Essentials of Economic Sustainability

Ten years ago, I wrote a book titled The Essentials of Economic Sustainability. It was written initially for short courses I taught in China and Poland. To avoid perceptions of cultural and geographic bias, I wrote the book without references or specific examples. I stuck with core principles that are valid in all cultures and bioregions and asked readers to find their own references and to think of culturally appropriate examples. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but it hasn’t sold many books. In another attempt to share these essential principles, I have decided to write a series of blog pieces. This time, I plan to explain the essential principles of economic sustainability in relation to farming and food production.

I need to start with the basics or much of the rest may not make sense. In the first chapter of the book, I addressed the essential question of sustainability: “How do we meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future?” Over time, the word sustainable has been coopted, redefined, misused, and abused to the point that many early advocates have abandoned it as useless. I believe much of this abuse is intentional—to avoid being forced to respond to, or even acknowledge, the question of sustainability. Those who have gained their wealth and power from today’s unsustainable economy aren’t going to give it up without a fight. Regardless, there is growing public awareness that we simply can’t keep doing what we have been doing. It’s not sustainable.

Most people know intuitively what sustainability means, regardless of attempts to redefine it otherwise. Sustainable is a generic word that Merriam-Webster defines as, “relating to or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” This has been, and remains, the basic meaning used by advocates of “authentic sustainability.” More generally, sustainability relates to the ability to use the resources of the earth to meet the needs of the present, using methods that do not deplete or permanently damage the resources necessary to meet needs of the future.

Everything of use to us, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from the earth’s biosphere: from sunlight, air, water, minerals, soil, and both micro- and macro-organisms, including plants, animals, and people. Beyond self-sufficiency, we must rely on relationships with other people for those things we can’t get directly from nature by ourselves. Beyond meeting our needs through “personal” relationships, we must rely on the “impersonal” economy. The economy allows us to meet our needs through impersonal transactions—earning, buying, and selling—rather than personal relationships. Economies allow us to get things we need from people we don’t know and allow people we don’t know to get things they need from us. That’s the fundamental purpose of economies.

That being said, we are still as dependent on nature and each other as when humans were still communities of hunters and gatherers. Our economic dependencies are just more complex, less direct, less well understood, and less appreciated. The economy provides an efficient means for extracting value from nature by way of society. However, if economic extraction and exploitation are allowed to deplete or permanently damage the resources of the earth, eventually there will be nothing of economic value left in nature to extract. Economic sustainability is thus ultimately dependent on ecological and social sustainability.

Also, while sustainability is about meeting the needs of humans, specifically, it is not about meeting the needs of humans exclusively. If we were only concerned about sustaining life on Earth in general, the most logical strategy would be to depopulate the Earth of humans. We are arguably the greatest single threat to the sustainability of life on Earth in general. Concerns for sustainability acknowledge that human well-being is ultimately dependent on the well-being of other things of the earth. Sustainability requires that we accept our uniquely human responsibilities as caretakers as well as members of the earth’s integrally interconnected community.


Nowhere are these principles of sustainability more apparent or more important than in farming and food production. The productivity of agriculture clearly is derived from the land, from the earth, and from nature. Without sunshine, air, water, soil, micro- and macro-organisms, plants, and animals, no plant, animal, or other living things could exist and there would be nothing for humans to eat. The beginning of agriculture and cultivation of the earth allowed humans to achieve higher levels of self-sufficiency. People also learned they could achieve higher levels of community food security by working together to cultivate commonly-held land—by “tending the commons.”

When community members who were better farmers began specializing in farming, others were freed from the task of food production to specialize in doing things they could do better than farming. This “division of labor” increased the well-being of farmers and non-farmers alike and paved the way for the emergence of agri-food economies. Various forms of money were created to facilitate impersonal economic transactions. Eventually, the land was privatized and removed from the commons, which allowed land to be bought and sold among farmers. Those without access to land were then forced to work for money so they would have money to spend for food and the other necessities of life. Over time, market economies, selling and buying, replaced home-based food production and cultivation of the commonly held land.

Market economies today allow us to meet our food needs by relying on farmers we don’t know and who don’t know us. However, we are still as dependent on the resources of the Earth to meet our needs as when humans met their needs directly from nature as hunters and gatherers. We are also dependent on society to nurture each new generation of farmers, maintain the economic efficiency of markets, and preserve the civility of human relationships. Unless we are willing to return to hunting and gathering, or self-sufficient local communities; the economic, social, and ecological sustainability of agriculture, all three, are essential to the sustainability of human life on earth.

However, an over-dependence on the agri-food economy now threatens ecological, social, and economic sustainability. We see the lack of ecological sustainability in the erosion and degradation of soils through excessive cultivation and fertilization, depletion of aquifers through reliance on irrigation, pollution of air and water with chemical and biological wastes, and loss of biological diversity through specialized crop and livestock production. We see the lack of social sustainability in the persistence of hunger and malnutrition, demise of family farms, loss of rural employment opportunities, exploitation of farm workers, and the social and cultural decay of rural communities. Farmers, consumers, society, and the earth are all being exploited through unsustainable economic extraction and exploitation.

The essentials of sustainability are the same for all sectors of the economy. They are just easier to see and understand in the agricultural sector. The new mechanical, biological, and digital technologies being promoted to meet the challenges of agricultural sustainability may slow the depletion or delay permanent damage to the earth’s resources. However, the depletion and degradation will continue. The poor will still be hungry or malnourished, farm workers and consumers will still be exploited, and rural communities will continue to wither and die.

Technology cannot change the basic laws of nature—no matter how sophisticated or well-intended. Any system of production that lacks the ability to renew and regenerate the natural and human resources from which it derives its productivity is not sustainable. Our current economic system isn’t working, and it isn’t going to work in the future. It is not sustainable. Change is no longer an option; it’s a necessity.

I.                Sustainability and the Laws of Nature

We, humans, are subject to the same laws of nature that govern the rest of the universe. If this were not true, there would be no concern about sustainability. We could simply solve any problem we create and find a substitute for any resource we use up—which is precisely what some critics of sustainability assume. Among the laws of nature are the basic laws of physics, such as those related to gravity and motion, electricity and magnetism, time and space relativity, and thermodynamics. We may not understand or respect the laws of nature, but we can’t avoid their consequences. No matter how adamantly we may deny the law of gravity if we drop something heavy on our foot, we will feel the pain. If we defiantly stick a paperclip into an electrical outlet, we will be jolted back to reality.

Questions of sustainability are rooted in the laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So, it might seem that we could simply use and reuse energy over and over again to meet our needs. However, the second law of thermodynamics states that whenever energy is used, it inevitably changes in form, specifically it changes from more useful to less useful forms of energy. In fact, it is the natural tendency of structured, organized, and concentrated forms of energy to disintegrate, disorganize, and disperse that enables energy to perform work or do something useful. But after each use of energy, it becomes less useful. Waste is either useless, or unusable, energy or something that renders energy useless, or currently unusable. Whenever energy is used to do anything useful, some of its usefulness is inevitably lost. This is the crux of the physical “law of entropy.”

This is what Einstein’s famous E=MC-squared formula is all about. E is energy, M is pure matter, and C is the speed of light—which is a really big number. The energy contained in matter can be released to perform useful tasks, as when coal is burned to generate electricity or gasoline explodes in an engine to move an automobile. Energy can also be used to create new matter or to restore the usefulness of used energy by other means. However, the energy required to restructure, reorganize, reconcentrate, and restore the usefulness of energy is no longer available to perform work. No matter how efficiently we use or reuse energy, some of its usefulness is inevitably lost.

These laws of thermodynamics were named for the natural tendency of heat to flow from hotter objects into cooler objects. However, they apply more generally to energy and the usefulness of energy to humans. Heat is but one example of a more highly structured, organized, concentrated form of energy that has the potential to perform useful work, as it follows its natural tendency to disintegrate, disorganize, and disperse as it flows from hotter to cooler objects. The steam engine is a classic early example of the potential usefulness of heat released from wood or coal as a source of useful energy. Food also is a highly structured, organized, and concentrated form of energy that disintegrates, disorganizes, and disperses into the cells of the human body during the processes of digestion.

The sustainability of human life on Earth ultimately depends on sustaining the usefulness of energy. Our food, clothing, lodging, transportation, education, health care, and other necessities of modern life all require energy to create, energy to use, and even energy to appreciate. Our brain requires something like 20 percent of the energy needed to fuel our bodies.

If the earth was a “closed system,” the usefulness of all energy in the earth’s biosphere eventually would be depleted. Fortunately, the earth receives a daily infusion of new energy from the sun—solar energy. The potential sustainability of life on Earth depends on our ability to capture and store enough useful solar energy to offset the inevitable loss of useful energy to entropy. Fossil energy is simply solar energy that was stored in the earth millions of years ago. Its usefulness eventually will be depleted and would take millions of years to restore. Other sources of energy, including nuclear energy and geothermal energy, are either limited in potential or pose threats to the livability of the environment, as does our continued reliance on fossil energy.

