On a global scale, and in a long-term perspective, current levels of resource use in human economies are not sustainable. As natural capital is spent at a faster pace than it is replenished, the capabilities of the earth system to provide vital ecosystem service are undermined, and critical planetary boundaries for a safe human operating space are transgressed [1
]. The scale of global environmental change is unprecedented in human history [5
] and the consequences on the climate and other crucial ecosystem functions have long been reported. More recently, this research is synthesized by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). Achieving a high quality of life for more than seven billion people without destabilizing planetary processes and undermining fundamental ecosystem services remains a formidable challenge, and it requires a reduction in absolute resource use and thereby a reduction in social metabolism [6
Islands are “good to think with” [7
], and the paper addresses the above mentioned challenge thinking with the case of the Faroe Islands, or the Faroes, a small island nation in the North Atlantic. As boundaries are more easily discernible on islands, they offer great potential in the study of crucial issues pertaining to sustainability such as biocultural diversity, and the social organization of material and energy flows [8
This particular case study offers an opportunity to think about sustainability and human well-being by looking at social metabolism in the Faroes in a long-term perspective. It traces the emergence of an ecologically sustainable land management system from the time of settlement around 300 AD and identifies economic practices carried out by Faroese people today rooted in this system. It also briefly traces the emergence and development of industrial metabolism during the twentieth century. As has been shown to be the case for other island societies [12
], the Faroes experienced substantial transformations after the 1950s, which entailed increased resource dependence beyond the islands’ geographical borders. The Faroese trajectory can be compared with the metabolic profiles of other small island states such as Iceland and Trinidad and Tobago, which have been described by Krausmann et al. [11
] as examples of high-income island economies with very specific resource use patterns. In the case of the Faroes, an export-oriented fishing industry (and in later decades also aquaculture) is driving very high, and increasing, levels of material and energy use per capita [13
]. The geographical isolation combined with a metabolic profile of high-level resource extraction, and high dependence on imports, makes island societies vulnerable to economic and ecological flux. One extreme case to illustrate this point is Nauru, where phosphate mining devastated local ecosystems to a very large degree and where the social and cultural consequences of such devastation are evident [14
]. To counter this development of increasing dependency, many island societies have consciously sought to reconnect their island economies to their natural systems, but such recoupling presents several challenges related to questions of resilience, vulnerability, and sustainability [12
Social Metabolism, Biocultural Diversity, and Diverse Practices of Quiet Sustainability
Reversing the trend of growing social metabolism without compromising human well-being is arguably the key challenge for sustainability science. While much focus remains on technological solutions, the cultural dimensions of sustainability are often neglected, together with the realization that the process of increasing social metabolism is also a process of increasing biodiversity and cultural loss. In other words, increasing social metabolism is very often a process of decontextualization [15
] and of biocultural homogenization [16
] often entailing environmental and social injustices and tradeoffs [18
]. As Rozzi [16
] has argued, in the context of global socio-environmental change, the world views, knowledge, and practices of sustainable cultures should be respected and eventually adapted through intercultural exchange. This article explores how practices rooted not in other cultures, but in an ecologically sustainable cultural past may be adapted, or reevaluated and enhanced in a modern, high-resource use context. In a recent review of Pacific small island knowledge-practice-belief systems, McMillen et al. [19
] argue that such systems include valuable insights on ecological processes and management of biocultural diversity relevant for resilience and adaptability, particularly regarding the effects of climate change. The argument put forward here is that such knowledge systems are not only crucial for adaptability to climate change, but also in mitigation. The recognition of the importance of traditional and indigenous knowledge in land and resource management is not new [20
] and is visible, for instance, in article eight in the Convention of Biological Diversity and the accompanying Akwé: Kon guidelines, but in most policy context it remains at the margin of mainstream development discourse. However, as the consequences of mainstream “development” become evident, the importance of nurturing and conserving local and culturally specific economic practices and habits is increasingly recognized.
In the following analysis, economic practices in the Faroes, rooted in the traditional land management system, are identified as practices of “quiet sustainability.” Smith and Jehlicka [21
] have defined quiet sustainability as long-standing forms of food self-provisioning, i.e., the growing and sharing of food as common practices carrying environmental and social benefits, yet it receives little consideration in academic literature and policy discourse on sustainability. Practices of quiet sustainability are everyday practices with low environmental impacts. Such practices, in the Faroese context, can also be conceptualized as a form of diverse or alternative economic practice, as defined by Gibson-Graham [22
]. From a physical perspective they are rooted in a traditional socio-economic system where nutrients and biomass were recycled, and which was primarily oriented towards local consumption and self-provisioning. From an ideological perspective, they are rooted in land management traditions, which were governed by a so-called limited-good world view [23
]. These characteristics distinguish them from the economic practices and moral principles characterizing and organizing the growth oriented industrial metabolism of the Faroes.
