• John Ikerd

The Hierarchy of Authentic Sustainability

Updated: Jun 28


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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