The only sustainable source of energy for humanity is solar energy. More specifically, the sustainability of human life on earth depends on the ability of green plants and algae to use the process of photosynthesis to transform solar energy into biological energy. We are biological beings. We can transform solar energy into electricity using windmills and photovoltaic cells. But it takes humans to build windmills and photovoltaics, and we can’t fuel the human mind or body with electricity. We can capture radiant energy directly from the sun or mechanical energy from falling water, but we can’t survive physically without biological energy. Sustainability depends on the ability of living, biological ecosystems to sequester sufficient biological energy from the sun to offset the biological energy ultimately lost to entropy.

To sustain human life on earth at anything approaching the scale of today’s global society, we must create a regenerative agri-food economy. A sustainable regenerative agriculture must be capable of sequestering enough solar energy to meet current human needs, plus continually regenerate and renew the usefulness of enough energy to meet the needs of future generations. Regenerative farming systems that sequester carbon or restore soil health will not be sustainable unless they sequester sufficient solar energy to maintain the health and productivity of the ecological and social systems that must sustain their productivity. Regenerative agriculture is ultimately about continually capturing and storing enough solar energy to meet the biological needs of the present without depleting or permanently damaging the natural or human resources needed to meet the needs of the future.

The current industrial agri-food system relies heavily on fossil energy to offset its inevitable and continual disintegration, disorganization, and dispersion of useful energy. The food system in total uses nearly 20 percent of all fossil energy used in the U.S. with agricultural production accounting for more than 20 percent of that total. Commercial fertilizers, particularly nitrogen, account for more than 30 percent of fossil energy use in agriculture. Field machinery and irrigation account for another 30 percent.

Increased reliance on fossil energy is largely responsible for the increases in productivity associated with agricultural industrialization. Back in the 1940s, U.S. farms produced more than 2 calories of food energy for each calorie of fossil energy. By the early 2000s, industrial agricultural systems required about 3 calories of fossil energy at the farm level to produce each calorie of food energy.

Industrialization is an efficient system of extracting useful energy from nature and society, but it does nothing to restore the usefulness of the places and people it extracts from and exploits. The laws of thermodynamics are but one example of how the current industrial agri-food system fails to respect the basic laws of nature and thus is not sustainabl

II.             The Values of Sustainability

Everything eventually boils down to economics! How many times have we heard this assertion—as if it were settled truth? Farmers need an economic incentive to change from conventional to organic, regenerative, or some other farming system! I can’t count the number of times I have heard this statement. The truth is, neither of these statements is true. Some values can’t be translated into dollars and cents, and farmers farm for a lot of different reasons. Economic values are important, but social and ethical values are even more important to our overall quality of life and to sustainability

Economic values are fundamentally different from social and ethical values. Economic values are individual. In economic theory, families, communities, and societies are nothing more than collections of independent individuals. Economic values are impersonal. If something can’t be bought, sold, or traded among individuals it has no economic value. Economic relationships are transactional rather than personal. Finally, economic values are instrumental. Economic transactions are made only when there are expectations of getting something of greater economic value in return. Money is a means of getting something else. As explained in my previous post, the economy is simply an impersonal means by which individuals can extract economic value from nature and society.

Social values are different from economic values. Social values are personal rather than transactional. Relationships among family members, friends, or even the sense of belonging to a group of people, can’t be bought, sold, or traded. Social values also are communal rather than individual. A family, group of friends, community, or society is something more than the sum of its individual members. Positive relationships add value. Finally, social values are reciprocal rather than instrumental. We expect to get something in return from a personal relationship, but there is no specific agreement or contract concerning what we will get or when we will get it.

Ethical values are different from economic and social values. Ethical values reflect an individual, communal, or societal consensus of what is morally right or wrong. Ethical values are neither instrumental nor reciprocal; they are purely altruistic. Acts of pure altruism are motivated solely by the desire to do the right thing. There is no expectation of receiving anything of economic or social value in return. Ethical values often evolve from social relationships, but ethical values are impersonal. What is right for people we know is also right for those we don’t know and may never know. Ethical values are also different from economic and social values in that they are neither individual nor communal, but are universal. What is ethically right for one person is right for all people—including those of future generations. Margaret Thatcher once asked rhetorically, “Who is society?” Her answer: “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women…and people look to themselves first.” She was speaking of societies as if they were nothing more than economies.

Economic, social, and ethical values are not mutually exclusive or independent of each other. Personal relationships can have economic as well as social value—referred to as “social capital.” Working relationships sometimes turn into friendships, and it may be less costly to do business with people we know and trust. Some ethical values also have economic value. It’s sometimes possible to “do well by doing good.” Also, ethical values may be interwoven with social values. Members of social groups often share common religious beliefs or cultural values. However, some values are exclusively economic, social, or ethical. While each contributes to overall health and well-being, neither economic, social, nor ethical values, alone or in pairs, is sufficient to ensure sustainability. All are essential.

There are no economic or social incentives to meet the needs of people with whom we don’t have, nor will never have, an economic or social relationship. Only ethical values can provide the necessary motivation for meeting the needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for those of the future. Economies and societies provide the means, but the motivations for sustainability are ultimately ethical.

With respect to agricultural sustainability, the idealized values of traditional family farming are consistent with the values of sustainability. Traditionally, family farming was as much a social and ethical way of life as a way to make an economic living. The economic functions of farms only met the needs of families that couldn’t be met through direct relationships with nature or through personal relationships with friends and neighbors. To many traditional family farmers, farming was a “calling”—farming gave purpose and meaning to their lives. Farming may also have been considered their patriotic duty and a sacred trust. The traditional family farmer was society’s provisioner of sustenance and humanity’s caretaker of the earth.

Farmers obviously have never lived up to these ideals, as fields have been eroded, rural environments polluted, and rural communities splintered by social dissension and distrust. A relentless pursuit of the economic bottom line by some and the economic struggle for survival by others have weakened the sense of interdependence of farmers with each other, with friends and neighbors, and ultimately with the land—the earth. The unrealized ideals of traditional family farming are nonetheless ideals that can continue to guide farmers toward a fundamentally better way of life and can guide agriculture toward sustainability.

The values of sustainability are the values of human flourishing, well-being, or happiness. We are material beings and need the economy as a means of meeting our individual, impersonal needs. But we are also social beings and we need purely personal relationships within families, friendships, and communities to meet our mental and emotional needs. We need to love and be loved. And, we are also moral and ethical beings and need a sense of rightness and goodness in what we do, to give purpose and meaning to our lives. As our common sense tells us, and psychological research confirms, beyond some basic level of economic well-being, human happiness depends much more on the quality of social relationships and a sense of purpose in life than on additional income or wealth. The values of sustainability are the values of happiness.

III.           Why?

I spent much of the first thirty years of my early life preparing to be a scientist, a social scientist but nonetheless a scientist. I have spent much of the past thirty years questioning the adequacy of the science I was taught—not the validity but the adequacy. Today’s science has worked well in solving problems in the nonliving world of physics and chemistry. It has not worked so well in the living worlds of ecosystems, economies, and societies, where today’s biggest problems arise. In the living world, why we do something often determines how we do it --and predetermines the positive or negative consequences. The science that I learned, the science revered by scientists today, has answered many questions about how but not why. When it comes to questions of why, we are no nearer the answers today than 400 years ago.

In my first book, written more than twenty years ago, I wrote about the difference between knowing how and knowing why. “Science might describe how the earth was formed, but why was it formed? What is its purpose or reason for being? Science may describe how raindrops are formed, but not why it rains. What is the purpose of rain? Scientists may answer: rain provides water for people; it feeds crops and crops feed people. But what is the reason or purpose of people? Why are people born? The reproduction process only describes how, not why. Why do people die? The fact that our heart and brain start and stop functioning only describes how, not why, we live or die.”

The existence of purpose cannot be proven scientifically and thus is denied or routinely ignored by scientists. From the time we are children, we are taught to think logically and rationally and not believe anything that can’t be proven scientifically. However, we know instinctively and intuitively that our life has purpose, even if it can’t be proven. If there were nothing in particular that we are meant to do with our lives, then it really wouldn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. There would be no means of distinguishing between right and wrong or good and bad. Anything we might do would be okay--or not; there would be no way of knowing the difference. It would make no difference whether we lived or died. Without purpose, life simply makes no sense.

So, the vast majority of people behave as if life has a purpose, regardless of the absence of scientific proof. Societies develop social norms and laws to define acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Life is treated with reverence rather than indifference. There is a sense that good people have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good of society and humanity, or at least not detract from it. Since the science of economics rationalizes that the pursuit of individual economic self-interests contributes to the greater economic good of society, the pursuit of income and wealth might seem a logical choice for living a purposeful life.

