Sustainable food and farming part II: symbols and perspectives matter!

In my first post of this series, I asked the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?” Of course the answer will depend largely on how we view sustainability.  In the standard (and for the most part universal) perspective, sustainability is viewed from three perspectives;

  1. Environmental Quality
  2. Social Equity
  3. Economic Viability

….. or variants of these.

If sustainable systems need to be supported by three legs of a milking stool (to put it in a farming context), it is clear that all three are important as a two-legged stool won’t stand.  While this is a simple, powerful image and perhaps useful as an introduction, it also comes with problems.

The three-legged-stool image is a variant of the commonly used Venn diagram which appears in many forms throughout the academic and farming  literature as well as  in marketing materials for various sustainable products.

Of course, the idea is that we all want to work toward the region where the circles overlap!   My problem with this commonly used depiction of sustainability is that it puts equal importance on each circle (or leg) and creates a situation in which competition among the three perspectives is inevitable.  This is a problem!

If we approach sustainability from the perspective of three interlocking yet  still competing objectives, we will never change our personal lives or our social systems in ways that can be sustained.  If this diagram remains as our model of sustainability then I’ll answer the question in my previous post (is sustainable agriculture sustainable?) with a resounding NO!  While this commonly accepted model of sustainability is a useful way to talk to someone who is new to the conversation, it is not adequate.

From this viewpoint, economic concerns will always trump environmental quality and social equity.  In fact, it could be argued that most modern industrial systems (including agriculture) are designed to exploit both people and the environment in order to maximize economic return.  A more progressive approach might be to “optimize economic return with the least negative impact on people and the environment as possible.” Have you ever heard that one?  I have.  But it is still about trade-offs.   Can’t we do better?

How can we look at sustainability in a way that integrates economic viability, environmental stability and social equity?  Where do we look for an answer?  Well, to me….. we look to the earth as our teacher.

I will examine  this idea in my next post, but to give you a taste of where we are headed – lets think about living systems (like farms) as levels of complexity, each level embedded in the next more complex level.

If we begin to see living systems as subsystems embedded in larger subsystems from the atom and molecule through the living cell, organs, organisms and on “up” through levels of ecological complexity….. then maybe we can make some sense out of our sustainability diagram.

What if “Mother Nature” was our model for sustainability?  What if we tried to understand how natural ecosystems function, and then design managed ecosystems (like farms) using principles of ecology?

Well, maybe then we would turn our Venn diagram into a model that depicted the relationship among each perspective more like a living system – more like Mother Earth!

What if we saw that a healthy economy depended on a healthy social system?  And a healthy social system depended on a healthy environment?  Maybe then we would see that competition among these three “legs of the stool” will not get us where we want to go!

To me, the symbolic representation of the three perspectives is important.  The living systems model represents a richer understanding of the relationships among potentially competing objectives.  But I”m really curious about what you think, so lets ask some questions.

  1. How might this “living systems” model of sustainability change our thinking?

  2. How might it change our behavior?

  3. How might it change the way we grow food?

  4. What do you think?


For ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.


11 thoughts on “Sustainable food and farming part II: symbols and perspectives matter!”

  1. It's great seeing people come to similar conclusions but from different perspectives. I've been reading a lot of economic theory lately in which the authors (namely J.K. Gibson-Graham) break down the word "Economy" and show the problems inherent in everyday usage of the term. Basically, everyday conversation uses the word economy as singular and self evident. There is something called the Economy. "The Economy crashed" or "I read the Economy is recovering." I believe, however, that there are a plurality of economies that are entirely dependent on social and natural systems. In other words, by diagramming sustainability with three equally weighted spheres, one is perpetuating what I consider a faulty conception of the Economy as separate and singular. In fact, as John Gerber writes and draws, economies should be understood as systems existing within bio/socio-ecologies. The sooner we dethrone the economy as something we need to feed at the expense of social and natural systems, the better. At least that's how I see it.

