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THE MORTALITY BEHIND SUSTAIINAIBILITY
Ethics and Policy Studies
in Agriculture and Natural Resources
Institute of Food and Auricultural Sciences
University of Florida
Gainesville FL 32611
THE MORALITY BEHIND SUSTAINABILITY
Ethics and Poliev Studies Program
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida
Ideas of "sustainable agriculture," "organic agriculture,"
"regenerative agriculture." and "alternative agriculture" are
receiving increasing attention in the academic and popular
literature on present trends and future directions of agriculture.
Whatever the reason for this interest, there nevertheless remain
differences of opinion concerning what counts as a "sustainable
agricult ure. One of the reasons for these differences is that the
moral underpinnings of a policy of sustainability are not clear: by
understanding the moral obligatoriness of sustainability, we can
come to understand precisely what must be sustained, and by
implication, how. This paper discusses the arguments that can be
advanced for sustaining anythllg, and initially concludes that our
obligations to future generations entail that more than just
"sufficient food production" or an "adequate resource base" should
be sustained. Indeed, a tradition of care and community must
underly whatever agricultural and resource strategies we are to
develop under the rubric of "sustainability." A consideration of
the larger social and environmental system in which agricultural
operates and the constraints this system places on agriculture
forces us to recognize that "sustainability" has to do with larger
institutional issues. including our ability to democratically
incorporate our "common morality" into our institutions, practices,
Ideas of "sustainable agriculture." "organic agriculture."
"recenerative agriculture," and "alternative agriculture" are
receiving increasing attention in the academic literature on present
and future directions of agriculture and agricultural research.
The popular media has also picked up at least on the "buzz-words.";
US NeJws; and Worl~d R~epoLrt recently spotlighted "sustctainabilitv"' In a
report on US agriculture; Newsweek has run columns on organicc
agricuLlt ure"; the Wall Street Jou~rnal has mentioned "alternative
crops and processes" In Its reporting on the future of maribusiness..
'The currency of the ideas may be due to the fact that United States
Department of Agriculture (USDA) is sponsoring research on "Low
i n put -sust ai n able a r i c ultur e" ( L ISA ). It, may be that farmers and
researchers are interested in responding to a perceived desire on
the part of consumers for "healthier" food or more environmentaliv-
sound production practices. Or, It may be simply that farmers want
to maintain profits and cut production costs, and have slanaled to
the research establishment that lower-input technologies and
marketable "alternative crops and processes" shoulld be on the
research agenda. Whatever the reason, one mlght be Inclined to
think that a major revolution is about to transform cAmerican-style
moraculture. Of' course, the assumption in this case would be that
contemporary agriculture 15 currently not sustainable. While there
are grounds for thinking that some of our present production and
resource--manaqement practices are not. the extent of this
"revolution" may well depend on what one means by "sustainability."
Underiving the concern about whether or not kmerican-style
THE MORALITY BEHIND SUSTAINABILITY
agriculture is sustainable is a larger normative question: What is
the moral status of agriculturall s~ustainabilitv?"'' in the eyes of
USDA, the US Farm Bureau Federation, and numerous other agencies and
individuals around the world, asiricul~tural sustaiinabiltity is a "Yood
thing." The question to be addressed in this paper Is whether
achieving or attempting to achieve sustainability in agriculture is
a moral obligation that we have as individuals or as a society. My
ma)0or concern will thus be with the reasons can be advanced for the
claim that actions which achieve agriculturall sustainabilitv" are
moraliv oblioatory. I shall argue that there is indeed a moral
foundation for sustainability, which derives from a general
obligation we have to both ourselves and future generations. Tlhis~
foundation, which can be referred to as the morality behind
sustainabi lity, will serve as a b _aiitsis hath~l~ro knowinii that we must
sustain certain things for the future, and for knowing what it is we
must sustain. The morality behind sustainability requires that we
rethink and redesign some of our current agricultural and resource
practices. However, what emerges in the course of this discussion
is that the greater part of the morality behind sustainability has
little to do with agricultural practices and technologies per se.
Indeed, economic, social, political and ideological factors
frequently prevent or constrain the sorts of conceptual and
practical reorientations that are necessary in order for many
socially-responsible or even morally obligatory actions to be
undertaken. O~ne of the problems in achieving agricultural
sustainability is that "sustainable agriculture" 15 possible onlv In
the context of a larger set of what can be referred to as
Institutions for sustainability. "Institutions" refers to the
whole array of formal and informal rules according to which people
live, including what T'horstein Veblen called "hab-its of mind" -
and what the ancient Greeks referred to as ethal -- a way at life.
Although particular changes in agriculture can contribute to the
overall goal of: sustainability, trutly achieving sustainability In
agriculture ultimately depends upon incorporating the morality
behind sustainability into all our institutions and practices. T'his
In turn depends on our Individual and societal acceptance of the
moral demand for sustainability, and our commitment to brino about
that end. The assumption that must be made is that we can
incorporate the requisite beliefs and attitudes into our
Institutions and practices. This~ assumption underlies the argument
in this paper.
T~he first problem is, however, that people ditter over what
sustainability means, 1.e., what counts as a sustainable system.
Gordon iiouclass has usefulll discerned three senses In which
the term "sustainable agriculture" has been used in recent
literature, which reflect three different philosophies on the
matter. According to Douglass. "sustainable agriculture"
alternatively means (1) long-term food sutficiency, either
domestically or world-wide: (2) an agricultural system which
preserves and conserves renewable and nonrenewable resources: or 13,
a set of agricultural practices which encourage certain virtues andl
undergird the vitality of local communities be preserved or
reinstated. D~ouglass refers to these different perspectives as the
food su~ttciency, stewardship, and alternative agriculture views.
respectively, and he suppests that the nature of the problem which
might be referred toj as "unsustainable agriculture" ditters
slanificantiv amo~ng them.
