Sustainability and the Equine World

A term that is seen more frequently and in more places these days is “sustainability”.  What does this actually mean?  What is its significance to the equine world?

In 1987, the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development offered this definition: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Most feel the term encompasses three parameters: environmental, social and economic.

The international organization, The Natural Step, suggests that these parameters can be thought of as inter-nested spheres.  The largest sphere, which contains the others, is the earth and its environment.   This is also known as natural capital, the natural resources and ecosystems that support our lives and businesses.  The middle sphere represents humanity and how we interact with each other (society).  The small center sphere is the economy, which has no real meaning without the other spheres.  I offer that the social sphere could include our equine partners.

I personally feel that with the privilege of living here on earth comes with a responsibility to treat it with care and consideration, and to make sure the generations yet to come have abundant, healthy resources available, too.  As a mother and a horse owner, I am especially aware of this necessity.  I also feel we need social and economic policies that honor all people.

Sustainability is a way of living.  It is a thought system.  Its practices grow from its ground of principles.  It encompasses a whole system perspective, involving a wider, deeper and longer way of seeing than we are accustomed to in our daily routines of survival.   It takes willingness, dedication, courage and patience.

Where does one start?

First, one comes to the realization that there is a need for adopting sustainable life styles.  If you have been paying attention, you already know this. Human populations keep expanding and renewal of natural resources is not keeping pace with consumption.  Most biological systems are in decline: soil, forests, water availability and quality, fisheries, plant and animal biodiversity and so on.  Fossil fuels, which formed over great lengths of time, are not renewing as fast as we are extracting them.  What does this mean for future generations?

More regulations are being implemented to prevent further degradation of the planet, though these are constantly fought or undermined.  Humans expect ever increasing quality of life for themselves.  The economic system is in turmoil.  All these pressures create the effect of moving into a future where the funnel is narrowing steadily.   At present, there is still time to aim for the small opening that is left to avoid hitting the wall of the funnel.  This is the opening into a sustainable future.

Next, one begins to practice whole system thinking and life-cycle analysis.  For example, your horse is a whole system.   It is more than just its hooves, or digestive system, or muscles, or skin, or brain, or behavior, or breed, or color, or history.  Its health and well-being also involve more than some food and water.   A conscientious horse owner strives to provide for all the physical and mental needs of the horse.

The same is true for your facilities, and beyond that, for your neighborhood, bioregion, and so on through the level of the whole planet.   Each is a part of the whole; they are all connected.  But we usually don’t think much past the level of our own equine facility.

Life-cycle analysis thinking is based on the way the natural world operates.   Everything flows in a cycle.  Nothing is wasted.  The only input into this closed system we call Earth is the energy from the sun.   Water and nutrients constantly circulate.  Life, death, life happens.  Seasons cycle year after year. Unfortunately, humans think and live in a more linear way.  Birth, death.  Resource, product, consumption, waste.  Worse yet, we make synthetic products and chemicals that the earth can’t even biodegrade back into useful  nutrients.  We disconnect from the cycle of things; we flush or deposit our trash and it goes “away”.   Only, there is no “away”.

This is not sustainable.  We humans cannot continue to live in this manner indefinitely.  In fact, I suggest we cannot continue to live in this manner during our own lifetimes if we intend to pass along a planet with the same resources available to the next generations.

The time to begin thinking and living sustainably is now.

Though the aspects of sustainability – environmental, social, economic – are interrelated, it is a bit easier to address them individually first.  What do the environmental practices of a sustainable equine enterprise look like?

The primary impact on the environment, other than our personal daily living, is probably from the horse (or donkey or mule) itself.  They eat plant material, deposit manure, walk around on delicate soil and affect water quality.  Were there a limited number of horses wandering loose and kept in population balance by large predators, this would not be so much of a problem.  However, this is far from the case.  In the USA alone, there is an estimated 9 million horses.  Most of these are concentrated in stables or small operations.  They require large amount of food, water, and bedding.  They produce tons of manure that must be managed properly to prevent contamination of water and prevent the spread of parasites and disease.  All this care requires energy, which, at this point, is primarily sourced from fossil fuels.

As we start to look at the whole system, we realize that energy and resources are also required for all the aspects of horse care and usage.  We build barns, arenas, racetracks and fences; we manufacture tons of equipment – feed buckets, horseshoes, trailers, tack,  tractors, veterinary supplies; we create huge amounts of chemicals for the horses; we trailer them to competitions, trailheads and races.  How much of this is made from recycled material?  How much is recycled after its use is over?  Do any processes or traveling use renewable energy?

