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.

It too is becoming widely used and recognized (at least among those of us who think about this stuff) and  looks like this:

Competitive Model

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!

Living Systems Model

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.  And go here for the rest of this series of posts.