The food suff~iciency position maintains that the major uorblemn
facing agriculture is that, given world population trends. the
current capacities of; agricultural production may not be able to
feed the world's population in, say, fifty years. Although one
obvious solution to the problem would be to jjtablize population at
present levels,. or even reduce poPutlation in those parts of the
world which are presentiv unable to feed themselves, the more
realistic solution, it is argued, is to increase agricultural
production. This entails either brinoina more acreage Into tarmino,
or, Increasing the productivity of the land currentiv beino
cultivated. Since the marginal cost of bringing more acreage Into
production, particularly "marginal land," increases relative to
marginal benefits, the preferred solution is increasing per acre
productivity in existing farmland. Pointing to the tremendous cains
that have been made In increased productivity over the past century,
due mainly to technological innovations, the food sufficiency
position concludes that more and "better" technologies are the
answer to the unsustainability problem. Interestingly, this
conceptualization of "the problem" and its solution is not too far
from the dominant view long held by 'the agricultural establishment.
Successful farm operators, as well as the researchiextensi on system
designed to benefit agriculture, have lone opted for what some
critics call the technologicall fix." The difference between the
sustainabil ity-as~-suffiicien cy argument and the current ideoloov, If:
any, lies in the nature of the technological solutions that are
proposed. Some inPult-reducinQ technologies, or management
techniq ues which mnakee better use of computters to integrate the
food-produtction "system" mlght be recommended. Particular kilnds of+
agricultural applications of the new blo~technolooles -- for example.
bicencineered disease resistance or nitrogen fix:atiosn -- could also
contribute to the goal of adequate future production.
Despite the legitimacy of the food sufficiency positlan's goal
of adequate food production, In the eyes of some proponents of
s;ust-ainabil:ity/, the food suffiiciency perspective lacks a clear
vision of what sustainable aur-iculture realistically entails.
Indeed, questions can be raised concerning both the natural limits
and the du~rablity of; an increasnnely technological Iv-sophisticated
production system. Prroponents osf the stewardship perspective arcue
that high-tech. production-oriented agriculture simply cannot last
for very long, particularly since increased production means using
resources. Even if population were stabilized, at some coint oil
suppliers will run out, or become too costly to retrieve. rit some
point the soil and/or water quality will have been reduced to the
point where technological solutions are unattainable. By taking the
"more land in production" tack, at some point the world will have
cut down too many forests in order to do so: dramatic changes in
climatic conditions and a decrease in the-availability of adequate
water supplies will accur. Given these possibilities, the
stewardship view urces a policy of restraint: carefully manage
nonrenewable and renewable resources, seek alternative crops,
processes, techniques and technologies -- perhaps including
blotechnolooies -- so that we can meet the world's tood and tiber
needs far into the future. In sum, the stewardship perspective
recommends the calculation of lonoer-term social and environmental
costs into thre agricultural cost-benefit cou-ation.
For alternative agriculturalists, the third approach. the
stewardship view's recognition of limits is laudable, but does not
go far enough. Part of the reason for this is that stewardship
still sees the primary goal of' agriculture to be producing enough
to meet the world's food and fiber needs. Trhe difference between
stewardship and food suficiency Is over means, not ends. Although
the alternative aariculturalists are a diverse lot, they appear
united in maintaining that there are a number of other coals -- or
values -- that certain agricultural practices help achieve or
secure. An moQriculture which does not achieve these coals or secure
these values is not sustainable. Alternative agriculturalists
therefore call for the (re-)introduction of certain traditional
farming practices, so that (1) on-farm as well as off-farm
biological diversity can be maintained: (2) farmingu as a way of
life," which embodies among other things living harmoniousiv with
nature, can be practiced: and (3) a tradition of communityv" can be
maintained and passed on to future generations. Modern
agriculture, even when carefully managed and externalities
internalized, inevitably leads, it is argued, to environmental, and
most importantly, cultural collapse. Therefore, alone with broad
changes in farming techniques, we must re-institute the notion of
agriculturee as a form and manifestation of culture." Most
important. abandoning the goal of adequate production in favor of
the pursuit of local. culturally and environmentaliv rich
communities will require re-assessino a number of other present
"'realltles": ethical values. political philos~ophies. in stitutional
design., and even population policies.
Dougl~ss attempts a "reconciliation" of the different
perspectives in a "composite definition"' of s~ustainable agriculture:
Agriculture will be found to be sustainable when ways are
discovered to meet future demands for f~oods~tuffs without
imposing on society real Esocial any environmental-l
increases in the socila costs of production and without
causing the dis-tribution of opportunities or incomes to
While capturingq certain features of all three perspectives,.
this "definition" 15 first of all too general to be of much use In
any descrlptive or evaluative context. Which agricultural
practices, policies, structures, etc. "meet the test?" Which will
be foundd to be sustaiainable Which ought we pursue? Moreover,
the "definition" is too conciliatory. All of the positions miaht
agree that agriculturall sustainabi~litv" doubly means "able to be
sustained" and "able to sustain human life." However, stewards and
alternative agriculturalists disagree with sufficiency advocates
over what can be sustained, i.e, how long high-tech production can
be continued. Alternative asriculturalists disagree with stewards
and sufficiency types in holding that talk: of social costs or equity
effects misses the point of: sustaining human life. c-nd sufficiency
advocates will probably disagree with both other "camus" In
maintlaininig that realism about population trends simpiv demands more
production. There are also conflicts among the three positions over
what exactiv must be done to make aqricutlture s~ust-ainable. o
sutf fi ciencY proponents, we may need to chance or at least Imorove on
some of our current technoloosle and p~rodutl cItio-mTan~acemenEt~
strategies. Fo'cr stewards, we dlefinitely need to chance some
produ-ctioin practices and some policies to achieve the 10no-ter-m
goal. ForT alternative aqricul~turalists,; even more than for
stewards, in order to achieve sustainability we must chance some or
even many of the values and habits at mind that underlay our
practices and policies. 'Thus, despite Dioualass"' attempted
compromise, a resolution oft disagreements over means may not be
Nor is it clear that a compromise la at all desirable. It the
food suffiiciency perspective is correct about population trends.
and it populatlan trends cannot be checked, we simply must produce
more food, resource depletion and/or structural changes
notwithstanding. If high-tech production cannot continue without
severelyr damaging the environment, includinoa agricutlture's~i resource
base, then production must be changed. If high-tech or resource-
conserving agriculture nevertheless undermines or fails to
contribute to quality of: human life. then what's_ the point of enough
food or adequate resources? The point is simpiv that one of these
positions may be correct.
