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John Ikerd

John Ikerd
Deep Sustainability; Rediscovering Our Connectedness

“All and all, today’s environmental movement has not been succeeding. We have been winning battles, some critical ones, but losing the war.”[1] These are the words of Gustave Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute, co-founder of the Natural Resource Defense Council, and advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton. He pointed to a variety of ecological indicators in his 2008 book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, to drive this point home: air and water pollution, fossil energy and fossil water depletion, greenhouse gas emissions, and loss of biodiversity. Speth concluded that environmental organizations have failed because they have spent their time, energy, and money battling the symptoms of ecological degradation rather than attacking its root causes. Today’s environmental crisis is ultimately rooted in our dysfunctional relationships with the other living and non-living things of the earth. To avert the impending global ecological disaster, we must delve deeper into the nature of our interconnectedness.

Deep Sustainability

The concept of “deep sustainability” goes deeper than environmentalism. It even goes beyond current approaches to sustainability, which focus on resource protection and conservation and substitution of renewable for nonrenewable sources of energy. Deep sustainability explores the ethical, philosophical, and spiritual roots of ecological, social, and economic sustainability.[2] It is rooted in new ways of thinking, knowing, learning, and being in the world: ways not only essential for avoiding a global ecological catastrophe but also for progress toward a new and better world of the future.

Deep sustainability represents an intellectual conceptualization of the wisdom of indigenous peoples throughout the world in that it reemphasizes the importance of our interconnectedness with nature and with each other. It calls on us to reestablish intimate, caring relationships with the earth and with other people. It recognizes that we need to connect with others not solely to meet our physical or material needs but also because we need to care and be cared for, to love and be loved. It trusts that a new set of ethical and cultural values can and will evolve from these loving and caring personal relationships.

Deep sustainability recognize that we are spiritually connected with each other and with nature. Stewardship of nature and society is our divinely ordained duty – our sacred trust. It asks us to go beyond resource conservation or preservation by reestablishing a sense of kinship with animals, plants, and other living things, even those from which we derive our food. It respects that we are utterly and completely dependent upon nature in all aspects of life. Deep sustainability reflects an understanding that humans are physical, social and spiritual beings that are critically interconnected with all of the living and non-living things of the earth.

People in prehistoric civilizations understood the importance of our interconnectedness. They didn’t need modern sciences to organize their ideas or validate the rationality of their sense of connectedness. They had intimate relationships with the earth and with the other people with whom they shared the earth. They lived in a close relationship with nature and went deeper into nature regularly to search for food to sustain their physical well-being. They were intimately connected with the rest of nature. Indigenous peoples depended on their families, tribes, or villages for protection from enemies, assistance during times need, and sharing the task of securing food. They were intimately connected with other people.

Furthermore, the interdependence of indigenous peoples with each other and with nature was not purely physical or material. Their lifestyles reflected a personal sense of connectedness with other people that went beyond meeting their physical needs. They formed gifting economies in which people strived to give away more than they received in return. They understood that humans are inherently social beings – we need to relate to each other personally. Their ethical and cultural values concerning how people should be treated and treat each other evolved from these personal relationships.

They also passed on stories and rituals that reflect their sense of spiritual connectedness with the rest of nature. They considered stewardship or caring for nature to be a distinction of honor – a sacred trust. Their stories reflected a sense of kinship with the animals, and even the plants, from which they derived their food. They did not take food from nature; instead, nature gave them food – and they gave back to nature in return. Indigenous peoples understood they were socially and spiritually connected, not only with other people but with all of the living and non-living things of the earth.

Over time, so-called modern societies have evolved in ways that minimize or neglect our spiritual connectedness. Ethical relationships apparently are too abstract or esoteric to be of interest to most scientists. If something can’t be proven using the “scientific methods,” it isn’t accepted as truth. If we can’t systematize, quantify, and replicate something, we can’t prove it. If we can’t prove it, it isn’t “credible.” As a result, issues related to natural ecosystems, such as water and air pollution and global climate change, are addressed in the ethically and morally sterile environment of chemistry, biology, and economics. As the popular pop-psychologist Dr. Phil[3] might ask: “How is that working for us?” The answer: “It isn’t.” Today, we are confronted with the consequences of centuries of denial or neglect of our inherent interconnectedness with the earth and with each other, which have grown far worse in recent decades.

We must ultimately confront the reality that all living and nonliving things of the earth, including humans, are part of the same matter and the same energy that permeates the whole of the earth. While scientific opinions differ on many things, scientists agree that the molecules of matter that make up our bodies are the same molecules that have made up everything in the past and will make up everything in the future. The biological energy that fuels our bodies and minds is the same energy that connects and reconnects the earth’s molecules to form and transform the material earth. We must stop behaving as if we humans were somehow apart or separate from the other things of the earth. We treat the non-human world as little more than an endless source of materials or objects whose sole purpose is to fulfill our uniquely human needs and desires. We ultimately must develop a deeper, more personal and spiritual, relationship with nature.

The Question of Sustainability

Sustainability may well be the defining question of the twenty-first century: “How can we meet the needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for those of the future.” Sustainability is about meeting the basic needs of all, with equity and justice, both within and across future generations. Sustainability requires economic, social, and ecological integrity, all three; but sustainability ultimately is rooted in nature. Everything that is of use to humans, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from nature. Furthermore, beyond self-sufficiency, we must rely on relationships with other people, meaning society, to help us benefit from nature’s bounty. To meet needs that cannot be met through personal relationships, we must rely on impersonal economies. To sustain our economies, societies, and ultimately humanity, we must maintain the health and productive capacity of both society and nature.

In failing to respect the intrinsic value of our connectedness with and within nature, we have allowed questions of ecological and social sustainability to degenerate to their lowest common dominator: money or economic value. Certainly, our relationships with nature have economic value; nature is the ultimate source of all economic value. However, nature also has intrinsic values that far exceed its economic value to humans. Economic value, as we know it today, is inherently individual, instrumental, and impersonal.[4] It accrues to individuals or collections of individuals, rather than to communities or societies as wholes. It is instrumental, in that an economic transaction is always a means to an end, rather than something done because of its inherent worth. Economic value is also impersonal, because if something cannot be bought, sold, or traded among people, it has no economic value.

As a result, the economy places a premium on the present relative to the future. For example, it is not “economically rational” to invest in anything if the returns on investment are likely to accrue only after the investor is dead. Since life is inherently uncertain, investments with quicker returns are valued more highly economically than comparable investments with longer term payouts. That’s the reason borrowers are willing to pay interest and lenders charge interest. Investments in future generations may have long-term economic benefits, but economic value is inherently short-term. There are simply no economic incentives to be caretakers of the earth or to care about human society if the economic benefits will accrue solely to some future generation.

Unlike economic values, social values are personal; the particular person involved in a social relationship matters. You can’t buy, sell, or trade true friendships. Perhaps more important, social values evolve into ethical values. Thoughtful people eventually discover they should show the same empathy, compassion, and respect for everyone that they show for those they know personally. People develop a personal social ethic through personal relationships.

Ethical values are non-instrumental; ethical people do things simply because they are the right thing to do, with no expectations of anything more in return. Personal connection with nature can also evolve into a personal ecological ethic. People quite logically and rationally invest significant amounts of their time, energy, and money in things they value socially and ethically, even when they have no economic incentive to do so. Most people don’t make “economically rational” decisions, meaning decisions motivated solely by self-interests.

Corporations, on the other hand, are not real people and thus have no capacity for ethical or social values. Family corporations can reflect the shared social and ethical values of the family members, who are real people. They can give social and ethical values priority over economic values, if the family chooses to do so. However, large, publicly-traded corporations, with thousands of shareholders scattered all around the world, are purely economic entities. They function to serve the common interest of their shareholders.

While corporate shareholders have individual social and ethical values, the only value they share in common is their desire to enhance the economic value of their investment. Thus, publicly-traded corporations will make ecological investments only if they are expected to receive individual, instrumental, impersonal economic benefits in return. Individuals that attempt to maximize their income or wealth also are economic beings. The challenges of sustainability will not be met by economic beings.

Economic Environmentalism

Certainly there are situations where doing things that are good for society and the environment are economically rational. As natural resources become more scarce they become more economically valuable. As more investors and consumers make irrational economic decisions reflecting their preferences for sustainability, the economic costs of sustainability will decline. That said, markets will never reflect the full social and ecological values essential to incentivize sustainability. There will always be economic incentive to extract and exploit both nature and society.

A fundamental purpose of government – local, state, or national – is to protect society and nature from the negative social and ecological consequences of economically rational decisions. However, when elected representatives propose laws designed to protect society and nature from economic exploitation, their legislative proposals are invariably subjected to economic cost-benefit analyses. Laws that would actually restrain economic exploitation are not likely to be implemented; they are deemed economically infeasible. Whether in matters of personal choice, business management, or public policy, the economy takes priority over society and nature.

At the very least, governments should be willing to identify and “internalize” the economic costs of ecological degradation: they should make “polluters pay” the economic costs they impose on society. They should also “cap” greenhouse gas emissions, and if the cap is sufficiently low to reverse global climate change, even allow trading of CO2 emission rights. They should also assign economic values to activities that enhance the economic productivity of nature. However, while government policies that force markets to reflect full economic values are necessary, internalizing externalities is not sufficient to ensure sustainability. We should do the necessary, but should not allow “the necessary” to become an obstacle to “the sufficient.”

Unfortunately, we have allowed our preoccupation with economic value to become an obstacle to sustainability, mainly because economic relationships depersonalize our relationships with other people as well as with nature. We buy, sell, and trade, rather than maintain personal relationships. We must ultimately account for the social and ethical costs of our failures to care for society and nature, not just the economic costs. We can begin by reminding ourselves that our ecological failures have personal consequences, and personal costs cannot be measured in terms of economic value. Our dependence on fossil energy provides a convenient illustration of the personal consequences of our dysfunctional economic relationship with nature.

When we think of the ecological consequences of our fossil energy dependence, we probably think of the wreck of the Exxon Valdese in Alaska in 1989 or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. We probably focus on the pollution of the ocean and the resulting loss of wildlife and destruction of fisheries and estuaries. We might also think of the environmental consequences of new oil from the tar sands of Canada or new natural gas from “fracking” in Pennsylvania, with resulting emissions of greenhouse gases, destruction of wildlife habitat, and pollution of air and water. While we may think about the ecological devastation, but we still allow the public discourse to focus on the economic consequences.

The public discussion tends to focus on the loss of jobs, with little consideration for the people who will become ill and die because of contaminated sea food or from polluted water or air. We may think of fishermen and women in Alaska or in the Gulf area who have lost their economic livelihoods, but we tend not to think of those jobs as being their “life’s work” or the source of their sense of self-worth. People cannot be compensated economically for losing their “way of life,” their culture, or their sense of purpose. We probably don’t think much about the long-run health and well-being of oil field workers in Alberta Canada or people in the “new oil” or “fracking” communities. We don’t think about the social and ethical consequences of creating a “Canadian Appalachia.” Future generations may suffer through decades of illness, grinding poverty, and depravation. These are questions of ecological justice, not economic equity.

Ecological Justice

Questions of ecological justice, like questions of sustainability, are fundamentally ethical or moral questions. Sustainability ultimately must apply the Golden Rule across generations, as well as within generations. It asks us to do for those people of future generations as we would have them do for us, if we were of their generation and they were of ours. The Golden Rule is not limited to Christianity, or even to religion, although Christianity provides convenient references. Jesus said we should love our God with all our strength, all our heart, and all our soul and love our “neighbors” as we love ourselves. How can we showing respect for God, the Creator, while we are destroying the Creation? Do we really think Jesus meant we should exclude those people of future generations from our circle of “neighbors”?

