image of Voltaire from a statue

The best is the enemy of the good

When the good is good enough it might be better to run with it than wait for the best to appear. When time is short it can be the only option.

François-Marie Arouet is better known to most of us as Voltaire

This influential Frenchman, a prolific writer, historian and philosopher of the enlightenment, quoted an invaluable Italian proverb over 200 years ago

Le meglio è l’inimico del bene

The best is the enemy of the good

Voltaire was a critic of Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church and an advocate for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. These were risky topics to be contrary about in the 1700s, but then again, it was the enlightenment. 

We can safely assume that Voltaire was especially enamoured with the ‘enemy of the good’ as he also uses the phrase to begin his moral poem La Bégueule

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien

Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good

There are uncountable instances throughout history that could lead to such an aphorism. 

The best runner wasn’t the only one to escape the lion. 

The best clan leader couldn’t gather more resources for his tribe than could be gathered by willing hands. 

The best tractor couldn’t plough all the fields. 

The best story on Medium is not the only one that gets applause.

Indeed, don’t be the best but be good, is the mantra of the modern startup company trying to get an MVP fast. The Minimum Viable Product provides pre-revenue technology startups with funding to help them engage with potential customers or channel to market to achieve market validation and the crucial first sale. Attracting investors requires runs on the board, no matter if they are ugly.

But why is this formulation of truth so important to sustainably FED?

After four decades of working among academics, scientists, policymakers and bureaucrats, all keen to be the best or at least to scoot across their meritocracy pond as fast as their duck peddling can take them, I might have an answer.

It’s because the best is unattainable.

man running don a hill in the high country
Photo by Alessio Soggetti on Unsplash

Let me explain using one of our favourite FED topics, soil organic carbon.


The best as the enemy of the good for soil organic carbon

Plants grow because they have adequate supplies of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and sulfur (S), access to sunlight, water and somewhere for their roots to hold up the whole mechanism. Invariably that support substrate is soil. Much of the cycling of N, P, S and other plant nutrients in the soil is driven by biogeochemical and biophysical processes involving the soil organic matter (SOM). 

The carbon component of SOM, what researchers call soil organic carbon (SOC), is also a large terrestrial C pool that constantly exchanges carbon dioxide (CO2) between soil-plant systems and the atmosphere and has a direct impact on the Earth’s carbon budget and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

Any SOC in the soil is the balance of plant-derived C added to soil as organic residues and C losses from SOM, primarily as CO2 respired by the soil organisms. Soil carbon is only gained (sequestered) by 

  1. increasing plant C inputs to soils, 
  2. storing a larger proportion of the plant-derived C in the longer-term C pools in the soil, or 
  3. by slowing decomposition.

Turns out that we know the ins and outs of all three of these options in most of the agricultural production systems around the world.

It can be hard to predict specific SOC levels and changes, but the generalities are clear—leave more plant biomass to decompose, keep ground cover, add organic inputs, and reduce soil disturbance to see a net SOC gain (sometimes called sequestration) in most agricultural situations.

What we also know is that there are some common themes in SOC sequestration—increased plant-derived C inputs, added recalcitrant C pools to soils, slowed decomposition—and the management practices involved.

  1. the rates of C sequestration are modest, mostly less than 0.5–1 Mg C ha−1 yr−1
  2. C sequestration only happens for a few decades and with decreasing rates over time
  3. other greenhouse gases can affect the benefits of SOC accumulation 

Returning SOC to degraded soils is a win-win land management option. It mitigates greenhouse gas emissions and helps to maintain the health of soils for consistent plant growth. 

What is there not to like?

Well, the scientists who figured out all the details on SOC are spoiling the party.

They say there are issues with soil C sequestration as a climate mitigation option—it only lasts a short time, can easily reverse and might leak.

Leakage happens when stopping a production activity to increase SOC in one location might mean it is released from somewhere else because production was shifted to another location. 

It is not a perfect mechanism, so the science advice is to be cautious.

Whilst these issues are real, they should not be showstoppers. 

Indeed, increasing SOC levels through changes to agricultural management practices, can be a relatively low-cost way of reducing emissions. Plenty of the actions on the leaft of this marginal abatement cost curve showing cost per tonne of CO2e avoided for the farmer and abatement potential for France are negative. The farmer makes money from them. 

graphic of a cost curve for carbon abatement options by farmers

Example MACC curve, showing cost per tonne of CO2e avoided for the farmer and abatement potential for France. Data from Pellerin et al 2013. Source: Alexander, P., Paustian, K., Smith, P., & Moran, D. (2015). The economics of soil C sequestration and agricultural emissions abatement. Soil, 1(1), 331-339.

There are also plenty of actions with a benefit. There is no need to prescribe just one or two. Farmers can choose among several according to their circumstances. 

SOC sequestration could even be a policy priority, perhaps with an incentive for the practices on the left of the graph—especially grazing and fertiliser management.

Only nervous nelly scientists are providing the excuse for politicians to dither. What if, they say, a payment scheme incentivises the wrong farmers to participate in schemes, such as those who do not offer the best sequestration potentials? Goodness, this is not even science but a compliance issue.

And then, they conclude that however large the overall global technical potential for carbon sequestration in soil, current barriers suggest the true achievable contribution is somewhat constrained.

Of course it is; the best is always unattainable.

However, the good is good enough when the sequestration win is also a production and resilience win.


What sustainably FED suggests

The ongoing burning of fossil fuels to meet the global energy demand and the clearing of land for agriculture to maintain food supplies is a tide of emissions that is hard to stop. We need every climate mitigation option available. 

If there is an option that removes carbon from tha atmosphere—as opposed to just an emission reduction—that also helps to grow more food consistently, only a crazy person ignores it.

We don’t often do this but let’s leave the last word to George Monbiot, a British writer and environmentalist known for his political activism who, I’m guessing, would identify with Voltaire.

Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations — they want to live more ethically — and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn’t moral purity (no one manages that), but cynicism. Give me hypocrisy any day…

George Monbiot

Science source

Alexander, P., Paustian, K., Smith, P., & Moran, D. (2015). The economics of soil C sequestration an agricultural emissions abatement. Soil, 1(1), 331-339.


Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed