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We're going to grow old together

By Emily Zimmerman

Stock image of an elderly couple hugging on a benchTwo months ago, I was fortunate to attend the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management (ISSRM) in Charleston, South Carolina. This year’s ISSRM, which serves as the annual conference for the International Association for Society and Natural Resources (IASNR), was attended by over 450 scientists, government agency managers, non-profit employees, and private consultants from numerous fields, and served as an opportunity to engage with one another on research embedded in social science and natural science pertaining to the environment and natural resource issues. The conference theme this year, “Understanding and Adapting to Change,” provided a relevant lens to examine many pertinent human dimensions of natural resource challenges, including climate change, the food system, urban centers, etc.

The organizers of ISSRM do a particularly nice job focusing on opportunities for graduate students. On the Sunday prior to the conference, graduate students were invited to attend a workshop focused on networking and professional development. In one of the sessions, faculty at academic institutions provided job search and hiring advice to young graduate students, like me, considering careers in academia. While three of the four faculty panelists described the importance of tailoring our applications, organizing our publications, and highlighting our strengths, one faculty member took a different approach: she said that there are often a lot of highly-qualified applicants, but that, at the end of the day, what it really boils down to is that you are selecting a colleague, someone that you’re “going to grow old with.” 

Stock image of someone writing in a journalThis past week, as I organized my notes from several conferences that I’d attended this summer, I found this quote written in amongst the lines technical advice. I lingered on the quote, thumbing over the page a few times. The idea of “growing old together” is a commitment generally reserved for those individuals that are our partners in life. But this faculty member’s sentiment made me reconsider; maybe “growing old together” shouldn’t just be about our partners? Maybe it should be a social contract of sorts, that should extend well beyond the walls of our most intimate relationships – because, it turns out we are all growing old together, on this same planet, sharing the same outcomes of our cumulative decisions.

Let’s consider a shared resource, water – an increasingly contentious problem in central Iowa. In January, Des Moines Water Works, Des Moines’s water utility, elected to sue ten agricultural drainage districts in Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties.  These three counties, and their associated drainage districts, are located in the upper watershed of the Raccoon River, which provides the city of Des Moines with its water. The proposed lawsuit contends that row-crop agriculture in these counties is primarily responsible for the high levels of nitrate in the river. Frequent monitoring of the river has shown high levels of nitrate throughout the year. Samples from Sac County have shown nitrate at nearly four times the drinking water standard of 10 mg/L. Such high concentrations of nitrate have well-documented negative environmental and human health impacts. Because of the dangerous human health impacts, Des Moines Water Works has to remove excess nitrate from its drinking water at a cost of approximately $4,000 per day. Just this week, the Des Moines Register published an article highlighting the tension, conflict, and anger that continues to boil around this issue.

But, what if those embroiled in this water quality debate stopped using inflammatory language, stopped using aggressive and deceitful tactics, and instead embraced the notion of “growing old together.” Return with me for a moment to the traditional use of the phrase, “growing old together,” used to refer to a long-term partner. Personally, that phrase conjures important characteristics of a successful relationship: respect, responsibility, and honesty – even in times of disagreement; open communication, where both partners actively engage in listening and hearing one another; a commitment to compromise and to address challenges as a team; and to work alongside one another to better our shared lives. How might the present conflict over water quality change if public officials, industry leaders, and powerful lobbies chose to act based on the principle and characteristics that we’re all growing old together, using the same water resource?

In the spirit of recognizing that we are sharing in the outcomes of our cumulative decisions, choosing to treat one another and the planet with some of the same characteristics that we treat the person that we want to grow old with may allow us to make progress on contentious, yet important issues.  I’d like to end by echoing actor Adam Sandler in his “I Wanna Grow Old with You” serenade from the classic film the Wedding Singer, “Oh it could be so nice, to grow old with you.” 

Emily Zimmerman is pursuing a PhD in Sustainable Agriculture, and is co-advised by Drs. Lisa Schulte Moore and John Tyndall. Her research addresses Payments for Ecosystem Services as a voluntary mechanism to achieve conservation goals in the Corn Belt. A special thanks to Wikimediafor the photo of the old couple.