There are at least two fundamental problems with this contention. First, today’s markets do not meet any of the conditions necessary for competitive markets to transform the pursuit of individual self-interests into economic well-being for society as a whole. Second, even if today’s markets were economically competitive, economic well-being does not necessarily translate into human happiness, satisfaction, or quality of life. We are social and ethical beings, as well as material beings. We need positive relationships with other people, and we need a sense of purpose in meaning to lead fulfilling lives. As a society, we have sacrificed both in a myopic pursuit of income and wealth. We, as a society, are systematically destroying the integrity of nature and society, upon which we ultimately depend for our happiness and well-being, in our bling pursuit of economic self-interests.

So, what is the real purpose of life? This is an age-old question. Over the years, I have concluded that the most inclusive purpose of life is “to love.” Love probably has about as many different definitions as there are people capable of loving. I have come up with my own definition of love, which I feel encompasses all of the others. It is not particular catchy or compelling, but it is concise:” Love is a belief in inherent goodness. The object of love can be a person, an animal, inanimate object, image, or even an idea – anything that might be inherently good. Love doesn’t require proof; it is an act of faith, of belief.

Unlike an economic transaction, an act of love is made with no expectation of anything in return. To love is simply to act in a way that reflects a belief in the inherent goodness of the object of affection, whether it is an innate object, person, society, humanity, the earth, or the universe. Logical and rational concerns for the well-being and sustainability of people in society today and the future of humanity are rooted in a belief or faith in the inherent goodness of life on earth – including both human and non-human life. Our purpose in life is to contribute to this goodness--to love.

I believe we each have a unique and equally important purpose in life, no matter how important or mundane our purpose may seem to others. Our purpose is not a goal to achieve but a path to walk. When we walk our path and do our part, it changes the essence of the whole of all life. If we fulfill our purpose, we will have made the greatest contribution we could have made and will have lived the best life we possibly could have lived.

Many acts essential to enhancing the quality, integrity, and goodness of life on earth, including the lives of other people, must be acts of love--made with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Love requires no scientific confirmation, justification, or validation. To love is to do something simply because it is the right thing to do. That is why we are here.


IV.           The Stages of Change


The “five stages of grief” are widely used to describe the process people go through in facing, and eventually accepting, the reality of an unavoidable loss. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. More generally, the stages represent the various feelings people may experience in coping with the reality of any unavoidable change in life. I believe the five stages reflect the process that society must experience in facing, and eventually accepting, the reality that we live in an unsustainable society that is helplessly dependent on an unsustainable economy. We are not meeting the basic needs of many, if not most, people in the present and most certainly are not leaving equal or better opportunities for those of the future.

For example, since the late 1980s, when I began working on issues related to agricultural sustainability, I have talked with, listened to, and read about a number of farmers who have gone through the various stages of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, before accepting the necessity for a fundamental change in their farming operations. In the early days, advocates of industrial agriculture denied there was anything unstainable about American agriculture. Large-scale, specialized, chemically-dependent farming operations were still profitable. To them, profit was proof of sustainability. Agricultural colleges redefined their industrial agricultural research and educational programs as “sustainable agriculture”—which seemed to validate farmers’ claims. Farmers who called themselves organic, alternative, or sustainable were hobby farmers, “hippie” farmers, subsistence farmers, or misguided idealists—not real farmers.

In the early 1990s, many conventional farmers moved from denial to anger, brought on by the emergence of the modern organic farming movement and growing consumer concerns about the use of agricultural chemicals and GMOs. Conventional farmers felt threatened by the growing popularity of these so-called sustainable alternatives that were seen as a threat to the industrial agricultural status quo. To them, the emergence of separate sustainable agricultural research and education programs at USDA and in Land Grant Universities suggested that conventional ways of farming were not sustainable. They felt such programs needed to be “nipped in the bud”—before sustainable agriculture could build a constituency.

As organic foods began taking shelf space in mainstream supermarkets and alternatives to industrial farming became more profitable, a growing number of farmers moved beyond anger to the bargaining stage of change. If they couldn’t beat them, they would join with them, as long as the didn't have fundamentally change their farming operations. For example, some found ways to meet USDA standards of organic farming without abandoning their industrial farming systems--"organic" hydroponics and “organic” CAFOs being prime examples. Others were willing to change at least some of their farming practices, such as shifting from conventional tillage to reduced tillage or no-till, planting cover crops, using soil conservation practices, or putting marginal farmland in the CRP. However, they still have not fundamentally changed their system of farming from industrial to sustainable. They proudly proclaim that farmers have always been and still are conservationists, environmentalists, and “stewards of the land.” There is no need for real change.

I fear that most farmers who are recognized as leaders in soil and water conservation, land stewardship, or even in regenerative farming, are stuck in the bargaining stage of change—trying to appease their conscience about the lack of authentic sustainability of their conventional systems of farming. “Climate-smart” farming, “sustainable intensive” farming, rely on producing more while wasting less and polluting less, without fundamentally changing farming systems. These self-proclaimed “farming systems of the future” remain stuck in the bargaining stage of change. They are still trying to find ways to fix a fundamentally flawed, unsustainable system of farming—still in denial of the necessity for systemic change.

Some of today’s most successful sustainable and regenerative farmers went through the early stages of denial and anger, tried and gave up on bargaining, suffered periods of depression, and eventually confronted the realities of agricultural sustainability. They have moved on to change their “farming systems,” not simply their “farming practices.” They understand that the sustainability of a farm is a natural consequence of the way a farmer sees the world and how his or her farm, family, community, and society fit within the integral whole of the earth. As successful regenerative farmer Gabe Brown puts it, “If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things. If you want to make major changes, change the way you see things.” A sustainable farm must be managed as an integrated system that is made up of smaller component systems and is a component of larger and larger systems up to the earth, the universe, and beyond.

The same is true for any sustainable organism or organization. The ultimate connectedness and interdependence of everything is just easier to see and understand in farming because of its direct connections with the earth, with nature. Like the vast majority of farmers, most people in so-called modern society seem to have experienced the stages of denial and anger, but are stuck in the bargaining stage--unwilling to make the systemic changes necessary for ecological, social, and economic sustainability. As a result, society remains helplessly dependent on an unsustainable economy. Farmers will remain stuck doing things that may make their farms less extractive and exploitative but will be unable to farm sustainably until they change the way they see things. To get beyond bargaining, people must change their worldview—change how they see the world and their place within it.

V.              Typical Worldview of Sustainability

In my previous post, I related the “five stages of grief” to the stages of transition from an unsustainable to sustainable society. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. I wrote that I thought most people had moved through the early stages of denial and anger but now remain stuck in the bargaining stage of transition. They are at least doing some things to address ecological and social problems but haven’t changed the way they see things. Others have fallen into a state of depression, seeing no way to avoid a civilizational collapse. To move beyond bargaining and depression to acceptance, we collectively must change the way we see the world and our place within it. We must change our worldview.

Most of today’s bargainers have grudgingly accepted that natural ecosystems, societies, and economies all must function within the limits or bounds of the natural world—depicted by the environment, life, and earth in graphic above. The graphic represents a typical worldview of someone who is trying to meet the challenges of sustainability without significantly changing the way he or she sees things. With this view of the world, sustainability is seen as a small subset of reality (the small gray area in the graphic) where the economy overlaps with natural ecosystems and society. If something is “equitable, viable, and bearable”—economically, socially, and ecologically—then it is sustainable.

It’s not surprising then that many people, including advocates of “regenerative agriculture,” claim “sustainable agriculture” is not enough. To someone with this worldview, sustainability means barely making ends meet, subsisting, or surviving. It’s easy also to rationalize that our current society and economy are sustainable because most people are at least making ends meet, subsisting, or surviving. Advocates of regenerative agriculture argue, “we need to do better.” I agree. But what we are doing today is not sustainable. It is not good enough to meet the needs of the present or the future. We need to do better.

In the graphic, large parts of the economy are depicted as being separate from social and ecological systems. Large parts of ecological and social systems also are separate from the economy—as well as separate from each other. The only concerns for sustainability in this worldview are where the economy, society, and natural ecosystems have direct impacts on each other. This means large parts of the economy, society, and nature are of little relevance to sustainability. We see this worldview reflected in many of today’s so-called sustainability initiatives.

Ecological economists advocate assigning economic values to the costs of ecological and social extraction and exploitation that are not currently reflected in market values. This would allow markets to determine the “sustainable” use of natural and human resources. For example, “carbon taxes” and “carbon trading” would incentivize reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration by agricultural operations. However, such programs would provide economic incentives for large-scale, industrial farming operations that would still degrade natural ecosystems and weaken the economic foundation and social fabric of rural communities.

In general, economic solutions to environmental problems allow markets to decide who benefits and who pays the costs of specific means of environmental protection. Little consideration is given to the larger economic systems within which markets function, to the societies that create economies, or to the basic integrity of the natural ecosystems that sustain societies and economies.

Advocates of environmental justice focus their efforts on the disproportionate public health and quality of life impacts imposed on those who lack the economic or political power to protect themselves. They may advocate government regulations to protect marginalized rural residents from the air and water pollution inherent to concentrated animal feeding operations and other industrial agricultural operations. However, many are unwilling to advocate for a clean and healthful environment and enough wholesome nutritious food as basic human rights to be ensured regardless of economic costs. Some see capitalist economies as the root cause of environmental injustice, but fail to recognize that dysfunctional economies are a natural consequence of dysfunctional societies.