The Bible, in Matthew 25, states: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” “For I was hungry, and you gave me meat, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in.” What does this suggest about us depriving people of future generations of clean water, destroying the life in the soil they must rely on to produce food, or even killing those people who have religious values different from ours to gain access to their oil? As we have failed to care for the least of these, we have failed to respect either Creation or Creator. Our crimes against nature are also crimes against other people; even if they are not illegal, they are unethical and immoral.

Perhaps a deeper understanding that we are also violating nature’s code of non-human ethics will evolve from a greater awareness that our ecological crimes violate our codes of human ethics. On questions of non-human ethics, our religions provide far less guidance. In fact, Genesis 1-26 is often used to support claims that humans have the right to use the other things of nature as they see fit: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Again, as Dr. Phil would ask: “How is that working for us?”

Apparently the word “dominion” over was not intended to imply “authority” over but instead “responsibility” for the other living things of the earth. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1-20: “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” To suggest that humans have authority over nature, the Creation, suggests that humans are free to ignore the “eternal power and divine nature” of God that is embodied in nature. Nonetheless, Western cultures have been persistently unwilling to address the ethical questions raised by our spiritual connections with the other living and non-living things of the earth. They persist in believing that we humans are somehow separate, apart, and above the rest of nature, over which they have been given dominion or control.

The worldview of deep sustainability goes beyond social justice and extends the concept of ecological justice to all things of the earth. All things of nature have rights; the rights of all species, including human rights, reflect their unique purposes within the whole of nature. In today’s world of scientific materialism, the other things of nature have no subjectivity or being and thus have no inherent “right” to exist or purpose apart from their potential usefulness to humanity. Ironically, this worldview guides even today’s environmental movement. In spite of claims to the contrary, the environmental movement is anthropocentric. Most environmentalists implicitly accept that the world exists primarily, if not solely, for the purpose of sustaining the well-being of humanity. “Deep ecologists,” on the other hand, claim an eco-centric worldview, showing no more concern for humans than for any other species of non-living thing on earth. Deep ecologists would depopulate the earth of humans, if necessary, to sustain the rest of nature.

Deep sustainability is “co-centric” rather than anthropocentric or eco-centric. It is not eco-centric because it is concerned specifically with humans – the present and future well-being of humanity. However, it is not anthropocentric or human centered, in spite of its specific concern for the human species. The deep sustainability worldview recognizes that human well-being and the sustainability of humanity is inseparably and critically interrelated with the well-being of the other non-living and living beings of the earth. Deep sustainability is rooted in a deep reverence and respect for all things of nature – living and non-living – specifically but not solely humans. Nature does not exist for the sole benefit of humans any more than humans exist for the sole benefit of the other things of nature. Humanity is not sustainable unless human societies contribute to, or at least do not detract from, the overall health and well-being of the whole of nature of which humans are a part.

The Intentional Self

Deep sustainability goes beyond current ecological thinking to addresses ethical or spiritual sufficiency, as well as economic necessity. It begins with a rethinking of the concept of “self.” We are not just physical and mental beings; we are also spiritual beings. If humans continue to behave as other self-seeking species that find themselves in a position of dominance in their natural ecosystem, they will expand their consumption and population until they degrade and destroy their natural environment, ultimately destroying human civilization. Sustainability will require intentional actions of thoughtful people who are motivated by something deeper than individual, economic self-interests.

Scientific thinking today denies the existence of human intentionality because it is rooted in the philosophy of materialism. Materialists believe that every action or event, including human thought or action, is a predetermined consequence of conditions that existed prior to the event. If everything was known about the past, everything in the future could be precisely predicted. In such a world, people would have no freedom or free-will to choose one alternative future rather than another. Life, including human life, would be nothing more than the predetermined unfolding or realization of a purposeless sequence of chemical and biological reactions that are relentlessly driven by the flow of energy on its inevitable path toward entropy or uselessness.

