Is Sustainability the Right Word

Disagreements about using the word “sustainable” as a guiding concept for the future of agriculture are not new. They have been around at least since Robert Rodale made the case for “regenerative” agriculture in the 1980s. Sustainable agriculture first came to public attention with the USDA “low input sustainable agriculture” or LISA program in 1988. I wrote an essay in the mid-90s making the case that we didn’t really need to define sustainable agriculture, as long as we could agree on 1) what we wanted to sustain, 2) for whom, and 3) for how long. My answer was that we wanted to sustain agriculture, which is a purposeful intervention into nature, for the benefit of people, specifically but not exclusively, for as long as the sun shines or forever. The essay eventually was published as a chapter in my book, Crisis and Opportunity, Sustainability in American Agriculture.

In addition to “regenerative” agriculture, others have advocated a “resilient” agriculture. I believe both terms are essential for agricultural sustainability. The nonliving world tends toward entropy or uselessness. Only the regenerative capacity of the living world makes sustainability possible. Resilience is essential because regenerative living systems that cannot endure shocks or threats to their survival are not sustainable. An agriculture that is not regenerative and resilient is not sustainable. “Restorative” agriculture has also been advocated, suggesting that we will need to restore nature’s health and productive capacity to some previous level. However, none of these requisites would ensure an agriculture capable of meeting the needs of all people of both current and future generations. A sustainable agriculture must also be efficient or “resourceful” in order to be sufficiently productive to support anything close to today’s global human population.

A sustainable agriculture must be regenerative, resilient, and resourceful – all three – if it is to be capable of meeting the needs of people of both current and future generations. I suspect it will need to be restorative as well. Sustainability depends on balance and harmony among these various dimensions. I don’t have a problem with people focusing on one dimension or the other. However, if we put too much or too little emphasis on regeneration, resilience, resourcefulness, or restoration, the agricultural system as a whole will not be sustainable.

A basic problem with the word sustainable is that it tends to be interpreted as “staying the same” or not improving or getting better. Sustainability certainly is not limited to such an interpretation. Sustainable progress or sustainable betterment also are logical possibilities. John Ehrenfelt prefers the phrase “sustainability as flourishing” – borrowing Aristotle’s term for happiness. I believe the confusion stems from many people seeing sustainability as an “end” rather than a “means.” To me, a sustainable agriculture, economy, and society are simply means to the higher end or purpose of human betterment, flourishing, or happiness. An agriculture that was capable of allowing humanity to fulfill its purpose on earth would be as resourceful, resilient, and regenerative as it needs to be. Sustainability is enough when it comes to sustaining human happiness. Ultimately sustainability is not just about agriculture; it’s about people and purpose.

Some people believe the word sustainable has been so misused, abused, and co-opted that it is no longer meaningful. I respectfully disagree. In spite of persistent efforts to discredit it, sustainability has risen from obscurity to become a watchword of society, government, and industry. People seem to know intuitively that we can’t continue doing what we are doing. They know our current way of life is not sustainable – and that’s important. The really important words are often controversial and difficult to define. For example, “love” is one of the dictionary's most widely confused, misused, abused, and co-opted words. However, everyone knows what it is and knows it’s really important. Perhaps most important, the multiple ecological, social, and ethical essentials of sustainability are the essentials of human happiness. The pursuit of sustainability is just another name for our never-ending, always-challenging, ever-rewarding pursuit of happiness.

John Ikerd