  2. I'm absolutely on board. Everything we know or create arises from the natural world context in which we evolved and continue. The dynamics and limits of that context — aka "environment" — are networks of functional systems that would operate (absent our intrusion) more-or-less as closed loops. Seen in those terms (re: your first post), agriculture is probably inherently unsustainable. Yikes. Humans, of course, have changed the "algorithms" on which those systems are based. Can we unearth new equations that would allow us to imitate natural systems and, presumably, do significantly less harm? Sure hope so!

    So yes, we'd farm differently (i.e., lose monocultures and industrial approaches, create local and regional closed-loop systems for materials/inputs/outputs); we'd have to change radically our energy economy (and I pray that we do); we'd need to revivify our thinking and our cultures to value what actually matters (relationship, cooperation, respect, creativity, fun, dare I say "right living"?), rather than consumption, power, fear, and a zero-sum vision of life.

    Were we to begin to act on an understanding that economies must respect the limits of the natural world's resources (and they will, ultimately, one way or the other), and that economies ought to serve society and the natural world, then . . . Yikes! We'd have to reconsider many of our behaviors and assumptions. And I daresay that among the most important will be our seemingly inexorably rising global population. Carrying capacity is real!

  3. Mother Nature is exactly what it sounds like, it is the entity that all life stems from. It has been around way longer than humans, and will around long after we are dead. So the question is why have we not been following her rules the entire time. Even our so-called synthetic materials have their origins in Mother Nature. I believe if we as a collective society of Mother Nature beings do not come together and start using her as our model for not just agriculture, but all aspects of life; she is going to mow us down in the blink of an eye. We as humans (in more recent times) try and disconnect ourselves from this whole "nature" thing, when in fact we are integral parts of nature and all of actions have positive and negative reactions upon nature. So its time we start learning from and using practices that have been proven to work because Mother Nature created them, and it does not seem like she has been wrong before.

  4. I love the image of imbedded circles in this context; other patterns that keep coming up for me as I read are spirals and fractals. Yeah, way past time to kick over that milking stool, I say.

    This model that you are outlining, which closely reflects my own ways of seeing (and that of my own circles) has made my thinking and behavior appear very radical to most folks I know. To reject the paradigm of competition, inevitable profit motive, the idea that humans are separate from "nature" and the "environment", etc? To attempt to live life accordingly? I think you're right; the Venn diagram approach is obfuscating the truth of the matter. We need to continually shake ourselves out of linear and dichotomous thinking. How might this change the way we farm– on the whole, much smaller, petroleum-free, polycultural, keen attention paid to all systems and their relationships, no waste, motives of systemic health for all beings involved rather than monetary profit.

  5. The notion of modeling a human construct, like Agriculture, upon a our good Mother Earth does create a warm feeling in my spirit. But that metaphorical mother has many personalities that manifest on different time scales. The image of the pristine world unspoiled by human intervention is a really just a caricature of an infinitely complex and dynamic universe. If we look at Nature's handiwork over the correct time frame, we can see elegant equilibria and harmony among the moving parts. Mammalian predator/prey relationships show fluctuations on the scale of decades; balance of species birth and death on island populations may take centuries to reveal the pattern; and mass extinction events can wipe clear the major fauna/flora of the entire planet but millennia pass between such occurrences.

    I'm not proposing to through Mama from the train. There's much to be learned from her. Nonetheless, I think its important to realize that nature is characterized by its ups and downs, its trade-offs, and its compromises. So if we model our world after her, we should be prepared for some klunky arrangements. Sometimes the economic leg of the stool may bear more weight but the underlying 'nature' of the system won't tolerate this imbalance forever. Eventually, the burden of economic greed is its own undoing. So too, any of the other legs must serve its turn. Harmony comes from balance, but the balance maybe iterative rather than summative.

    The other caveat I'd offer in this discussion is to remind us that the good Mother is not sentient. Moreover, she is has no care for our morality neither is she guided by it. The beauty we see in her is only the beauty within ourselves that we project onto her. There is grave danger is failing to recognize this because its all too easy to bring that good mother to fight our moral battles. And there’s a very slippery slope between identifying with the natural order, and denigrating those who seem out of conformation with that plan.