In order to determine which if any is the correct view on
sustainability, however, some more basic questions have to be
addressed. Trwoo in particular stand out:
4 Why should we do anything to achieve sustainability In
agriculture or in any system, for that matter?:
A What does; SUStainin9 human life realiv mean:
These are obviously "value" questions, moral questions, and thev
therefore are not answerable by appealing to the descriptive or
predictive aspects of the sustainability question, 1.e., what can
be sustained and what would or will sustain life. Indeed, answers
to them will depend on the moral or ethical argument to the effect
that achieving sustainability in agriculture or In any system is a
legitimate, good, or morally obligatory thing to do. Perhaps,
modifying Ktant's dictum that "ought implies can," we find
that "ought entails can": once we see what is morally obligatory we
simply find the practical means to act on that obligation. In any
event, it is to an assessment of the basis for such a morality
behind sustainability that we now turn.
Ojne standard basis for determining whether an action is
obligatory is the effect of the action on others: "good"
consequences make an action right, "bad" ones wrong. Despite
certain philosophical problems with what counts as "uood" and "bad"
in this scheme, in many if not most of our ethical and policy
decision-contexts, a "utilitarian" criterion is used. According
to this criterion, an act' Is morally justified if it produces the
greatestt good of the greatest number" or "maximum utility," which
in modern utilitarianism is interpreted to mean the greatest net
satisfaction of preferences. On this account, we should do X if
the weighted sum of the expected utilities of all those who will be
affected by X is greater for this X than with respect to Y or Z. In
other words, if more preferences are satisfied by doing X than by
doing Y or Z or nothing, we should do X. Alternatively, if; more
people are dissatisfied by our doing X than doing Y or 1 or nothing,
we should not do X -- and perhaps do Y or Z or nothing. Under a
moral as opposed to an ecor~nomic interpretation of this calculus, the
greaterr good" (more satisfied preferences> demands our doing x In
the former case, prohibits X in the latter.
On this criterion, it is easy to see how at least some actions
which are designed to achieve agricultural sustainability are good
things to do. Presentiv. consumers prefer relatively inex:pensrive
and readily available food and an adequate resource base re.g.,
enough energy and accessible outdoor recreation). Prroducers want an
adequate return on investment. Suppose the costs of inputs rise
without a concomitant increase in price:r producers are
dissatisfied. Suppose prices rise to satisty producers: consumers
are dissati sf:i ed. Suppose resources are depleted: both consumers
and producers are dissatisfied. It is apparent that in this
situation there are "!utility-max:imization" reasons fosr introducing
lower-input techniques and technologies into agriculture, and
managing the resource basis more carefully. Givenn the general
preferability of those "sustainable" practices, it Is "riuht" that
they be adopted, and "wrong" that they not be.
The problem is that this utilitarian-type argument really does
not address the issue of sustainability under most Interpretations
of the concept. In all three positions we have discussed,
sustainability seems to imply doing something for the future.
Certainiv, satisfying present preferences is a good thing to do.
However, suppose that the cost of inputs does not increase enough to
make either consumers or producers suffer. SuPpose that non-
renewable resources are being depleted, but at a slow enough rate
that nobody either notices or cares. There would be no cood reason
to do any "sustainable" things.
The theoretical -- and practical -- diffiiculty here concerns
what economists reter to as "'POSitive time-preference." He Richard
brandt describes It. this is the common attitude that "the more
remote a pleasure Ear pain Is. the less important It seems ...
According to the utilitarian calculuss. because of Dositive time
preference. future preferences simply cannot count In our Dolicy
decisions as much as present desires. Moreover, preferences tarther
Intol the future cannot count as much as ones nearer. Of course, a
set of policies could mandate that future peoples' preferences be
taken into account in determining present policies. However, to do
so may Involve either ignoring or violating the preterence-basis ior
the utilitarian calculus., Indeed. most Geople prolbabiv do not have
strong feellnes about the future. or 1+ they do. their feelings
concern their own future or that of their children, but not distant
future generations. In fact, it might be argued that there are
really no good reasons for considering preferences of eitner our
future selves or people far into the future. particulariv glven
uncertainties in the "state of our knowledge" with respect to what
we in the future. or futur-e people, will want, and further, what we
or they will know. They may not particularly care whether. say,
vegetable production has lasted or will continue to last,
particularly if blotechnolooy will have made vegetables obsollete.
Or. they may have transcended fears of cancer from Desticide
residues on food, and so on. MYore to the point is that we mlaht
forgo shorter-termn benefits if we make vegetable production too
sustainable; indeed. forgone additional costs mlaht allow resources
to be otherwise reallocated. thereby Increasing present: utility even
more. Although there are pood reasons to believe that severely
discountinag one-'s own future may be irrational. utilitarian
theorists seen to acree that too great a concern fosr future
generations violates canons of rationality. Whether or not that
is true. when we do cave future preferences greater weight, we, are
probably violating utili~taarian canons. Acecordinqly. If some
practices designed to be sustainable are Intended to benefit future
generations, there 1s no good reason to mandate them in either'
morals or public policy.