In order to illuminate the distinctions between industrial social metabolism and the social metabolism of quiet sustainability, the analysis draws on theoretical discussions on socio-metabolic constellations/configurations, and the implications for long-term sustainability. Additionally, the analysis draws on theoretical insights from long-term socio-ecological research, environmental history, and historical political ecology, such as the concept of landesque capital [24
], in order to investigate how different socio-metabolic configurations produce distinct forms of capital stocks, and the role of these capital stocks in resource flow path dependencies [32
]. One key insight gained from this body of research and literature is that humans can organize society and social metabolism in ways that contribute to both sustainability and equality. Accepting this proposition avoids the analytical confinement to the idea that there is a fundamental contradiction between human society and the natural environment [35
]. Humans, however, can also organize social metabolism in ways that undermine the very ecological and social foundation of their (or others’) society. Endeavors to establish and maintain balanced relations between environmental sustainability and social and economic equality are a central question in (historical) political ecology [36
], and the urgency of this question is becoming ever more apparent as both social metabolism and economic inequality are increasing [37
]. Such endeavors towards ecological sustainability and economic equity may arguably be seen as processes of “islanding” [39
]: of perceiving, discerning, and negotiating the boundaries that define human–human and human–nature interrelations. One way of doing this, in practice, is to organize economies into separate spheres of exchange. The principle of separate spheres of exchange has been identified ethnographically in many cultures, and it has been suggested as a way to “insulate local sustainability and resilience from the deleterious effects of globalization and financial speculation” [40
]. Departing from this point, the aim here is to identify and delineate distinct spheres or modes of social metabolism co-occurring on the Faroes. The implication is a deliberate emphasis on the fact that distinct modes of social metabolism do not only belong to certain historical time periods defined as metabolic regimes [41
], but that such modes co-occur, and that people, in their daily practices, switch between socio-metabolic modalities [43
]. The fact that they are coeval is of relevance for sustainability science because it demonstrates that alternatives to unsustainable resource use patterns and strategies are already (quietly) present in society.
One of the traits defining practices of quiet sustainability is that they contribute to sustainability but without explicitly seeking to do so. These practices are thus already contributing to sustainability but are not counted as such. The main contribution of this article is to count some of these practices, and thereby make them count. In other words, to quantify the contribution of the people practicing “quiet sustainability” in the Faroes to highlight the relevance of these activities as already existing and potential forces of sustainability, and their importance to food security and food sovereignty in an island context.
2. Materials and Methods
The Faroe Islands are an island nation in the North Atlantic Ocean comprising 18 islands, 17 of which are inhabited. The population is approximately 51,000, and the land area is 1399 square kilometers. Ocean territory or EEZ (exclusive economic zone) is almost 274,000 square kilometers. The Faroes were probably first settled around 300 AD and became part of the Norwegian Kingdom in the 13th century. Together with Greenland and Iceland, the Faroes were under the Norwegian and later the Danish crown but gained Home Rule in 1948 and are a self-governing nation with extensive autonomous powers and responsibilities within the kingdom of Denmark. The Faroes are often popularly described as a welfare society of the so-called Nordic model, and GDP per capita ranks among the highest in the world [45
]. Fish has been the main export item for the past century, and fish products make out 90–95% of the export value.
As the primary ambition with this paper is an investigation of social metabolism in the Faroe Islands, it draws on methods and methodology in the field of social metabolism [46
]. While the official statistics agency of the Faroes produces much relevant statistical material, physical statistics are not prioritized, and this makes more established methods of material and energy flows, such as MEFA and MFA, less feasible. Regarding informal economic practices that would fall under the definition of “quiet sustainability,” even those that contribute significant volumes of food, these are often classified as “hobbies” within Faroese administration [48
], and statistics are not available.