Environmentalists tend to focus on negative impacts of economic activities on natural ecosystems but treat working or developed lands as if they were separable from wild or undeveloped lands. For example, many environmentalists seem willing to support more intensive cultivation of lands by industrial farming operations, in return for more land being set aside for forests, wetlands, and wilderness for ecological preservation. They fail to recognize that a “sustainable intensive” agriculture would still rely on chemically-dependent, large-scale, specialized farming operations controlled by global agribusiness corporations. They also fail to recognize that agriculture is an integral part of nature and society and that no part of nature is actually separable from the whole of nature.

Efforts to change the way we do things can be important—to the extent that they reduce the rate of ecological and social degradation and depletion. But simply changing the way we do things is not sufficient. To make the big changes that ultimately must be made, we must change the way we see things. The worldview of “authentic sustainability” is a view of a world in which economies are wholly contained within societies, societies are wholly contained within nature, and everything in economies, societies, and nature is integrally connected with everything else. This worldview of “authentic sustainability” will be the subject of my next post.

VI.           The Hierarchy of Authentic Sustainability

I ended my previous post by explaining that the worldview of authentic sustainability reflects an understanding that economies are a part of societies and societies are a part of nature. Economies are created by societies to meet their individual, impersonal needs and do not exist apart from societies that sustain them. Humans are but one species among many that occupy the earth and do not exist apart from or outside of the natural world. This is known as a “nested hierarchy” because the lower levels are components of the higher levels and thus are nested or contained within the higher levels. With the worldview of “authentic sustainability,” as depicted in the graphic, there is no area or subset of economic activities that is isolated or separate from society. There is no area or subset of societal activities that is separate or isolated from nature. The worldview of authentic sustainability is also an interconnected, ecological view of the world. Since society is an integral part of nature, every human activity within society is also an act of nature, and thus has a direct positive or negative impact on nature. Since the economy is an integral part of society and of nature, every economic activity has a direct positive or negative impact on society and nature.

Nested hierarchies have characteristics of particular relevance to questions of sustainability. Perhaps most important, the purpose of lower levels is always determined at and derived from higher levels. Think of the heart as a part of and contained within a human body and the human body as a part of and contained within a human society. The function of a heart is to help keep a person’s body alive and healthy, but the purpose of the heart depends on the purpose of the person. A person functions within the context of society, but the purpose of a person is to make some positive contribution to the purpose of humanity, which is derived from still higher hierarchical levels of the world, the universe, and beyond.

There is no scientific means of proving the existence of purpose, since it is derived from levels beyond the realm of human observation, quantification, of objective evaluation. As a result, many scientists are either skeptical of or outright deny its existence. In the absence of proof, no one is compelled to believe one way or the other. However, as I have explained in previous posts, if there is no purpose for human life on Earth, there is no reason to be concerned about the sustainability of human life on Earth—sustainability is nonsense.

In the hierarchical worldview of authentic sustainability, the purpose of people within societies, societies within nature, and economies within societies exists and are not optional or at the discretion of the individual or society. Instead, purpose is predetermined at higher levels in the hierarchy of sustainability and is not a matter of choice or discretion. The purpose for humanity, societies, economies, and individuals must be discovered, rather than chosen.

Within nested hierarchies, the principles by which lower levels function also are predetermined at higher levels in the hierarchy. The basic laws of nature include the laws of gravity, motion, momentum, and energy. Since societies and economies are subsets of nature, the principles of nature are also functional principles of societies and economies. Some principles or laws of nature are unique to societies and economies. Although less appreciated, the basic principles of human relationships are just as real and inviolable as the laws of physics. For example, if you want to have a friend, you have to be a friend. The most fundamental principles of economics, such as the higher values placed on things that are less abundant or scarce, are basic laws of nature—human nature. The principles of sustainability will be addressed in future posts.

While the purpose and principles of higher levels ultimately must be respected by lower levels, the potentials or possibilities of higher levels are dependent on lower levels. Returning to the previous example, the health and life of a person is dependent on the functioning of the heart and other vital organs within the body. The health and sustainability of any society depends not only on the individual economic well-being of individuals but also the integrity of relationships among the people who make up that society. The health and ecological integrity of nature depends, at least to some extent, on the sustainability of the human societies that occupy the earth. Some people question whether the earth might be better off without humans. However, there is little doubt that the ability of the earth to sustain human life is dependent on the health, well-being, or at least sanity, of human societies.

In my next post, I will explore the worldview of authentic sustainability as it relates to sustainable agriculture. In short, agriculture is a uniquely human activity that is carried out wholly within the context of societies, which function wholly within the realm of nature. Everything that happens on farms and in food systems affects, and is affected by, society and nature. The most fundamental purpose of agriculture is to meet the food needs of society. The potential of agriculture to serve this purpose is dependent, at least in part, on the agri-food economy. Sustainable agriculture must be an economically viable as well as ecologically sound and socially responsible agriculture.

VII.         Worldview of Sustainable Agriculture

The hierarchical worldview of sustainability also characterizes the individual entities or smaller wholes that make up the larger whole of reality. These entities or wholes are more commonly referred to as “systems.” Economic systems exist within social systems, which exist within ecosystems. These same hierarchical relationships exist for the businesses, families, communities, watersheds, bioregions, and larger societal and natural ecosystems that span the entire earth. In other words, the worldview of authentic sustainability is reflected in everything that exists on earth.

These relationships are easier to see and understand in farming than in most other human endeavors because of the direct contact of agriculture with the earth. The three hierarchical realms of sustainable farming are depicted in the graphic. The farm business exists within the context of the farm “family.” The farm business affects and is affected by the families who operate the farms and the natural ecosystems upon which they are ultimately dependent for their productivity. The farm family in this case refers to the individual, nuclear family, or group that contributes to the management and benefits directly from the farming operation. The agroecosystem includes the soil, plants, animals, and all of the micro- and macro-organisms that affect and are affected by the farming operation. A farm is a microcosm of the earth.

Individual farms are component parts of the larger whole agriculture—which also is a microcosm of the earth. Agriculture exists and functions within communities, which affect and are affected by farming operations. Communities exist within larger bioregions, which affect and are affected by the human activities that take place within those communities, including farming. The worldview of sustainable agriculture is depicted in second graphic. Again, agriculture is a microcosm of the earth, as is every other identifiable economic or sociopolitical sector or system that exists and functions within the biosphere of the earth.

Everything that happens on an individual farm happens within agriculture as a whole and affects not only the family, agroecosystem, and community but also the community, bioregion, and everything else in the larger economy, society, and whole of nature. Some of the impacts are insignificant and relatively unimportant. Others are critical to the economic, social, and ecological sustainability of human life on Earth. Farmers must always be aware of the potential unintended consequences of their decisions.

Sustainable farmers must recognize and respect the interconnectedness of everything affecting their farms—the soil, plants, animals, farmer, family, community, society, and economy. Healthy soils contain at least 17 different nutrients that are essential for plant growth. The relative quantities or ratios of these nutrients affect their availability to plants to sustain their health and growth. A single teaspoon of soil is estimated to contain more bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, mites, nematodes, earthworms, ants, insects, and other living organisms than the number of humans in the world. The relative populations of these different organisms affect the availability of soil nutrients to plants and thus affect plant growth and development. Similar complexity and interconnectivity exist in sustaining the health and productivity of farm animals.

Sustainable farm management is not about specializing, standardizing, mechanizing, and scaling-up to maximize productivity and economic efficiency. The sustainability of a farm depends on effectively integrating a diversity of plant and animal systems to create farming systems that accommodate the preferences of farmers and farm families, as well as meet the societal and economic needs of the communities and societies within which, and for which, farms ultimately function. A sustainable farm must be managed holistically, as an integrated system rather than a collection of specialized components and functions.

The management decisions of a sustainable farming operation must be guided by the multiple economic, social, and ecological purposes and principles of agriculture. The most fundamental purpose of farming is to meet the food needs of society, but sustainable farms must also meet the economic and social needs of farm families, communities, and societies and accommodate the ecological needs of nature—of the earth. The principles by which sustainable farms must function reflect an understanding of and respect for the principles of nature reflected in water cycles, nutrient cycles, energy flows, biological regeneration, and ecological succession.

The acceptability of farms to the communities and societies they sustain, and are sustained by, depends on honoring the principles of the basic human relationships, including honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion and respect. The economic sustainability of farms depends on meeting the needs and preferences of their customers, as reflected in the economic value of agricultural products.

These same basic hierarchical and ecological relationships exist for all other economic and social enterprises. The health and well-being of individuals and societies ultimately depends on respecting these inviolable principles of how the world works and where we humans fit within it. We are not forced to respect the principles or laws of nature or to recognize our interdependence with nature and each other. However, we cannot avoid the ultimate consequences of our indifference or ignorance. As the late Robert Rodale used to say: In the game of life, “nature bats last.”

