that is consistent with sustainability and with resilience. You often hear people talking about, “no we don't need to do that, we just need we can keep growing forever, we just need to grow green.” And that's a fallacy because, you know, whether you're, whether you're growing the economy with more SUVs or more solar panels, if you're growing the economy you're growing that product of human population and consumption, which is underlined by energy resources and material resources, and there's a limit to those. Instead of thinking of GDP, you know, Gross Domestic Product or GNP Gross National Product as ever growing, no, we need to think about it leveling off and sort of mildly fluctuating at a level that the Earth can sustain. Again, shifting the focus from growth to development, thinking about what really makes people happy. Do you know the ability to have relationships to express creativity, to still have a certain level of physical stuff, but not so much stuff.