While some owners are beginning to adopt measures to be environmentally-friendly to their land and water, the practices are not yet common throughout the equine world.   And not many of the industries that supply the equine world are actively pursuing environmentally-friendly practices.

What is the social realm of sustainability?  The social sphere mainly addresses how we treat each other.  We need human companionship in order to lead physically and mentally fulfilling lives.  Our daily existence is a complex web of interactions between humans: how we meet our basic needs for food, clean water, clothing, shelter; our work and leisure lives; our family and community relationships; the peaceful coexistence of nations. Humans flourish when they have the ability to meet their basic needs, have respect for diversity, honor fairness and equality, and share love and compassion.  When we consider the needs of others along with our own, when we do what we can to address famine and poverty, when we live within resource limits of the planet, when we take into account the basic needs of the future generations, then we live in a socially sustainable manner.

In the equine world, I say this social sphere also includes how we treat our equine partners.  Each person needs to answer the question: do I support my equine to live a healthy, fulfilling life?  Do I consider my equine partner a mere commodity, an object designed for my pleasure, or a fellow being who deserves the same quality of life that I have?

What is the economic area of sustainability?  The economy is basically the system designed by humans to define and manage the flow of goods and services, the exchange of value, production and consumption.  There are many economic systems operating around the globe.  Nearly all are based on the premise of continuing, infinite growth.  Nowhere in the natural world does this bizarre idea exist or play out.  It is absolutely unsustainable.  While ideas for alternative economic systems are not yet well developed, it is becoming clear that “business as usual” is no longer a viable option.

One of the main problems with the current models is that most economies and businesses do not incorporate the true costs to the environment into their products and services.  They harvest the profits and leave the external costs (of cleanup and regeneration) to the public.  We consumers are complicit in the destruction of natural and social capital by our never-satisfied desire for novelty and pleasure, for more and more.  Whereas the advances in technology and innovation can bring life-enhancing results, these must be evaluated within the context of the whole system of life.  What impact does this “latest and greatest” have on present and future generations and natural resources?  Does it support an increase in social equality?  Does it support an economic system that is in balance with the other aspects of sustainability?

And more simply, will each new thing bring us lasting joy and satisfaction?  These feelings are rarely dependent upon material possessions, beyond our basic needs.  True prosperity is far more than the pile of money one accumulates.

An economic system that results in increasing numbers of families that work for less than a living wage is also not sustainable. Millions in our own nation can’t afford to buy a house or pay for health care and insurance.  Yet the tiny percent of our population at the top continue to become exponentially wealthier.   When members of this elitist group fill the ranks of all of the political, academic and corporate entities, who is left to advocate for the rest of humanity?

For a horse owner, one’s personal economic system should also consider the well-being of the horse, especially if it is involved in generating income for the owner.  It is not hard to find examples of horses (and humans) being mistreated for the sake of making a few more dollars.

How do these three areas of sustainability relate to each other?  A person or facility can adopt environmentally-friendly measures, but still not endure for the long term.  If the social relations fall apart or finances are mismanaged, the person or facility will falter.  On a larger scale, for example, the issue of abandoned horses (social problem) is tightly related to the national recession (economic problem).  We will not find a good solution to the first without addressing the latter.  If an equine facility boards or breeds too many horses in an effort to make money, but destroys their land and facilities, they will ultimately fail.  If an equine-related industry is financially successful, but is caught polluting the environment or mistreating workers, they may be fined heavily or shut down.

When an equine enterprise has a long-term vision that takes into account its natural resources (natural capital), the well-being of the humans and horses (social capital) and careful management of its financial resources (economic capital), that enterprise has a far better chance of being a successful, healthy, vibrant place for generations to come.

Living sustainably is complex.  The web of connections between the choices and actions of daily living is a challenging puzzle.  And this is just at the level of the individual; what about at a community, national and global level?  Complicating the effort to live sustainably is the fact that many of our current social and economic structures support the very opposite way of living.

The transformation to a sustainable world won’t happen overnight, but it will happen and it is already happening in many small ways.  Where does the equine owner start?  In one’s heart and mind.  Be willing.  Be open to learning the principles and adopting the practices.

When to start?  Now would be a good time….

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