VIII.      Managing Sustainable Organizations

Industrial organizations are managed to maximize productivity and profits—through specialization and standardization—which facilitate routinization, mechanization, digitization, and consolidation of control to achieve economies of scale. Specialization and standardization also lead to homogenization and loss of diversity both within and among industrially managed organizations—including individual businesses, corporations, communities, and even nations. Economic sovereignty is sacrificed for the sake of more efficient resource extraction and exploitation. Individuals, organizations, communities, and nations lose their ability to sustain their distinctiveness and their unique usefulness. Any one person, organization, community, or nation becomes interchangeable with others. When the usefulness of one has been depleted, it is abandoned and replaced with another—in a never-ending quest for productivity and economic growth.

Sustainable organizations are managed to maintain ecological, social, and economic integrity rather than maximum productivity or profitability—through diversification, individualization, and decentralization of control. Productivity is sustained through mutually beneficial relationships among the diverse components of sustainable organizations. Economic sovereignty is protected in order to maintain diversity and individuality both among and within organizations. Sustainable organizations—businesses, corporations, communities, nations—maintain their distinctive usefulness to society and humanity.

Decision-making in sustainable organizations is not consolidated but is dispersed among smaller organizations and is delegated within organizations to those in the best positions to make personally informed decisions. Organizational structures evolve to accommodate changes in organizational leadership and membership and the ever-changing ecological, social, and economic environment in which organizations function. The sustainability of an organization depends on sustaining healthy, productive relationships among its purpose, people, and place.

During the industrial era of economic development, people have been encouraged to accept free markets, open borders, and homogenization of global society as signs of progress. However, all healthy living systems are defined by selective boundaries and mutually beneficial relationships among the diverse elements and organisms of which living systems are composed. The cells that make up living organisms are delineated by semipermeable membranes or boundaries that allow some things in but keep others out, and allow some things out but keep others in. Living organisms, which are composed of living cells, also have semipermeable boundaries. If these boundaries were either permeable or impermeable—if they either kept everything in and out, or let everything in and out—the organisms would die. For example, we humans are selective in what we inhale and exhale and eat and excrete. Otherwise, we would die of starvation or poisoning.

The sustainability of an individual cell, organism, or community of organisms depends on its unique ability to contribute to and benefit from the diversity of the organism, community, and ecosystem of which it is a part. This conclusion is derived from the physical law of entropy, as explained in a previous post on the laws of nature. A state of entropy, or uselessness, is characterized by a lack of form, structure, hierarchy, or differentiation. When a living cell or organism loses its ability to choose what it keeps and lets in and what it keeps and lets out, it loses its ability to maintain its uniqueness or differentness--and its usefulness. Whenever a business, corporation, community, or nation loses its unique form, structure, hierarchy, and differentiation, it becomes useless and is no longer sustainable.

The sustainability of a community, like the life of a living organism, depends on the selectivity of its boundaries. Sustainable communities have characteristics that make them unique or set them apart from other communities. These distinctive characteristics reflect the past experiences of community members in their attempts to preserve and promote their safety, health, and overall well-being. A community’s ability to thrive and contribute to and benefit from society depends on its uniqueness. If a community loses its ability to choose what it lets in and out, it will lose its ability to protect and support the health and well-being of its members and its unique ability to contribute to the larger society of which it is a part.

The same is true for the economies. Sustainable local and national economies must keep some things out, but allow other things in, and allow some things to leave, but keep other things in. If an economy doesn’t impose these restraints on itself, they must be imposed on the economy by the larger society of which it is a part. If a national economy loses its economic sovereignty or freedom to choose, its society is left vulnerable to economic exploitation from the outside or economic atrophy from within. The same is true of local communities that sacrifice their economic sovereignty for the sake of “economic development.” Without economic sovereignty, the resulting depletion and pollution of natural and human resources will degrade and ultimately destroy the usefulness of any community or nation to society and humanity.

Consequently, managers of sustainable organizations must maintain selective boundaries that allow them to choose what they let in and keep in and what they let out and keep out—regardless of whether they manage a household, business, for-profit or nonprofit corporation, community, economy, or nation. Organizational management then is a matter of arranging the diverse components essential for sustainability, across space and over time, in ways that carry out the essential economic, social, and ecological functions of sustainable organizations. Management of a sustainable organization is a matter of maintaining harmonious, productive relationships among the purpose of the organization, the people who support it and are supported by it, and the economic, social, and ecological place in which it functions.

IX.           Sustainable Farm Management

The basic principles of managing sustainable organizations are perhaps most clearly apparent in farm management. The selective boundaries of a farming operation are determined by the span of management control or influence over the various living and nonliving components of the farming systems. This means the sustainable farm manager must have the ability to select what is allowed or brought under or kept out of the span of his or her control. The farm manager also must be selective in what leaves the farming operation and what instead is used internally to sustain the farming system.

These decisions include whether to purchase commercial fertilizers and pesticides, or instead, to manage the farming operation to regenerate soil fertility and manage pests. Whether to purchase machinery or new technology or rely on skilled labor and systems management strategies. Which products are sold and which become inputs for other enterprises. Which people to hire, buy from, borrow from, and sell to, and which people to seek and cultivate as collaborators and customers.


As explained in a previous post, the sustainability of a farm depends on effectively integrating a diversity of plant and animal systems to create farming systems that accommodate the preferences of farmers and their families, as well as meet societal and economic needs of the communities and societies within which and for which they function.  Also, the sustainable farm must be managed holistically, as an integrated system rather than a collection of specialized components and functions. Holistic Management, a decision-making process developed by Alan Savory, provides the most clearly-defined process for sustainable farm or ranch management that I have seen. The chart above provides an outline of the Holistic Management framework (From:

The management process begins by defining the “Whole Under Management,” or span of management control. The purpose of the particular farming operation is defined by a holistic, three-part quality of life, production, and resource goal—consistent with the social, economic, and ecological dimensions of sustainability. The basic principles or laws of nature that govern sustainable systems are reflected in ecosystem processes of community dynamics, water cycles, mineral cycles, and energy flow. These principles must be respected in all farm management decisions.

The management process then moves to various tools for planning and managing the farm’s agroecosystem and guidelines for managing the social and economic functions of the whole-farm system. Next comes specific guidelines for managing the spatial and temporal arrangement of the diverse components of the sustainable farming system. Spatial arrangements of enterprises are changed or rotated over time so that each enterprise benefits from and provides benefits to whatever preceded and follows it in the systematic rotation. Crop rotations, intercropping, cover crops, rotational grazing, and multispecies gazing, are all examples of spatial and temporal relationships that can be managed for agricultural sustainability.

Ecological, social, and economic diversity is probably a farm’s most reliable single indicator of sustainability. Spatial and sequential diversity allows outputs and wastes from some enterprises to become inputs for others; the production, market, and financial risks of some enterprises to offset the risks of others; the spatial and seasonal needs for labor and management to be matched with available labor and management skills, the variety of products produced to respond to changing customer preferences, markets, and climatic conditions; and evolving personal and family values and priorities to be expressed through the farming operation.

The testing guidelines of Holistic Management ensure that management decisions are consistent with the holistic social/economic/ecological goal of the farming operation. The final process is one of continual monitoring, controlling, and revising the farm plan to ensure that the farm continues to evolve and move toward its holistic goal.

Those interested in learning more about Holistic Management may take advantage of an online offer of a “Free Agriculture E-Book—Holistic Management” at: . Most people I know who have used Holistic Management, started by learning the holistic decision-making process and adjusted it over time to fit their particular farm and farm family.

Permaculture is another holistic design-based decision-making process used for manage sustainable organizations: Permaculture includes a variety of production practices and methodologies but the holistic approach is a constant theme. The ethics of permaculture include earth care, people care, and resource share. Several other approaches include most, if not all, of the essential elements of sustainable farm management. Farmers should choose a holistic decision-making process that best fits them and their farming operations.

The sustainability of a farming operation depends the ability of the manager to choose what comes into and remains within the farm’s span of control and the ability to maintain mutually beneficial ecological, social, and economic relationships, across space and over time, among the diverse enterprises, individuals, and functional components of the farming system as a whole. The same is true for managing any organization. Everything of use to humanity ultimately comes from nature by way of society. Even human energy, imagination, and ingenuity are products of nature and society. The requisites for sustainable management are just more obvious in farming.

X.              Systems Within Systems

Distinctions among levels are based on distinctive characteristics of the particular levels. Economies obviously reflect some of the characteristics of the societies that create them, but there are important characteristics of societies that are non-economic. Some characteristics of human societies may be shared by other species, but human societies have some characteristics that are unique to humans. The realm of nature in the graphic includes those parts of nature that are not human and thus not economic.

The worldview of sustainability is systemic—meaning a world composed of systems within systems. Each hierarchical level in the graphic represents a system that is made up of lower-level systems and is a subsystem of higher-level systems. Economies are subsystems of society and societies are subsystems of nature–meaning the earth’s ecosystem. The earth, in turn, is a subsystem of its galaxy.

