• John Ikerd

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.


John Ikerd

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