The “intentional self” necessary for sustainability is an “emergent property” of the essential qualities of a unique person understood as a unified whole. The essential qualities of the intentional self are physical, mental, and spiritual – the body, mind, and spirit. The intentional self is unique in that each person reflects a distinct configuration or combination of the physical and mental elements or aspects that make up his or her body and mind, even while all people share the same spirit or source of self-consciousness. Each distinct arrangement of body, mind, and soul constitutes a unique self.

The spiritual aspect of self gives purpose to the intention of the mental aspect of self, which initiates action carried out by the physicalaspect of self. Lacking any one of the three dimensions, the intentional actions essential for sustainability are impossible. Intention without the ability to act is of no consequence, and without purpose, there can be no intention to guide actions. The intentional self is not a body, mind, or spirit; the intentional self has a body, mind, and spirit. Self is the emergent property that arises from a unique organization or whole of the body, mind, and sprit; self is the essence of the whole.

The Hierarchy of Sustainability

In the worldview of deep sustainability, a natural hierarchy exists among the spiritual, mental, and physical qualities or dimensions of the intentional self. The hierarchy is defined in terms of purpose and principles. Purpose and principles are defined at higher levels, which at the highest level are inviolable “laws of nature” or “natural laws” and thus require deference and respect. Principles are interpreted at lower levels, but cannot be altered or nullified. The “laws of nature” define cause and effect relationships in the natural world and “natural law” defines relationships unique to in the human part of the natural world. These basic principles or laws of nature can be denied or ignored but the consequences of their violation cannot be avoided.

The higher levels require deference and respect in all intentional individual and collective actions of humans. However, realization of the possibilities or potentials of higher levels is always dependent on lower levels of organization, including the individual and collective actions of humans. Higher levels give meaning to the realization of the possibilities of nature, society, and individuals, and the lower levels allow the realization of those possibilities at higher levels, when guided by nature’s principles. Nature suffers when humans fail to respect their interdependence with nature, as we have seen. All levels are interdependent and have the potential to be mutually beneficial as well as mutually destructive.

The challenges of ecological integrity and deep sustainability must first be met internally, within ourselves, rather than in the external environment or society. We can gain some sense of our connectedness within nature and society through scientific analysis and systematic observation of the world around us. However, the environmental movement has failed because it has continued to rely on science and reason to make case for ecological sustainability. We can gain a deeper sense of our place within nature by totally immersing ourselves in nature – physically and mentally. We can also gain a deeper sense of our place within society by totally immersing ourselves within community and society – physically and mentally. However, the sense of purpose that ultimately must guide our intentions and actions must come from beyond the thing we can see, feel, touch, hear, or smell – from some still higher level.

This higher level is beyond the realm of direct observation or analysis and thus defies understanding through current approaches to scientific analysis or logical reasoning. Our only means of sensing the ultimate purpose of our intentional actions is our spiritual connection to the higher order, universal consciousness, or God – the quiet voice within that helps us to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. The challenges of environmental protection and deep sustainability can only be met from within, by developing a deeper spiritual self.

[1] James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2008), p vii.

[2] John Ikerd, Lonnie Gamble, and Travis Cox, “Deep Sustainability; The Essentials,” for a full discussion of Deep Sustainability, .

[3] Dr. Phil’s website,

[4] John Ikerd, The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2012) Chapter 1, for a fuller discussion of economic, social, and ethical values.

John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia.

John was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri and received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. He worked in private industry for a time and spent thirty years in various professorial positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia, and the University of Missouri before retiring in early 2000. Since retiring, he spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues related to sustainability with an emphasis on economics and agriculture. He currently resides in Fairfield, IA with his wife, Ellen, two dogs, and two cats. Ikerd is author of Essentials of Economic Sustainability, Sustainable Capitalism, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle, on line at

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