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.


John Ikerd