The hierarchy continues on to higher levels, to the universe, and whatever is beyond. The hierarchy continues downward to the cells, chemical elements, atoms, and the even smaller entities that make up atoms. With this worldview, the whole of reality, whatever that may be, is a system composed of systems. That said, the Economy, Society, and Nature provide sufficient levels of reality to illustrate the hierarchy of sustainability.

The graphic also shows subsystems within the earth’s natural ecosystem, social systems, and economic systems. These subsystems are not hierarchical, since one is not a subset of another. However, they progress from more personal to less personal as they expand outward. Economic relationships expand from the personal relationships in household economies to informal economies and finally to impersonal transactional economies. Social relationships expand from personal-to-person friendships to the less personal relationships in civil society and finally in government. The relationships in nature expand from personal experiences within nature, to the less personal place-based experiences within watersheds and bioregions, to metaphysical or spiritual realizations that humanity is an integral part of nature with unique privileges and responsibilities. All of these systems exist and function within larger economies, societies, and natural ecosystems.

In so-called developed societies, the term economy is commonly restricted to use in reference to the transaction economy, where people meet their economic needs through impersonal transactions—earning, investing, buying, and selling. However even in developed economies, many people meet many of their needs by doing things for themselves or through bartering or informally “swapping work” with friends or neighbors. In less developed economies, many people meet most of their economic needs through household and informal economies. All of these relationships are part of the economy in the worldview of sustainability.

We typically think of society as communities, towns, and cities, or perhaps as states, nations, or global society. However, societies also include relationships within families and among friends, colleagues, or acquaintances where there is a person-to-person sense of connectedness. Society also includes relationships in community groups, nonprofit organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, professional organizations, and professional associations. In civil society there is a sense of personal connection with a specific group of people—but not necessarily with specific individuals within the group. Many people feel little if any sense of personal connectedness with their governments. However, government is a critical part of human societies because the effectiveness of governments depends on the governed, the people, having a sense of personal connectedness to their city, county, state, or nation. Citizenship and patriotism are reflections of a sense of social connectedness.

We all have personal experiences with nature because we live in nature’s environment. The air, rainfall, temperature, humidity, the sky above, and the earth below are all parts of nature. The popularity of parks and other places where people experience nature reflects a felt need to reconnect personally with nature. Everyone lives in a watershed and bioregion which are nature’s way of defining ecological subsystems within the ecosystem of the earth. With the realization that we live within nature's subsystems, we gain a sense of connectedness with those things of nature beyond our direct experience. And finally, comes the insightful, intuitive, or spiritual realization that we humans are integrally connected with the whole of the earth.

In previous posts, I have referred to economic “value” as being impersonal and social “value” as being personal. This means that relationships within household economies have social as well as economic value. The economic value refers only to the benefits of relationships within households that could be realized by hiring someone to provide the benefit. Economic benefits are never linked to specific people but can be acquired through impersonal transactions. The purely personal benefits of relationships within households have social value but no economic value.

The same basic logic applies to all three realms of reality in the graphic. There may be economic or ethical values associated with person-to-person, civil society, and governmental relationships within Society. However, only the impersonal aspects of those relationships have economic value, and only the purely altruistic aspects have ethical value. A person may benefit economically or socially as a result of personal experiences in nature, protection of watersheds, or an understanding of their interconnectedness with nature. However, the purely ethical or spiritual value of our relationships with nature are non-instrumental or altruistic and are universal rather than personal.

All of these relationships are relevant to our day-to-day decisions. In today’s complex societies, we don’t have a choice of relying solely on personal relationships to meet our individual, social, and ethical or spiritual needs. We must come to realize that economies and governments are simply less-personal means of doing the things that we cannot do for ourselves in complex societies. We must find ways, collectively, to make our economy and government function in ways that reflect our uniquely human responsibilities as both members and caretakers of the earth’s natural ecosystems.

XI.           Hierarchy of Sustainable Values

In a previous post I explained the basic differences among economic, social, and ethical values. Economic values meet individual, material needs that can be met through impersonal transactions. Social values meet our needs to relate to others personally—to care and be cared for, to love and be loved. Ethical values meet our basic human needs to feel that our lives matter—that we are contributing to the greater good of society, humanity, the earth, the universe. Economies contribute to the greater good by contributing to our collective well-being as individuals. Societies contribute to the greater good by contributing to the common well-being through friendships, families, communities. Individual and societal ethics give purpose and meaning to economies and societies.

However, there is no economic or social value in doing anything for the sole or exclusive benefit of someone else, and certainly not for the benefit of some distant generation. Nothing of social or ethical value can be expected or will be received in return. Ethical values reward us for fulfilling our responsibilities to care for others, and to care for the earth, even when we know we will receive nothing of economic or social value in return.

In a 2016 column in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Sustainability, I proposed an ethic of sustainability. A thing is right when it tends to enhance the quality and integrity of the whole of life on earth, by honoring our uniquely human rewards and responsibilities as both members and caretakers of the earth's integral community. A thing is wrong when it tends otherwise. In the absence of an ethic of sustainability there would be nothing to guide our economy or society toward sustainability. Without an ethic of sustainability, there would be no incentive to do anything for the benefit of others, including those of future generations, unless there was an expectation of receiving something of greater economic or social value in return.

As in the hierarchy of authentic sustainability, a natural hierarchy exists among sustainable ethical, social, and economic values. Ethical values must be given priority over social values and social values priority over economic values. Economies and societies that are unrestrained by an ethic of sustainability eventually exploit every opportunity to benefit from economic and social relationships. Many opportunities exist to “do well” individually and socially by “doing good” for society and humanity. However, many other activities that generate economic and social value degrade the integrity and productivity of the natural and societal resources upon which sustainability ultimately depends.

The hierarchical concept of governance is exemplified by the structure of constitutional democracies. Constitutions typically state the basic purpose for forming a nation and reflect the ethical principles by which it is to be governed. For example, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States begins: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.” The basic principles of governance are spelled out in the structural separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government and in the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments that have been added since its initial ratification.

All federal and state laws must be “constitutional”—meaning they must conform to the purpose and principles encoded in the Constitution. Laws may vary from state to state, even municipality to municipality, as long as they do not violate federal or state constitutions. Any laws deemed unconstitutional by state or federal supreme courts are nullified. The economy must function within the bounds of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments. The perpetrators of economic arrangements, agreements, or transactions that violate these laws are subject to prosecution and assessment of appropriate fines or other forms of punishment.

However, simply encoding ethical hierarchies into the structure of governments does not ensure that the hierarchy will be respected by those who govern. We see the inevitable consequences of failures to respect this hierarchy of values in today’s so-called developed nations—including constitutional democracies. In the U.S., we have turned the hierarchy of sustainability upside-down. Liberty is secured only for those who can afford to pay the high economic costs of justice. The general welfare is promoted only when it doesn’t compromise economic growth. The current extraction and exploitation of natural resources ignore the promise to secure the blessings of liberty for future generations.

Corporations have been granted the rights of “personhood” and are allowed to use their economic power to influence elections as well as craft legislation. As a result, governments promote, rather than restrain, the unsustainable economic extraction and exploitation of nature and society. Taxes paid by the middle class are diverted to benefit the rich rather than ensure the constitutional rights of the poor. The only government programs seriously considered to address existential ecological and societal threats—such as climate change, species extinction, political injustice, and economic inequities—are those promising good-paying jobs and opportunities for profits and returns on corporate investments.

Equally important, the governing structures of most constitutional democracies do not reflect the hierarchy of sustainable values depicted in the graphic above. The ethic of sustainability respects the fundamental laws of nature—including human nature. No matter how the ethic is worded, sustainability depends on us humans accepting our responsibilities as both members and caretakers of the other living and nonliving things of the earth, including our fellow humans. If we fail to do so, human life on Earth will not be sustainable. The ethic of sustainability is not negotiable, and thus, must be given priority over our social and economic preferences.

Human societies are subsystems of natural ecosystems and must accommodate the inherent diversity of sustainable natural ecosystems. However, societies can accommodate the ethical values of sustainability without compromising their diversity. Economic values also must accommodate the ethical and social values of sustainable societies.

Economies that are not allowed to extract and exploit will naturally transition to regeneration, resilience, and resourcefulness to maintain their productivity. There will be no economic disadvantage for sustainable businesses because their competitors will function under the same laws and regulations. In sustainable societies, economic relationships will create social and ethical values, as well as economic values, and social relationships will nurture and strengthen the ethical values of sustainability.

We are physical beings, and we need impersonal, economic relationships to meet even the basic necessities of life in today’s complex societies. We are also social beings and we need the sense of affinity and belonging that friendships, families, communities, and societies provide. And, we are ethical beings and we need a sense of purpose to guide our economic and social relationships and to give meaning to our lives. Ultimately, our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the whole of the earth. The hierarchy of sustainable values is the hierarchy of our uniquely human rewards as well as responsibilities.