There is of course In our society another criterion according
to which we judge whether actions are obligatory or nrchibited::
respect for rights. Theorists occasionaliv argue that
utilitarianism. because of its necessary "weichtino" of expected
utilities or "summing preferences;," Opeesari~ly will violate rights:
a macro-determination of the greatestt good of the greatest number"
demands it. Despite a general utilitarian orientation in our laws
and policies, however, we do respect rights. Rights are "1esltimate
claims" or "political-legal trumps" against the coercive power of
the government, and against the "down-weichtino" of an individual's
or a minority's preferences by the government or other Institutions.
Qlues~tions concerning who has rights, and what rights they have, have
long been matters of moral, legal and political debate. "The
institution of rights has changed through time. Ojne settled
conclusion is, nevertheless, that a right gives the Individual and
arou1P something to "stand on" relative to our society's larger coals
and policies: SocIiety, as well as the individual, has a moral
obligation to respect that right, whatever it might be.
Thee "rich-tS" argument with respect to sustainability is;,
simply, that +uture Generations have a right to have something
(aUain, we know not what) sustained f~or them. T'he problem here is
that even If we presently have an institution of rights, it is not
rational to suppose that future people have any rights at all.
Richard DeGeorge has argued that because future Gsenerations do not
Presentiv exist they do not have rights. As DeGeorge notes, "
to have a right is to be the present bearer of that richt. .
future generations do not exist .. Etherfore3 they cannot be the
present bearers of anything."
If De~eore s argument is sound, the second and probably most
compelling moral argument for sustainability falls flat. However,
as stralphtforward his argument miaht appear. It is mistak:en. in
the first place, it is not true that future Generations do not
east:again, "think: of: the children." This is perhaps not a major
criticism. for the time-frame regarding sustainability generativ 15
cast longer than present youna people to their children and
grandchildren. More important, however, if we present people
grant future people rlahts. meaning we "respect" in law and morality
their standingo," then they are "present bearers." As noted above.
In our moral community we recognize rights as moral "trumps" against
utilitarian and majoritarian preferences. Some "basic rig ts"
can not be overridden by appeals to the greaterr cood." We could
"extend" those rights to the future.
Why, however, should we extendn" future Gienerations
rights at all, whatever those rights might be? The reason Is
analogous to the reason we recognize the rights of youno
children and the mentally Incapacitated. We know that our actions
affect them: their physical and psychological well-beina In some
important respects depends on what we do or do not presentiv do.
Their interests may be served or harmed by our present actions.
However, they are powerless to either protect themselves or to flee.
Because of their dependence and our power. fairness reautres a
levelingo:" they have rights against us. Even though they are In no
position to "demand their rights." or deliberately "make claims,"
the human interests they have entitle them to respectful treatment.
the fact that they are unable to demand respect or press claims may
even make our obligations toward respecting their interests stronger
than is ordinarily the case.
Ordinarily. th~e most that is expected of: us concerning rights
15 that we respect "negative rights" -- rights against being harmed.
In the case of dependent people, however, and especially nonexistent;
future generations, we have a stronger obligation, namely. to
respect "positive rights" -- rights to have certain physical and
psychological requirements for a human live provided to the bearer
of that right. Indeed, whatever notion of sustainability we
employ, to the extent that actions designed to achieve are morally
obligatory, they are so because of the need to respect future
people's positive rights. Without those rights, they may not even
exist. A~nd as Hans Jonas has powerfully argued, we have no right to
even think that they will not exist.
The question is therefore what we are moraliv obliged to
sustain for them, i.e., to what specifically do they have moral
Annette baler provides some help on this question. She has
recentiv argued that
Our duties are to avoid endangering future persons vital
interests by reckless action now, by creating, or taillna
to remove, clear dangers to those interests. This sort of
consideration for people's interests Is not dependent osn
our knowing how many people there are who are threatened.
.. o all future people, however distant and
unknowable in numbers, special opportunities. or special
needs, we are obligated not k~nowingly to In~)ure the
common human interests they Ilike all of: us have --
Interests in a good earth and in a cood tradition gulding
us In lIving well on It without destrovins its hosaltaiily
to human life.
We could, she argues, follow J. S. Mill's principle, "No harmis
without victims," and conclude that unless future people would
wish not to have been born because of the state of the world into
which they have been born, none of our present actions which bring
about that world could be morally wrong. As she aptiv notes, this
"no obligation to the future" argument depends on a number of other
premises, the most important of which Is the claim that the oniv
wrong we can do future people is to leave them a world into which
they wish they had never been born. Altthough rarely stated. this
premise may underly the food sufficiency''s position on the abilities
of future people to address whatever agricultural or social or
environmental problems we leave them, so long as we continue to
progress in our science and technology-development. baier admits
that the worst harm we could inflict would perhaps bring about: the
"wish we d never been born" response on their part, but concludes~
that the claim is too strong. Even though a person does not regret
having been born does not mean that our brineano him or her Into
exilstence within a particular state of affairs does not harm his or
her Interes~ts. We can leave future people a world where there is
less suffering, less frustration. and less injustice, or we can
leave just the opposite. There may be ulncertainty on our part over
all the consequences of our present actions on their lives. TIhere
may be uncertainty concer-ninq how many of them there mlaht be. what
they will know, what they misht suff+er. Despite the endless
possibilities, however, we can be sure that unless we have
cared about their world, and show that care In ou~~r present actions,
they will be worse off.
Whoever Inhabits the future, they have a stake In our present
actions which will affect them. As such, technolooles we will have
developed and resources we will have stewarded should be such that
future people would be able to address whatever problems we have
left them. T~he more important point is whether the institutions and
values we have handed down are such that they will be able to do
address their problems, and live fully human lives. There is an
analogv with our present abilities or lack thereof In dealing with
many of the social and environmental problems we have Inherited +rom
our predecessors. It is quite apparent that they discounted future
preferences In many o+ their "utilitarian" judgements. They were
oblivious or uncaring with respect to many of the interests and
rltshts we have. Nevertheless, they also sustained a creat deal for
us, intentionally or not, including a tradition In which care for
each other and for the future is not unthinkable.