The methods used in this analysis have therefore been adapted to the specific context of the field and the aim of the study. To provide a metabolic profile and a schematic assessment of Faroese industrial metabolism, relevant statistical material has been collected from peer-reviewed literature and publicly available statistical records. The method used to make quantitative estimates of quiet sustainability practices has been to conduct searches in peer-reviewed literature, gray literature, and statistical records. In some cases, official statistics are available, for instance statistical records on the Faroese pilot whale catch go back to the year 1584 and are therefore among the best documented hunting practices in the world. For other alternative and traditionally rooted economic practices, information is more obscure and most of the data has been found in gray literature, mostly from government and agency reports. Data on fowling has been obtained through personal communication with experts in the field. The practices included in the analysis are therefore those where data were found to base estimates on. These practices were sheep rearing, potato cultivation, fowling, and whaling. This selection and methodological approach means that many other practices are excluded, such as the raising of geese, ducks, and chicken, other forms of hunting and gathering, and more.
The methodology also implies a gendered approach to the economy, emphasizing the male sphere and excluding food items that are mostly produced by women, such as various kinds of sausages made from the parts of sheep that are not meat. Likewise, limiting practices of quiet sustainability to food provisioning practices means excluding other traditional and essential provisioning strategies such as the production of yarn and clothes through the practices of spinning, weaving, and particularly knitting, which many Faroese women continue to engage in on a daily basis.
Even if the figures listed in Table 2
represent only a part of alternative local food provisioning practices, their contribution is significant. Adding together the sources of meat (sheep, pilot whale meat, and sea bird), the estimated annual amount of meat per person is 23 kg, corresponding to the world average annual meat consumption per person in 1961 [81
]. Globally, meat consumption has surged, particularly in the more affluent regions of the world, and reached 43 kg per person in 2014. Current levels of meat consumption in the Faroes are very high, but returning to a local and more marine-based diet would bring both health and environmental benefits [82
]. At the same time, local consumption of fish has probably declined and has to a large degree been replaced with imported meat. Considering the nutritional value of fish and the declining access to this local resource, it is mind provoking to reflect on that fact that if every Faroese inhabitant was provided with half a kilo of fish per day every day of the year, this amount would still only make out little more than 1% of what the total Faroese industrial fisheries catch. From a human health perspective as well as from a sustainability perspective, the consumption of locally caught fish should be encouraged. Here the framework of quiet sustainability can guide policy initiatives to re-evaluate and support traditional and alternative principles of resource distribution, such as informal and traditional food networks and forms of sharing, rather than continuing the process of increased marketization of local (marine) resources.
While the contribution of meat and fat is significant, the food items listed in Table 2
provide only a few percent of the necessary caloric requirements of the Faroese population, to say nothing of modern dietary preferences for food items exotic to the Faroes such as fruits and vegetables. The results in Table 2
also show that although potato production is relatively large (around 20% of total consumption), the Faroese agricultural landscape is almost exclusively used for meat and dairy production and very little space is dedicated to cultivation of food crops for direct human consumption. This pattern reflects the traditional land use described in the previous sections, where imported grain was an integral element in the traditional Faroese economy and diet, supplemented with local grain and brassica production. While local meat and dairy production has remained relatively stable into modern times, cultivation of food crops for human consumption has probably decreased. Many people still keep a potato plot, but recently there have also been attempts, both commercial and non-commercial, to introduce new crops and cultivation practices and to reintroduce traditional practices in order to increase local production of vegetables and grains. New initiatives more in line with mainstream global sustainability discourses are also emerging. For instance, urban gardens of a more metropolitan appearance than the common potato and rhubarb gardens are popping up, and locally produced food is increasingly promoted as sustainable, healthy, and of a higher quality than imported food. Here, the Faroese case can be seen in comparison to another island study of dietary change and quiet sustainability practices. In their study on the Greek island of Samothraki, Petridis and Huber [83
] (p. 263) propose to reinforce the sustainable elements of traditional practices by “associating them with values that find resonance within the community, such as health, localness, and quality.” In the Faroese case this strategy has been successful, at least to some extent. One particularly interesting example is the member group called Veltan
, an initiative on the Faroese island of Sandoy, where a group of community members have organized themselves around the ambition to cultivate and grow vegetables, and also to preserve and build new knowledge. Veltan
members produce food for their own household, and production is also commercial aiming to provide the Faroese market with local produce. Some of the recent initiatives can be seen as elements of purposive transitioning and of enhancing resilience and local production, but not necessarily with ecological sustainability as a primary goal. As in Samothraki, the desire for healthy, local, “organic” food may be a promising avenue for sustainability transitions of the food and land management system.
Another aspect of traditional food production, or quiet sustainability practices, which becomes evident in the analysis, is the fact that production has remained relatively stable during the past century even if population grew more than three-fold. The number of sheep has remained relatively stable, as have whale catches. Catches of sea bird have probably decreased, but this is mostly a result of the dramatic global decline in seabird. This characteristic of agricultural food provisioning practices in the Faroes may be contrasted with the changes occurring in the exploitation of the marine environment in the export-oriented industrial fisheries (and aquaculture), where production has increased dramatically, both in absolute numbers and per capita. In the Faroese case, two distinct spheres of social metabolism are arguably discernible in the differences between industrial and export-oriented production, and food provisioning practices that are oriented towards local production and distribution. Moreover, these distinct modes of social metabolism are producing very different cultural landscapes. The industrial metabolism of the Faroes consists of large material and energy flows, and further investments in industrial capital stocks, i.e., infrastructure, serve to reinforce a process of increasing metabolism that cannot be considered viable, at least not in a long-term perspective, and neither does it comply with the official sustainability goals of the Faroese Government. (The Faroese government has signed the Paris agreement and the Faroese parliament also in 2009 unanimously voted for passing a resolution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% relative to the 2005 emissions level in the decade between 2010 and 2020. In spite of these intentions, greenhouse gas emissions have increased by almost 10% relative to the 2005 emissions level.) In other words, maintaining this industrial landscape requires an ongoing and unsustainable flow of resources.
In contrast, traditional social metabolism in the Faroes produced a sustainable, diverse, and bio-productive landscape. The traditional Faroese land and resource management system presented in the previous section enhanced the bio-productive potential and capacity of the land to continually provide vital ecosystem services. This success was partly based on the ongoing investment in appropriate capital stocks including so-called landesque capital. The concept of landesque capital has been developed within the field of historical political ecology and may be understood as a specific form of capital stock, i.e., “enduring, non-alienable anthropogenic modifications of landscapes that increase physical productivity per unit of space” [84
]. It enables an analytical discussion and separation between two forms and strategies of growth, namely growth as a result of net increase of in-situ bio-physical growth, photosynthesis for instance, and growth as a result of resource appropriation from other systems. As the term of landesque capital enables analysis of this dimension of human-nature interaction, it is useful for investigating the long-term sustainability and productivity of land management systems, both in the past and in the future.
Various forms of landesque capital associated with the traditional land management system are still visible in the Faroese landscape. The stone walls, which marked the border between the infield and the outfield, are one example. Another typical form of landesque capital are the agricultural terraces, bríkar
in Faroese, on the steep slopes of the infield. Reducing the steepness of the land made them easier to work and prevented soil erosion. A less visible form of landesque capital is the improved quality of soil and pastures through cultivation and grazing practices. All these forms of landesque capital required considerable and continuous investments of labor, as well as intimate knowledge of the environment. The Faroese landscape has been intensively exploited for close to two millennia, even the least accessible cliffs being used for grazing. And yet, most of the ecosystem services available to the first settlers were sustained or enhanced through the centuries and well into the twentieth century [67
]. Even the biodiversity of the Faroese landscape may be considered a form of landesque capital, the ecosystem co-evolving with people to produce the Faroese cultural landscape. In this sense, the high levels of biodiversity and productivity of the traditional Faroese landscape should be seen as a result of human activity, not as something remaining in spite of it. Policy attempts at increasing food production or enhancing biodiversity that are not attentive to this crucial role of culture in processes of homogenization and diversification of ecosystems are bound to fail their goal.