XII.         Ecological Principles of Sustainability


Sustainable economies must be guided by the fundamental principles or laws of nature. Since economies are subsets of societies and societies are subsets of nature, the principles by which economies and societies function are subsets of the laws of nature. Human nature is but one aspect of nature as a whole. Economies reflect the individual aspect of human nature and societies reflect the relational or communal aspect of human nature.

We tend to think of the principles of nature as physical laws, such as the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics. These principles apply to the physical functions of societies and economies—regardless of whether they are acknowledged or respected. Additional principles of nature relate specifically to societies and economies. These social and economic principles are just as real and inviolable as the basic laws of physics—just less appreciated and respected. The essential principles of sustainability may be more readily understood if they are addressed individually as ecological principles, social principles, or economic principles. However, the same basic principles permeate and apply to economies, societies, and natural ecosystems.

Sustainable natural ecosystems are diverse, individualistic, and interdependent. This certainly is not an exhaustive list, but these three principles are critical to sustainability and are easy to explain. As I have explained previously, sustainable ecosystems must be resilient, regenerative, and resourceful. For example, diversity among the various species within healthy natural ecosystems give ecosystems an ability to withstand and recover from adversity and to adjust to long-term changes in their environments. The wastes from each species becomes food for others, and each species performs specific functions in the cycling of water and minerals, flow of energy, and the successional processes of renewal and regeneration. Nature is also diverse with respect to geography, topography, climate, and other physical characteristics of specific places. Thus, sustainable natural ecosystems are site-specific and evolve to accommodate changes in their unique biophysical niches within nature.

These same basic principles characterize sustainable societies and economies. Societies that value racial, gender, and ethnic diversity are able to withstand shocks and adversity and accommodate changes in their physical, political, and economic environments. Societies that value diversity are also more peaceful and pleasant places to live than those characterized by discrimination and exploitation. Diverse societies are also more creative, innovative, and dynamic. Relationships among the diverse individuals in sustainable societies are complementary, collaborative, and cooperative. Each member of society has a innate, unique ability to contribute to the common good of society and humanity. In sustainable societies, individuals are afforded the opportunity and given the responsibility to develop and use this capability. A sustainable global society depends on mutually beneficial relationships among a diversity of societies that have evolved to fit their specific geographic and cultural niches.

Sustainable economies must also be diverse, individualistic, and interdependent. Economically diverse business organizations are better able to cope with the volatility of market economies and adjust to changes in their long-term economic environments. Diverse national economies are better able to survive and thrive during times of turbulence in the global economy. Diverse economies are also more innovative, creative, and dynamic. Sustainable economies must also accommodate the unique natural and human resources of the specific places where they function and serve the needs of the unique societies for which they function. Sustainable national economies must maintain interdependent or mutually-beneficial relationships with other national economies. Economic dependency invariably leads to economic extraction and exploitation. A sustainable global economy requires mutually beneficial relationships among a diversity of sovereign national economies.

Today’s dominant societies and economies are not sustainable because they are not guided by the ecological principles essential for sustainability. Rather than valuing diversity, they are characterized by racial, gender, and ethnic discrimination, domination, and exploitation. Economic and political power is concentrated among a few incredibly wealthy individuals and far wealthier multinational corporations. Individuals are neither afforded the opportunity nor given the responsibility of developing their unique capabilities to contribute to the greater good of society and humanity. Economically and politically powerful societies impose their economic systems and ways of life on weaker societies. Global natural and human resources are homogenized in the pursuit of perpetual economic growth and concentration of wealth.

The principles guiding the dominant societies and economies today are specialization, homogenization, and exploitation—rather than diversity, individuality, and interdependence. Sustainability is not only a matter of rethinking the purpose of societies and economies, it is also a matter of rethinking the principles by which societies and economies must function. Sustainability is about being guided by the basic principles of nature as we strive to help meet the needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for the future.

The only power great enough to wrest political and economic power from the super-wealthy individuals and multinational corporations is the power of the people. While we individually cannot change our societies, economies, or even our communities, we can strive to develop our capabilities and to fulfill our responsibilities in our individual spheres of influence or little pieces of the world. We can value diversity, respect the need for individuality, and strive to develop mutually beneficial relationships with each other and with the other living and nonliving things of the earth.

As we develop relationships with other like-minded people, we begin to develop sustainable communities, and as we change communities, we begin to develop sustainable societies, as we change societies, we move toward the sustainability of humanity. That’s the way change happens—always has and always will. One person, one community, one society, at a time.


XIII.      Social Principles of Sustainability

We humans are social beings and we need social relationships within families, friendships, and communities to meet our mental and emotional needs. We need to care and be cared for, love and be loved. However, most sustainability initiatives, in both private and public sectors, focus on the economic and ecological dimensions of sustainability. Only cursory attention or lip-service is paid to social equity and justice. We are also moral and ethical beings and need a sense of rightness and goodness in our relationships. Economic well-being is important, but psychological research confirms that beyond some basic level of income, human happiness depends far more on social relationships and sense of purpose than additional income or wealth. The ethical, social, and economic values essential for sustainability are the essential values of human happiness.


Positive social relationships are also critical to the sustainability of societies. A society that fails to ensure social equity and justice is not sustainable, no matter how ecologically sound or economically viable it might otherwise be. People who are hungry and cold will seek food, clothing, and shelter wherever and however they can find it, with little regard for ecological or societal consequences. People who are denied an opportunity to develop their capabilities will be too preoccupied with survival to be concerned with the well-being of society or the future of humanity. The negative ecological and social consequences of persistent poverty and hunger have been documented throughout human history, wherever and whenever people have been denied social equity and justice. Regardless, the pursuit of individual economic well-being among those with plenty is routinely given priority over any sense of social responsibility for those who are poor and hungry.


Social principles are different from social values. Different cultures have different social values that are unique to their societies. However, social principles are basic characteristics of simply being human–-laws of human nature. Social values of different cultures that do not conflict with social principles add diversity and sustainability to the larger community of humanity. Values that conflict with principles diminish the sustainability of societies. We can never be certain that we have correctly identified and defined the principles of human nature essential for sustainability. Regardless, the future of humanity may well depend on getting the principles right—as well as the purpose and priorities right.


During the early 1990s, the Institute for Global Ethics conducted surveys, individual interviews, and focus groups related to social values of people in various parts of the world with different cultures, religions, incomes, education levels, ages, and other socioeconomic characteristics. This work is referenced in a book titled, Moral Courage. As would be expected, the researchers found a wide range of social values that were considered to be important among the different groups. However, five core values related to social relationships were shared among virtually all of the individuals and groups included in the study. I suggest, these five core-values actually represent principles or laws on human nature that exist in all societies.


These five core values were honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect. Core values such as freedom and independence relate to individuals rather than relationships. Can anyone possibly sustain, or even want to sustain, personal relationships with others who are dishonest, unfair, irresponsible, uncaring, and disrespectful? These five values can be reduced to two core principles: trust and kindness. Trusting relationships must be based on honesty, fairness, and responsibility. We must be trustworthy and willing to trust if we are to sustain personal relationships. Caring relationships must be empathetic compassionate, and respectful. We are fallible human beings and sometimes need mercy rather than justice. Relationships can only survive if there is a mutual commitment to be trustworthy and kind, even when reciprocity is more a hope than certainty. Thus, a third principle needed to sustain relationships is commitment. This is not an exhaustive list of social principles, but is sufficient for this discussion.


Equally important for sustainability, ethical values evolve out of social values. Ethical values differ from social values in that social values are personal and reciprocal while ethical values are universal and altruistic. Over time, however, we learn that what’s right for people we know personally is also right for those who we don’t know and will never know—for everyone, present and future. We learn we should treat others the way we would like to be treated if we were them, even when we know we will receive nothing from them in return. We are not slaves to the ethical values we may have been taught, but we are guided by the ethical values we have learned.


In sustainable societies, these same core principles—trust, kindness, and commitment—must characterize economic relationships. Economic transactions are impersonal, but buyers must still be able to trust that sellers will be honest, fair, and responsible in their business relationships. Sellers likewise must be able to trust buyers to pay agreed upon prices and honor their long-term contracts. Sustainable economic relationships also depend on commitments to the principle of kindness. Inevitably, there will be times of conflict between maximizing short-run economic interests and sustaining long-term economic relationships. While some sustainable economic relationships do exist; trust, kindness, and commitment are not common characteristics of today’s economic organizations or economies.


Finally, the principles of trust, kindness, and commitment must also characterize relationships between humans and the other living beings and non-living elements that make up the whole of nature. We humans are a part of nature, with attendant rewards and responsibilities associated with our relationships with nature. We must trust that the resources of nature will be capable of meeting our basic human needs if we are responsible, respectful, and compassionate in our relationships with nature. Sustainability ultimately requires a commitment to care for nature as we would have nature care for us—our happiness and the future of humanity depends on it.


XIV.      Economic Principles of Sustainability


Everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect and accepted for who they are. This is a fundamental law of nature, specifically, human nature. We need positive relationships with other people, and with nature, but we also have individual needs that must be met if we are to have a desirable quality of life. This is what economics is about: meeting our needs and wants as individuals.