We have obviousiv Inherited values and institutions that we now
see to bie contrary, to oulr human In-terests. In the ey/es at some. th~e
values of monetary accumulation and market caoltalism, economic
growth at all costs. bureaucratic socialism. nationalism. domination
over nature including nonhuman animals. domination over other
people's lives and livelihoods. blind trust in leaders, and racial,
ethnic, religious and sexual discrimination and bicotry are
"inherited" values and institutions we miaht well do without.
Nevertheless, we have received many other values and institutions
that clearly do reflect what we can in a nonutilitarian sense reter
to as the liarcer good. Respect for participation In democratic
institutions Is undoubtedly one of these., It is, perhaps. through
this democratic tradition that other inhumane "values" and Inhumane
Institutions can be ex:cised four their sak~es, and ours as well.
To what, then, do future generations have rights?' What are we
obligated to respect, to provide, to recognize in present morality
and in our instituttions and practices? The conclusion Is
straightforward: Future generations are entitled to
1. The capability of: the earth to provide sutficient food
for however many people they democratically decide It
is In their interest to support:
2. Scientific knowledge and technologies which can be
reasonably expected to assist them In the
provision of suf~tficient'`supplies of. food, clothing.
and shelter, subject to their environmental and
3. Democratic institutions which promote the active
participation of all people in addressing whatever
problems they miaht encounter or set themselves:
4. tradition of moral trust and respect such that the
values of community and the excellence of human life
can be lived and promoted.
This conclusion has clear- imp.Lications for agriculture. and ftor
evaluating the three perspectives on agricultural sustainability
discussed above. In short, the morality behind sustainatsility
entails a vision of auriculture-in-culture of the of the sort put
forth by the alternative aijriculturalis~ts. kicriculturee must do I.ts
part to feed the world's population or maintain Its resource base.
B~ut more importantly, agriculture mutst contribute to cultural and
natural vitality, by maintaining and promoting diversity, community.
and care. There may be no special moral necessity In the "tamily
farm structure" alternative aqricultural~ists standardiv advocated.,
Any farm structure or agricultural enterprise which can generate and
preserve trust, respect, community and humanitarian values can be
justified.ra Any set oft policies and institutions which can tester
respect for natural systems, including nonhuman animals,--can be
morally adequate. Any farming or resource management technique and
technoloqv which can preserve and conserve, while producing hich-
quality focod for a population which has determined it own cultural
limits can be legitimate. It may be that family farms can do so.
Perhaps, then, we should strive in policy and practice to renew or
establish a family farm structure. In so doing. we would not be
mer-ely cultivating a type of aqriculture:e we would be fulfilling bu~t
a small part of the general moral obligation we have to the future..
Trhis vision may underlay the suff'iciency and stewardship
approaches; to sustainability. To talk: of: "su~taiinabsilitv" is after
all to talk of ends, not means, and the suf+1clency and stewardship
views' ack:nowledaement of "+utu~.ritv" as a part oft "sulstainabilitv "
implicitly acknowledges the end we have been discussing -- a humane
worlId. Perhaps the suf'ficiency perspective has allowed itselt~ a
greater degree of optimism with respect to technology-development
than Is warranted, or a greater degree of pessimism regarding
population control than is justifiable. Perhaps the stewardship
perspective has failed to remind itself that "stewardino resources
for the future" is more likCely under a set of humane beliefs.
values. and institutions. than under a realme of; "constraints on
p ref er en ces ." Perhaps both have succumbed to "realism." 1.e.. to
thinking in terms of: what is~ possible rather than what Is
obligatory. Regardless, the morality behind sustainability will
entail that they broaden their view to include a recognition of the
moral necessity of institutional, as well as agricultural and
rlesource management, redesign. Incorporating this view Into present
agriculture and resource practices and research designed to assist
those practices begins fulfill to our moral obligation to tuture
people. It may, along the way, make our Present lives more humane.
The problem is that talk of "our moral obligation" In this
context, while powerful, may also be vacant. "Our" obligations are
those that everyone has, and no one can act upon. Indeed, building
a sustainable agriculture, or In general, a sustainable society,
does not appear to be something that a given person, or even a larce
collection of: people, can accomplish. It is difficult to think: of
this as an obligation an individual has, for which he or she can be
morally blamed for failing to act upon. Lyinu, cheating, and
stealing are actions for which individuals are, singulariv.
accountable. Not sustaining the productive capacity of aariculture.~
thie resource base, or caring institutions, would seem to be
something for which a whole society, or whole culture. is
accountable. This, however, gives rise to an apparent paradox:
Sustainability is everyone's obligation rcollectivelv), but It is no
one's obligation (individuallv>.
There are two issues here. The first concerns the
indivisibility of the obligatory action; the second concerns the
limits on the agent who is to fulfill this obligation.
Some writers on agricultural practices, and especialiv on the
morality of alternative agricultural techniques that are. for
example, more labor-intensive or less input-dependent, note that
adopting these practices can not only disadvantage the farmers who
adopt them, but also, may have few larger positive effects. Paul
Thompson, analyzing the "social coals of agriculture," argues
that individual farmers can not reasonably be expected to consider
sustainability an individual moral obligation. It has to be system-
wide. The very farmers who practiced smaller-scale, more
environmentally-sound agriculture, given the structure of the modern
agricultural production system, would be the ones who would go out
of business. As a result, agriculture as a whole would become more
unsustainable. There are thus both individual and larger social
reasons for farmers not to switch to alternative farmine technloues.
crops, or resource management strategies.
