• John Ikerd

The Essentials of Economic Sustainability

Updated: Aug 31

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 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, from nature. Without sunshine, air, water, soil, micro- and macro-organisms, plants, and animals, no plant, animal, or other living thing 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, 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 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.

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 sustainable.

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 dissention 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.


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 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 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.

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.

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.

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 act 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 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 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.

John Ikerd

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