The fundamental flaw of socialism is that it fails to respect the needs of individuals for liberty as well as justice. The fundamental flaw of unrestrained capitalism is that it fails to respect the need for social justice as well as individual liberty. Sustainable societies must continually strive to ensure both liberty and justice for all. There is no liberty without justice, and there is no justice without liberty.

Economic principles are not simply something thought up by economists. The most basic principles of economics are as real and inviolable as the other laws of nature. The concepts taught in economics principles courses are mostly economic assumptions and analytical methods that support particular economic theories or schools of thought. However, three of the concepts taught in most basic economics classes are core principles that characterize all economies: scarcity, efficiency, and sovereignty.

Economics deals with the efficient allocation or use of scarce goods and services to satisfy individual needs and wants. The first principle of economics is scarcity—meaning there is not enough of some goods and services to meet both the needs and wants of everyone. The principle of economic efficiency is the natural desire of individuals to gain as much satisfaction as they can from the goods and services available to them. The third principle is sovereignty, meaning the liberty or freedom of individuals to make independent choices.

Economic value is determined by scarcity. A lot of important things in life are abundant and thus are freely available to all. Economics, however, is about how individuals make the most efficient use of things that are scarce rather than abundant. Once a person’s basic needs are met, additional goods and services are about wants rather than needs. If something becomes more abundant or less scarce, it will diminish in economic value because more people will have all they need.

The principle of scarcity also applies to the ability of producers to provide things that meet the needs or wants of consumers. As producers attempt to produce more from a given natural or human resource—an acre of land or an hour of labor—at some point their ability to produce more will diminish, meaning the resource cost of additional production will increase.

To make economically efficient choices, individuals must not only be free to choose but also have accurate information regarding the benefits they are likely to receive from the alternatives available to them. They must also be able to choose without outside persuasion, coercion, threats of force from others. From the alternatives available to them, sovereign consumers will then choose an assortment of goods and services that most efficiently meets their individual needs and wants.

Sovereignty and efficiency not only apply to consumers’ choices but also to allocation of the scarce natural and human resources used to produce goods and services for consumers. From the alternatives available, sovereign producers will choose to use assortments of productive resources that best suit their abilities to produce things of greatest value to consumers.

The efficient allocation of scarce resources means choosing assortments of goods and services that will maximize the benefits of consumers relative to the natural and human resources used to produce them. Sustainable economies must make efficient use of nature's limited resources not only to meet the individual needs of people of the present but also leave equal or better opportunities for those of the future.

As with the ecological and social principles of sustainability, the core principles of economics also apply to social and ecological relationships. Social value, like economic value, is determined by scarcity. If a person has no friends, a new friendship may greatly improve their quality of life. No two friendships are of equal social value. However, as a person gains more friends, beyond some point, each new friendship tends to add less to their quality of life.

In addition, each new friendship requires additional time and energy. People naturally invest their limited time and energy in personal relationships that are expected to result in the greatest social value. Sustainable social relationships are also relationships of choice rather than necessity. Dependent relationships invariably degenerate into exploitation and oppression. These same principles are valid for all types of personal relationships—within families, social groups, communities, societies—the relationships just become less personal.

Finally, the principles of economics also apply to our relationships with nature. As natural resources become less abundant, they become more valuable—not only in economic value but also in ecological value. However, most things of nature become ecologically valuable long before they become economically valuable. Sustainable relationships with nature must be ecologically efficient, rather than economically efficient.

People have a basic human need to connect with nature, as individuals. People need to be free to choose when and how they relate to nature. Some may spend days or weeks in wild places, others just hike, walk, or camp in the woods or by a lake or stream, and others just visit parks or green spaces from time to time. Some choose to spend their lives protecting the things of nature.

The principles of economics are equally valid for social and ecological relationships. However, choices must be based on social and ecological values rather than economic values.

XV.         How Should We Then Live How Should We Then Live?


First, I am not actually trying to tell anyone how they should live their lives. I think each of us should first decide how we think the world works and where we fit within it. Only then can we decide how best to live our lives. Since no one really knows for sure how the world works and where we humans fit within the whole of it, we each must decide for ourselves.

Many people seem to just live day to day, trying to enjoy life, with little thought to where they fit in the world or what they should do. They apparently don’t believe what they do, or don’t do, matters much to anyone other than themselves—and maybe a few friends and relatives. Others seem very mission-oriented and driven to excel in whatever ventures they choose to do. They believe if they work smart enough, hard enough, and long enough they can make their own place in the world and do whatever they want to do. Regardless of their lifestyles, most people in the U.S. today seem to accept making money and accumulating wealth as measures of personal and professional success.

Over the past several months, I have posted a series of blog pieces outlining one specific vision of the world that I believe is essential for long-run ecological, social, and economic sustainability. Others may disagree. First, I believe we humans, individually and collectively, have a specific place in the world and a specific purpose to fulfill. I believe also that we must fulfill our purpose in collaborative relationships with the other living and nonliving things of the earth. The worldview of sustainability defines specific ways we should live, if we are to do part to sustain life, including human life, on earth. My purpose in this post is to summarize the reasons for these conclusions outlined in my previous 15 posts: “The Essentials of Economic Sustainability.”

First, the worldview of sustainability sees the world as a complex living organism, rather than a complicated inanimate mechanism. We humans are a part of this living earth, rather than separate or apart from an inert earth. We are but one living species among many. The earth is not a boundless source of natural and human resources that we can extract and exploit endlessly. The earth’s resources instead are finite and limited—but are enough to sustain a desirable quality of human life on earth if they are used wisely.

Everything that is of any use to us, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from the earth—energy, air, water, soil, minerals, plants, animals, and other micro- and macro-organisms. Beyond meeting our needs directly from nature, beyond self-sufficiency, we must meet our needs through social and economic relationships with other people—within families, friendships, communities, societies, and economies. Economies are simply means of meeting our needs through impersonal transactions rather than through personal relationships.

All the living things on earth are living systems—living organs, organisms, or organizations—made up of smaller living systems. The earth is a subsystem of the universe and humans are a subsystem of the earth. Humanity is made up of societies, communities, families, and individuals. Individuals are made up of organs, macro-organisms, and microorganisms. Everything within and among these living systems is interconnected with everything else. The whole of life on earth is interconnected and interdependent. Some of these connections are weak and insignificant but others are strong and critical.

The purpose of each component of a living system is derived from the purpose of the larger systems of which it is a part. The purpose of the organs of the human body—the heart, lungs, stomach, and kidneys—is to maintain the health and life of the body as a whole. The purpose of the individual is to help maintain the health and life of the families, communities, and societies of which he or she is a part. The purpose of the earth is derived from the purpose of the universe and the universe from whatever is beyond. The ability or potential of each person, community, and society to fulfill its purpose is dependent on the support it receives from the organs, organisms, and organizations of which it is composed.

Economies, societies, and cultures are organizations created by people to help them fulfill their purpose—individually and collectively. Humans, like other species, are inherently social beings. People create societies not only for mutual protection but also to meet specific needs that they cannot meet by themselves. People also need to care and be cared for and to love and be loved—regardless of whether they receive any tangible or material benefits in return. As suggested previously, societies create economies to meet needs that can be met through market transactions, rather than having to rely on personal relationships. Economies were never intended to provide a measure of inherent worth or serve as a proxy for purpose.

Over generations, societies develop ethical values that reflect how they collectively have concluded people should relate to each other and to the other living and nonliving things of the earth. Ethical values define what is considered right or wrong and good or bad in specific cultures. Individuals may or may not agree with the ethical values of the societies in which they live. Regardless, individual ethical and moral values reflect how people believe the world works and their place within it, and thus how they should live their lives. People may or may not be consciously aware of their individual worldview.

However, if life on earth is to be sustainable, the ethical and moral values of individuals, societies, and ultimately humanity ultimately must conform to the basic laws of nature—including human nature. People must respect the physical laws of nature, such as the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics. The natural laws or principles that guide sustainable natural ecosystems include diversity, individuality, and interdependence. The principles of healthy societies are laws of human nature, including trust, kindness, and commitment. The basic principles of economics, including scarcity, efficiency, and sovereignty reflect the nature of people as independent, self-interested individuals. We are not forced by nature to respect these principles, but neither we nor humanity cannot avoid the ultimate consequences of our failing to do so.

Perhaps the most important principles for sustainable living are faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove that there is a purpose for life on earth, including human life. We must accept it by faith. We also must accept by faith that life on earth, including human life, is meant to be good. Otherwise, there would be no logical reason for concern about sustaining life. Love is a belief in the inherent goodness of the object of affection. To love life is to act on the belief that life on earth is inherently good, including human life. Hope is a belief that something good is possible—that it is possible to realize the potential goodness of life on earth. How should we then live? We should then live in ways that reflect our love for ourselves, for others, for society, humanity, the earth, the universe, and beyond. In faith and love, there is always hope.


John Ikerd