More to the point is the fact that particular changes in
agriculture by particular agricultural producers, even many or most
o* them, may still not address the larger question. In many areas
of the world, agriculture is not the largest pollutter, the largest
consumer of nosnrenewable resources, the largest source of: Injus~tice,
and so on. Moreover, by~ adopting sustainable practices. farmers
might still be disadvantacing themselves In the Interest of
obligations others will not act upon. Environmentally "sater" or
healthier f~armi-no techniques, imposed on tarmers by the government.
are not universally practiced. Indeed, U.S. farmers are freeuentiv
disadvantaged in overseas markets by costly environmental
regulations. Many foreign competitosrs' Qovernments impose no su!ch
constraints. Moreover, even domestically, farmers can not be
expected to act sustainabiv with respect to internalizina
ex:ternalities, minimizing nonrenewable inputs, securing a renewable
resource base, fostering rural community, and the like, when other
industries, and the consuming public, fail to act sustainable as
well. The real Question that needs to be asked is therefore not how
to make agriculture sustainable, but rather, as I suppested at the
outset, how to build a larger set of institutions for
sustainnability, so that acgriculturalists; can act on their
obligations. Many undoubtediv wish to. But it ultimately comes
down to matters of broader policy and collective action.
If the "logic of collective action." to use 01son's term. 15
complicated, the morality of collective action is even more
difficult. Various writers on bureaucratic or corporate ethics have
attempted to provide a means for determining "who" the collective
actor actually is, and how this "acent" acts. It is aenerally
agreed that for well-defined collective agents, with +1xed decision-
rules, stable, hierarchicallyv-orsanized roles, and so on, we can
both assess their moral obligations or lecal responsibilities. and
know who to blame or prosecute for having failed to act upon them.
With cultures, societies, or communities, this generaliv 15 not
possible. There of course may be some acts which we can hold a
government accountable for: declaring war or negotiating treaties
are things a chief of state does on behalf of the nation. Some
kinds of governments or states fit the corporate mold: In highly
centralized, authoritarian, totalitarian or dictatorial governments
the decision-maker, his or her or their responsibilities. as well as
the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of his/her/their actions.
are more readily identifiable. In decentralized or democratic
nations or communities, and partlicularly when the discharge of an
obligation is not rule- or role-defined, who is responsible, and who
therefore is to be praised or blamed for having acted or failed to
act upon a larger obligation is indeed problematical. Yet, if there
are obligations that a society as a society has. it may +all to even
democratic or decentralized governments to assume the responsibility
to effect that obligation, through coercion if necessary. k
government'si taking the lead and forcing the issue can be justtified
especially in cases where the goal (for example, winning a war> can
be achieved only through everyone's concertedly acting to achieve
It. Building a sustainable society, including building sustainable
agricultural practices, may be such a coal.
Biut this is as mulch a problem as it is a solution. In
democratic, decentralized societies, a government's policies are
presumed to reflect the will of the people, rather than shape or
even coerce it. If the people of the United States and other
developed nations do not prefer policies designed to promote a
sustainable society. Indeed, a sustainable world. it runs counter to
our political ideoloyv and many of our values that the government
should tak~e the lead in this direction. However, as Mark~ Sapooff has
recentiv argued, this is an incomplete and mistaken view of our
government. A democratic government's responsibility 15 not simpiv to
articulate or channel preferences: tialo and more Importantive
to promote fundamental values and respect fundamental flahts. To
these rights~ we can now add the rights of: future Generationis: to
these fundamental values we can now add care for the future.
humaneness toward their (and our) interests. Thus, 1t government
policies are the only way to achieve sustainablity. it is the
government 5 role to do all within its legitimate power to bring
about that end.
There is, nevertheless, a significant place for individual
action. K~:athrvn George, in a commentary on Paul Thomoson's
analysis of the social coals for agriculture mentioned above, argues
that there are some ways that individuals can take up the obligation
to build a sustainable agricultural system and a sustainable
society. George maintains, first, that individuals have an
obligation to do as much as they can, subject to their particular
social and economic constraints, to institute sustainable practices
in their farming, ranching or resource-management operations.
AS tew analyses of the technical dimensions of alternative or
sustainable agriculture have attempted to show how there are some
"more sustainable" practices that could be introduced into
agriculture, without attendant (counter-intended) individual and
structural effects. Altieri, Letourneau and Davis. for example.
have argued that a variety of approaches to reduce +arms' dependency
on nonrenewable fossil fuels are possible -- presumably without
slanificant chances in overall farm structure or an increase In on-
farm costs (see Table I). Others, as I have mentioned, believe that
energy and chemical inputs can and Should be reduced, within the
present agricultural structure, in order to cut costs of production.
Whether these changes in production techniques are adopted for moral
or economic reasons, there is an indication that farming ~can become
"more sustainable" without the sort of counterintended individual or
structural effects T'hompso~n and others have warned against.
Georce further argues that individuals have an obligation to
promotg:e sustainable practices, in agriculture and beyond. By
"promoting" she means encouraging others to adopt the most
sustainable practices consistent with economic realities, but more
importantly, supporting government policies which are designed to
achieve some measure of sustainability throughout our socio-
economic-environmental system. This~ would entail supporting and
encouraging the election of political leaders whose visions of a
sustainable society are in line with that described above.
One final, basic responsibility, which George does not bring
forth is this: all concerned parties -- which means everyone, in
effect -- must raise the question of sustainability from one of
agricultural sufficiency, resource conservation, or rural comrmunity
to an 1ssue of: the fundamentall institutions and values which
formally and informally govern our 11ves. In part, this will entail
questioning the utilitarian "discounting" of the future which
appears in so many of present policy decisions and practices. In
part, It may mean challenging the lecitimacyv of both public and
private institutions when the lik:ely consequences of their actions
would threaten both ourselves and the future. It will definitely
mean reminding ourselves and others of the positive and forward-
lookina values and Institutions we have inherited.
