Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Natural, Organic or Sustainable?

I always tell my students (and my family, I guess) that the meaning of a word is in the differences it draws between similarly related concepts.( The word "river" is meaningless if it applied to all bodies of water.) With that in mind I've been thinking about these words: natural, organic, and sustainable. What do they mean? How do they differ? How are they all related to beekeeping?

I tend to steer away from the word "natural" in most contexts since it has connotations that I think are just false. When people speak of an object being "natural", it is often used in opposition to "human-made". A "natural" object is something human beings weren't involved in creating; the object was created by "nature". The danger here is that it implies that human beings are outside of "nature", that the creations of people, like "culture", "technology" and "social structures", are the result of forces unrelated to the "nature" of being human. While many of the creations of human beings are detrimental to the community of life as a whole, they are still part of "nature", since they are the result of "natural" human qualities.

I like the words "organic" and "sustainable" better, though I think they refer to different types of phenomena. In reference to beekeeping, "sustainable" refers to your goal: to keep healthy bees that live in balance within the whole community of life. "Organic" refers to the means: to maintain the bees using only the those methods that do not contradict the laws governing the community of life (e.g. 'natural' selection is one such law). The dilemma is, have we produced so much destruction in this community that we've made some types of "non-organic" intervention necessary in order to sustain bees in the long-term? Or does this latter approach, with all its inherent hubris, just compound the problem even more?

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