The concept of landesque capital helps to illuminate the distinctions between different forms of capital stocks, and the implications of these for (island) sustainability and resilience. Material stocks, or capital, can materialize as commercial artefacts, such as disposable consumer goods, or as improved soil, depending on the cultural organization of social metabolism. The implications for sustainability and the bio-productive capacity of the natural system are compelling. While certain forms of industrial stocks, such as the industrial fishing fleet in this case, obviously serves to increase production, it also relies on very large volumes of external resource flows. When it comes to the fossil energy required to sustain Faroese industrial fisheries, the access to this energy is ultimately dependent upon global market relations or monetary relations. Changes in these relations are largely out of local control and may cause capital stock in the form of an industrial fishing vessel to become immediately unproductive. In comparison, investments in landesque capital, for instance in improved pastures and soil, is less vulnerable to external factors. As Widgren [85
] (p. 61) puts it, landesque capital has a tendency to survive in different social contexts because “unlike monetary capital, which is fluid in space but fixed in time, landesque capital is fixed in space, but ‘fluid’ in time.” This makes landesque capital hard to appropriate in comparison to capital and resources that can be transported away. The formation of capital stocks as landesque capital or as some other form of stock has a lot to do then with how the social metabolism of a society is related to the outside world [9
]. Interestingly, Petridis and Huber [83
] (p. 282) in their discussion of quiet sustainability on the island of Samothraki direct attention to this potential association between landesque capital, dietary changes, and sustainability transformations. They propose that a reevaluation of older farming systems, such as agricultural terraces, and its association with changing dietary demands for local produce can work to increase both ecological and human health. A reevaluation of these older farming systems would, however, have to entail a reevaluation of the time required to maintain such forms of landesque capital, and more generally of maintaining biocultural landscapes. The issue of time and sustainability is also mentioned by Smith and Jelicka [21
] in their discussion on policy changes to promote quiet sustainability. They suggest that more radical steps towards enhancing quiet sustainability would require consideration of economies of time within households and communities, for example, the length of the working week. The fundamental question of how people spend their time, how monetary value is attributed to different modes of time use, and how that relates to both ecological and human well-being is generally overlooked in mainstream sustainability discourse.
The practices here defined as practices of quiet sustainability are rooted in a traditional land management system that was ecologically sustainable out of necessity. As they have coevolved in a society that has been increasingly connected to the global market economy and dominated and colonized by industrial social metabolism, they are also changing. Food provisioning practices such as sheep, livestock, and poultry rearing increasingly rely on imported animal feed, and the production of local feed, mostly straw fodder, is increasingly mechanized. The question of how a sustainable local food system can be organized in an open economy context requires a deepened and transdisciplinary understanding of how production is coupled to local ecosystems as well as to foreign ecosystems, and how this pertains to issues of resiliency, vulnerability, and sustainability. Chertow et al. [12
] have explored these relevant themes in a discussion of four island societies that have consciously attempted to reconnect vital aspects of their economies to their natural systems. It is, however, crucially important that such processes are guided by adequate analytical insight into the complexity of sustainable coevolution as both a bio-physical process and a cultural process. While a recoupling of the natural system is always intended to enhance self-sufficiency and resilience, such efforts are not necessarily sustainable in the long term. As an example, efforts at reconnecting Faroese dairy production to the local natural system rather than to rely on imported feed could potentially entail a radical transformation of the Faroese cultural landscape into an agro-industrial landscape. Such transformation towards greater intensification and industrialization of agriculture would increase local production of feed, but considering the very limited land area suitable for mechanized cultivation, it would also contribute to the erosion and abandonment of what Tello et al. [87
] (p. 52) have called “true biocultural landscapes,” entailing a loss of crops, breeds, knowledge, practices, and people.
In conclusion, distinct modes of social metabolism are discernible in the Faroes. An unsustainable industrial metabolism, governed by ideologies of growth, is colonizing and homogenizing the Faroese landscape. Another mode, which is rooted in the traditional land management system involves a direct metabolic connection between people and their landscape through food provisioning practices such as hunting and gathering, cultivation, and animal husbandry. It has been asserted here that these practices can be conceptualized as practices of quiet sustainability and that they should be acknowledged, guided, protected, and promoted, and in a concrete sense be given space in physical and land use planning, both in rural and urban settings. Rather than focusing too narrowly on sustainability transitions that are difficult to overcome and require large restructuring of society and technological infrastructure, as well as behavioral change, practices of quiet sustainability are already in place and deeply meaningful for people to engage in [88
]. In Faroese policy discourse, traditional and alternative food-provisioning practices are perceived at best as supplementary to the “real economy,” but their dietary contribution has been shown to be significant in quantitative terms, and a considerable expansion of local food production could arguably be achieved within a quiet sustainability framework, particularly regarding fisheries and cultivation for direct human consumption. Such a trajectory would contribute to both human and ecological health, and would enhance biocultural diversity, resilience, food security, and food sovereignty. It would simultaneously expand the alternatives to the growth-oriented industrial production strategies currently dominating the islands. Further research into diverse and alternative food provisioning practices in the Faroes could provide important insight into how alternative modes and spheres of social metabolism are organized, maintained, and culturally negotiated, and how they can be expanded in order to reduce the social metabolism of human society without undermining human well-being. Thinking with this specific Faroese case and other cases of island metabolism(s), and through the metaphor of islanding, might also provide more general insight into how sustainable socio-metabolic spheres can be protected and enhanced in a context of globalization and financial speculation in the struggle of forging less resource-intensive paths into the future.