    One of my favorite works on the relationship of humans and nature is Roderick Nash’s “Wilderness and the American Mind”. In it, Nash presents a thesis for how we’ve come to stop fighting nature and start embracing her. He traces this history from biblical metaphors in which mas was cast from “garden” and flung into “nature”; right up to the modern views initiated by Thoreau, matured by the likes of Aldo Leopold and eventually institutionalized by men like Gifford Pinchot. I think the lesson of this work is that agriculture and nature have been on opposite ends of a battle field for most of human history (and pre-history). I think Dr. Gerber is ambitiously proposing an armistice, and that will require a full understanding of the history of the hostilities.

  6. I completely agree that the "stool of sustainability" (or the venn diagram) is an ineffective way of viewing sustainability as a whole–using a structure that compartmentalizes these spheres perpetuates a frame of thinking that is inherently unsustainable. It's once again looking at aspects of our societies as cycles that only overlap, not ones that are inextricable from each other. I look to the Gaia theory to help rationalize this idea that we are, as a planet, one big organism that is functioning as such–with organs, tissues, and systems.

    I think we can certainly look to our current economic system when questioning the fact that even our view of sustainability would rely on a somewhat competition based model. Our version of global capitalism is driven by competition, and thrives on the inequality that it breeds. In fact, for a government to ensure economic stability based on this model, it must ensure that inequality exists–there must be winners and losers. As a country, and even as a planet–this model of a exponential, never ending quest for growth and superiority has become the primary way for fixing a problem and gauging success. I'm not saying that the sustainability theorists who created this tool (the venn diagram), had a "competitive" solution in mind–but I do think that based on the mental models of their audience, this is a tool that would make sense to the average person brought up in a capitalist society.

  7. Looking at it as a ripple format instead of a venn diagram/stool is really interesting! The whole "environment depends on society depends on economy" thing makes sense to me.

    To me, if I'm reading it right, it seems to change the paradigm for how one would go about enacting change: with the venn diagram model, you could go at any of the three circles and it would be equally good. With the ripple model, it looks as if you have to start by changing the economy or the environment; you can't start in the middle, with society.

    I kind of have mixed feelings about that. I come from a worldview (namely, feminism) that's all ABOUT changing society, so it's very different to look at things and go "Well, we should work on the environment instead, or the economy." Is one arena (one circle) really better than another to start with, in terms of enacting societal change? Isn't action in all three spheres valuable? Am I completely barking up the wrong tree?

  8. I can understand your concern if the model suggested that "justice comes later." I surely don't see it that way, but rather we must work on all three levels at the same time in an integrated way. Some of us can focus on one rather than the other two, but when the economy becomes the primary (and almost exclusive) concern of society, we are in trouble………. and I think we are!


  9. I continue to have a difficult time understanding the economic viability aspect of this trinity. It maybe some ignorance on my part of the economic system at hand.
    I sorta need an third party to provide me feedback on it.
    If we are to look to Mother Nature for the basis of our economic models. It seems clear to me that our current model does not follow suit.

    For instance, no where in nature do you see an abstracted metaphorical object exchanged for another needed item. From what I understand the exchange is relationship oriented. There is a shared relationship between species that receive the needed items or action under mutually beneficial circumstances. A bee would not ask of a flower for a gold coin, or fiat currency for the pollination provided. The same is in the reverse the flower would not ask of those things in exchange for its nectar. This is a narrow comparison though. We also have takers… with no apparent beneficial exchange. Such as the lion eating an animal on the pasture. The lion does not inquire with the herd of said animals of fiscal exchange for his dinner. And it would seem absurd to have them do so. Who would sell a family member for someone else's lunch? Although this does happen in the world among humans.
    So it is apparent that this example can be viewed as naive. But, I am asking how is it that sustainability is modeling nature in the economic portion of this trinity? I do not understand.
    As we are removed from the farmer, and the consequences of our actions in our current model, so too are we removed through a neutral object of exchange.
    It seems to me the abstracted monetary system too needs to mirror or mimic locality. Local currency is the closest I have seen to this. Bartering even closer, yet there is an assumption that I am trying to get at.

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