Stages of Change to Sustainability
Updated: May 19
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.
This will be the subject of my next blog post.