Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2011

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The Sustainability Entrepreneur: David Barber '88

The Sustainability Entrepreneur: David Barber '88
David Barber '88. Photo by Brandon W. Mosley

I was in my office at one of my restaurants when I got a phone call from a regular customer and one of the smartest people I know. He wanted to come by the office before his meal, last minute, and when he arrived it was like his hair was on fire. He threw this piece of paper on my desk and said, “This may be the most important graph on planet Earth.” And I said, “OK. Why?” And he said, “Because it accurately defines the problem. I've got to go eat, but you should look at it.” And, off he went.

I was an economics major at Connecticut College — I should say I was a macroeconomics major and a microeconomics survivor. I always loved graphs, so I jumped right on this. The first thing that hit me was, “Oh, God, there is that word again: sustainability.” The word is thrown around an awful lot lately. To those of us in the food movement, “sustainability” is in a very similar place to where “organic” was 10, 15 years ago; and today we have the “organic” frozen TV dinner and the “organic” Twinkie is coming soon. “Sustainability” is being attached to all kinds of things, yet it's very difficult to define.

The graph, in my humble and very naïve opinion, may be as close to defining sustainability as I've seen. It comes from an economist, who sought out a group of biologists and anthropologists to create a theory of global sustainability based on what makes ecosystems work. These scientists basically boiled it down to two matrices: efficiency and resiliency. In ecosystems, “efficiency” is essentially throughput, right? In simplest terms, that's biomass quantity — from life through death, how much contribution and waste is going through the system. “Resiliency” represents adaptability and the ability of those systems to survive over time. In ecosystems, it turns out sustainability has a pretty narrow range — the box at the top is the optimum range. If you tip it a little bit toward resiliency, you're still OK, but then the drop-off's quick. If you lean heavily in the other direction, toward efficiency, you get problems very, very fast.

For food systems, we've been educating generations to focus on the efficiency side of the scale — and resiliency planning has been seriously lacking. How do you balance the scale? How do you put emphasis back on resiliency to tip our chances back in a better direction? Our experts are mostly efficiency trained. They are one-minded and focused. It's very efficient. It's very productive in a certain sense. It's also very dangerous as we move forward.

I work at a place that was primarily built as an education center, which sits in the middle of a working farm. We raise animals and vegetables, and we have a very active compost operation feeding the system. The restaurant, which is my business, is an integral part of this because we buy most of what the farm produces. The education center's job is to absorb the farm and restaurant's activities, figure out what's interesting, and create programming that attracts the public to visit. The idea is rooted in working with nature in the management of the farm and in the practice of agriculture, as opposed to trying to control nature. Controlling nature is the philosophy of management for 99 percent of the world's farmlands. By contrast, we are trying to fit into our ecosystem, to balance our activities in that little optimum range that allows us to operate with enough efficiency to be economically viable but with an appropriate emphasis on resiliency.

Stone Barns is also a community. There's a community of about 100 employees between the restaurant, farm and education staff and a community of more than 100,000 visitors who come every year. The success of the restaurant, the farm and the education center all depend on the success of the community as a whole. Things that may seem like opportunities for us to be efficient, when weighed against the cost to one of our fellow contributors, may not be worth it at all. We spend a lot of time debating these issues and trying to reach consensus. The process reinforces our efforts to be resilient.

We found that to support the kind of farming we want to be doing, the farmers can't grow what people say they want to eat. They need to grow things that are good for the soil, and we in the restaurant need to agree to buy what they grow — and for economic reasons, we need to buy all of it. If we're doing that, we can't offer customers choices in the traditional sense, so there are no menus. We took those away, to the initial dismay of some customers. But we can't have people ordering what they think they feel like eating. People need to come to the restaurant because they feel like eating what the farm has provided that day. That creates a system that switches food from a demand-driven commodity to a supply-driven component of our ecosystem. What is the Earth willing to give us to survive?

If you look at Connecticut College as a community, as a sustainable organization that's been here 100 years, it has an incredibly bright future. Providing a superior liberal arts education to students is very much about that balance between teaching efficiency and resiliency. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, or from a community activist standpoint, we need this kind of micro-community to help solve problems, be they social, economic or ecological. We are seeing the risks and byproducts of the efficiency-only model in ever-greater numbers and with ever-greater impacts: the levies in New Orleans, the blackouts a few years ago, the financial crisis. That's efficiency at work, right? Those assumptions and models are not resilient to sudden changes. We can't afford to have only those outcomes, with the stakes going up each time. We need thinking that balances potential outcomes against our mutual desire for sustainability.

So, for those of you who are pushing the more common sustainability initiatives at Connecticut College — and I've heard over this weekend discussions of geothermal for the new science building, getting rid of bottled water and the evil Chiquita banana — I applaud all of that. It's really great work, and it's not to be underestimated. But the big picture of Connecticut College, in the context of real sustainability, is not new. It has been built very carefully over 100 years and is getting stronger. The very fabric of the Connecticut College community and the inherent balances that exist in the liberal arts education here are incredibly important, and they are a unique part of this school. All you really need to do is focus your lens slightly and look at the community in that way. It's very low-hanging fruit — and you should eat it and enjoy it.

David Barber '88 is co-owner of Blue Hill Farm and Restaurants in New York City and Pocantico Hills, N.Y., and a founder and financial director of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit farm and education center.



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