Visions of Land Sustainability

Will it be possible to feed, clothe, house, and fuel the world sustainably? We cannot answer this central question until a system is developed that allows us to measure and account for land. This requires a new conceptualization of land that allows us to measure whether our current land use practices are sustainable. Currently, our metrics are inadequate because of an incomplete conceptualization of land. The transition toward more sustainable land uses requires explicit consideration of and trade-offs among the environmental context for land use, society's demands on land, and the economic opportunities provided by land.

It is possible to envision sustainable land use despite a projected population increase of 3-4 billion people. The world's agricultural lands do not necessarily need to become degraded, forests do not have to be converted to crops, urban areas need not envelope prime farmland, and Earth as a system can continue to support humankind. This requires, however, that we find ways to integrate our demand for resources from the land with the regenerative cycles and buffering capacities of ecosystems. This is certainly a formidable challenge, requiring the transition from a single- to multidimensional conceptualization and accounting of land, careful integration of demand reduction, increases in supply, and improved distribution patterns of the products of nature.

Urban planning and an infrastructure that does not result in ever-increasing energy and material requirements for its reproduction will certainly play a central role. Cities can be designed and transformed in ways that allow for high land use efficiencies and reduced transport and energy requirements. Multifunctional but medium-intensity land use would allow for the co-generation of ecosystem services. The strict separation of land use types (e.g., grazing lands, forests, and cropland) could be transformed to landscape mosaics designed to achieve integrated methods of production and consumption.

We face a critical juncture in the future of humanity and planetary habit-ability. For over two centuries, humans have made increasingly more fuels, chemicals, materials, and other goods from fossil sources: petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Now, in many regions of the world, that trend is peaking and beginning to reverse itself. The upcoming decades will witness a continuing, worldwide shift away from near total dependence on fossil raw materials. Instead, the world will need to develop the bioeconomy extensively. The scope of the change envisioned is breathtaking: we are transforming from an oil-oriented, nonrenewable economy to a bio-based, renewable economy. Worldwide, trillions of dollars of new wealth will be generated, millions of new jobs created, and society—perhaps especially rural society—will be transformed. This change will profoundly affect all sectors of the global economy—especially agriculture and forestry.

The implications of this global transformation are profound. We can imagine that our current approach to development has been predicated on a notion of making use of what nature has left us: extracting metals from deep deposits, drilling oil from deep reservoirs, and pumping water from deep aquifers. This approach is not sustainable, and we are beginning to see the constraints and limits of this form of development (see Loeschel et al., this volume). On the other hand, we can envision a renewable economy that makes use of the engineering and design of nature. How society makes this transition will depend partially on how it ensures the renewability of the land for all segments of society.

Nonrenewable Resources

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