I have argued that sound moral reasons can be advanced for
su-stainability, for trying to leave the future "enoucih and as good,"
In John Locke's words. Those reasons support the notion that
sustainability is a moral obligation on the part of individuals,
communities, societies, and governments. T'ihese obligations~ direct
us toward resolving difficult practical problems In achievinq
sustainability, whether in research and technoloov development, or
in "institutional design." It is, however, the moral dimensions of
sustainability that present the greatest challenge. These
dimensions may require more than julst changes in technologies. a
res~tructurings of farming and resource management practices and
political institutions and policies. Most basically, they may
require our changing our habits of mind. If there is a revolution
in agriculture and beyond, it will be because we remind ourselves
what it is like to care.
1. For examples of recent work~ see the papers in Trhomas C. Edens.
Cynthe Fridoen &, Susan Biattentield, Su5t~~nabl le Orilculture &r
0199[@%te F EPrmitG Systems (East Lansins MI: Michican State
University Press, 1985); see also the In0ArEDELLon 1 9900al of
2. For a description of LISA program goals and justifications, see
j. Patrick Madden, "Policy Options for a More Sustainable
Agriculture," In irDGEME~ilt UD~rders 1804109~ of 899110~ i~iblemser and
8911G.195 -- 1.98 (Dlak~ Brook: IL: Farm Foundation, 1989).
3. See, for ex:amrple. M~arty Strance, Fami,1y FPrmln(_rr 8 New Economic~
Vision (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 19~88; kmory
Lov/ins, et. al., "Energy and Aqriculture," in Wes Jackson, et. al.,
edes MBething the Expiectatigag~ss~ gf the Land (San Francisco: North
Point Press, 1984); and john Gever, et. al., BEREQd Q11 (Cambridoe
MA: ballinger Publishing Company, 1986).
4. In addition to the LISA~ program (note 2), C+f. American F'arm
Bureau Federation, statement to the Subcommittee on Agricultural
Research and General Legisilation of the United States Senate, J~unee
14, 1984. AFBF, Washington DC.
5. Thorstein Veblen, The Theggy gf the Leisure Class (New York:
MacMillan, 1953); on the characteristics of ethat see Alasdair
Mac~ntyre, After 'girtye (Notre Dame IN: Notre Dame University Press.
6. Gordon Doualass, "The Meanings of A~ricultural Sustainability."
in G. Dougtlacss, ed., kqr-iclyltl'F? Cal tc~~cc. MELEAD_'bill.12 a. Chanqil WcrlCi
Qrder (Boulder CD: Westview, 1984).
7. On the technological fix or "technophilla," see Alan Dren~son.
"Four Philosophies of: Technoloov," P'hilosoph~y T'oday (Summer
1982); Jacques E11ul, Id? IE~hr~ioglogil Soci~ety
1964), and Lanadon Winner. The Whale and the Reactor (Chicauo:
University of: Chicago Press, 1986.). In Aclriculture.e C~ochrane's
theory of the "technological treadmill" is the best analysis.
Willard 1ochrane. The Deeomn o-t A9001 meBr~icaD noricu t Ce An
01519[1981 r80plysifs (Mlinneapolits: University of M'innesota Press,
1979). See also Strange, co. cit.
8. See, for example, Frederick Biuttel & Garth Youngberq.
"Implications of Biotechnoloqy for the Development of Sustainable
Agricultural Systems," in W. Lock~eretz, ed., Environmentaliv Soun~d
egricyltyre (New York~: Praeser, 1983).
93. This notion is from Wendell Berrv, Ibe Unettling of 8merica
Francisco: Sierra Club Book~s, 1977).
103. Douglass, op. cit., p. 25.
11. Kant's dictum applies, of course, to the notion of psychological
ability, i.e., free will, while I am using it to refer to both
physical/ibiolog~ical and social ability. Immanuel Kant, Fgyndations
of the Metaphysics of Mora~ls~, Lewis White Beck~ Edition
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), pp. 16, 68; and Derek Parfit,
Peasqns and PerC59s (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 15-33.
12. Despite Mlark~ Sagoff's argument that nonutilitarian values
undergird our institutional ethics, the "first move" in ethical-
policy decision contex:ts 15 usually at least some species of
con sequen ti al ism. See Sagoff, The Econgay of the Earth (Ca~mbridae:
Cambridge University Press, 1988). For the classical treatment of
utilitarianism, see John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism. Volumee to, In
T'he Collecte WorE~ of 3ohn Stuart Mill (Troronto: University of
Toronto P'ress, 1989>: for modern treatments, see Richard bcrandt, i0
Id.99esy of the iWOOM and the Riglht (Ox~ford: Oxford University Prerss,
1969). Amartya Sen~, QgllTectlye Chi.99 and Sgc1ial1 Welfare
Francisco: Holden, 1970), and A. Sen, ed., U~tilitarianis~m andI Begg~nd
(Cambrodge: Cambridge Univgrsity P'ress, 1982).
13. Brandt, op. cit., p. 78.
14. Stephen Mlarolin, "The Social Riate of Dis~countt and the Optimum
Rate of Investment," Dyar.1er.v ~gc.\EDER of EG90001.cs LXXVIIL: 1
(February 1963). For the "psycholoalcal" account of the
underpinnings of the discountingq" theory, see Ludwio von M'ises,
HmanE 891190.". ICTeatise on Ecgaggics (New Haven: Yiale Unlversityr;
15. This poes back~ to the "founder" of: utilitarianism, Jeremy
B~entham. See Parfit, op. cit., p. 158: this does run counter to
some "utilitarian" economists' view of the matter, for example,
William U. Baumol. "On the Social Rate of Discount," American
Economic Review LVIII:4 (September 1968).
16. John Rawls, c8 Thegry gf ygstice (Cambridqe MA: Belnap P;ress of
Harvard University P'ress, 1971).
17. Ronald Dworkin, Ta8109 Bithr? S Cigyglv (Cambridue MA:
Harvard University P'ress, 1977), p. 94ff.
18. Richard T. DeGeorge, "The Environment, Rights, and Future
Generationss" in K~enneth Goodpaster &z K:enneth Sayre, eds., Ethics
and the F'rgbleag gi the IrwOlLYTELEERt ~EDEMntI T (Notre Dame IN: N~otre
Da~me University Press~, 1979). De Geotrge does not think:, despite the
"no rights of -fuLture generations" arguLment, that we are entitledd to
use up resources or wreck the planet: Indeed, he advocates a poilcy
of "reasonableness and restraint," somewhat on pounds of "care"
argued for here.
19. Trhe notion of' "basic rights" is developed In Henry Shu~e, Wasi~c
FBrqht?" 09451.5tROG~x.8ti1BROGE 804ync an 0l F'.. C_ Poic
Princeton University Press, 1980>. Compare John Rawls on "brasic
goods," in Rawls, op. cit.
20. Despite the f~act that future generations
present children and grandchildren) do not exist. I think the
analoqy close enough to warren this form oft "extensionis;m." on
"extensionism" generally, see C. Baird Calicott. "In Bearch of an
Environmental Ethic," in Tomn Resan, ed., Earthboulnd INew York::
Random House, 193).
21. Annette Biaier. "For the Sak~e of Future Generations." in Tom
Regan, op. cit..
22. This distinction is taken from Alan Gewirth, Reason and M'orality
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 135-136. Henry
Shue has shown how, particularly with respect to "dependent people."
such a distinction does not hold. See Shue, op. rit.
23. Hans Jonas, The I~mpeeattye gi Reepons~ibllity iChicaqo:
University of Chicago Press, 1983).
24. Baier, op. cit. p. 238:
25. Ibid., p. 241: compare Parfit, op. cit., pp. 356++.
26. Jonas, op. cit.
27. See Jeff rey Burk:hardt, "Crisis, Arcrument and Aigriculture, "
J90cDrc~~ of F89r~clticyttye E~thigg I:2 (1988) for an extended version of
28i. The notion of "futurity" is also Hans Jonas's. Jonas. co. cit.
29. Paul Thomp~son, "The Social Goals of: Agriculture." kgriculturee
and HumPE V'alyes Ill:4 (Fall 1986,.
30,. Mancur Olso~n, The Lggice of Cg~eliggil~el Octi an (Cambridae:: Harvard
University P'ress, 1965).
31. See, for example. Peter French, "Corporate Moral ~aency," in Trom
Bieauchampp & Norman Bowie, I(thlical Theory ana BuLsin~ess (Enulewood
Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979).
32. -Such, a justification would, of course, be based on democratic
processes and principles: I would not want to be accused of
promoting a "totalitarian" approach to solvinu social problems.
33. Saqoff, op. cit.
34. K~athryn Pax:ton George, "Ind-ividual Ethics; and the Social Goals
of Agriculture," Agri~cyltyrue and Hyman VaIl1es IVJ:4 (Fall 1987>.
35. Miguel Altieri. Deborah Letourneaul, & James Davis. "The
Requirements of: Sustainable Aecroecosystems," in Douglass, ed., op.
36. John Locke, 1 9 Ire@BtBeR on Go2@COURnt, P'eter Laslett, ed. (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1967). p. 329.
37. An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Southern
Extension Putblic Affairs Committee, Williamsburq VA, June 19i88. I
would like to thank Roy Carrik:er, Rich~ard Haynes, Clvde K:ik~er, Sally
Lawrence, Ulrich Nitsche, and Garth Younaberq for comments on
previous versions. I take full responsibility for remaining
mistakes and or mirsrepresentati ons.
Some Agricultural Technology Approach~es to Reduce Energy Inputs' into
Food Production Systems
Enhlancemnent of photosynthetic efficiency
Improvement of plant architecture for better light interception
(i.e., leaves with vertical orientation)
Genetic selection of varieties with greater efficiency (L~e., high
leaf area index)
Reduction or inhibition of photorespiration and/or night respira-
Use of varieties of a more prolonged growth period
Artificial enrichment with CO
Hlormonal stimulation of n~et p otosynthlesis
Hormonal stimulation of crop senescence
Genetic incorporation of C4 rCHmcanssit crops
Efficient planting patterns (orientation of rows N-S
Use of plastic mulches that reflect light back to underside of
Wind modification with windbreaks and shelterbelts
Frost control with windbreaks, heaters, fans, and irrigation
Control of soil temperatures through mulching or application of
black charcoal. and asphalt
Genetic selection of crops tolerant to nutritional differenic~es
APPLICationl of fertilizers at lower rates and increasing the
efficiency of applied fertilizers
H~inimum or reduced tillage
Use of manurre, compost, cover crops, anrd green manures
Enhlancement of biological N2 fixation, and selection of bacteria
able to fix N2 in the rizosphere of non-legume crops
Direct use.0f primary fertilizer souirces (i.e., phosphoric rock)
HuLching, reduced tillage
Control of stomata aperture with chemicals (i.e., PMA~)
Cover management for shade control
Application of "required amounts" of water based on real soil
Insect pest management
Preventive action: resistant varieties, manipulation of crop
planting date, tillage and row spacing, crop rotation, improved
field hygiene, use of attractants, pheromone traps, crop diver-
Suppressive actions: sterile male technique, sex-attractant phero-
mones, introduction, aulgmentation, and conservation of parasites
and predators, microbial and botanical insecticides, use of
mechanical or fire removal, induction of behavioral changes,
pesticidal controls when economic thrreshold is reached, etc.
Resistant varieties, crop rotations, use of sub-optimal furngicide
doses, multillnes or variety mixtures, biological control with
antagonists, multiple cropping and reduced tillage
Design of competitive crop mixtures, rapid transplant of vigorous
crop seedlings to weed--free bed, use of cover crops, narrow row
spacings, crop rotation, keeping crop weed-free during critical
competition period, mulching, cultivation regimes and allelo-
Multiple cropping systems: inter-cropping, strip-cropping, ratoon
cropping, relay cropping, mixed cropping, etc.
Use of cover crops in orchards and vineyards
Cropping systems analog to the natural secondary succession of the