The morality behind sustainability


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The morality behind sustainability
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30 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Burkhardt, Jeffrey, 1951-
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Agriculture -- Moral and ethical aspects   ( lcsh )
Sustainable agriculture   ( lcsh )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 26-30).
Statement of Responsibility:
Jeffrey Burkhardt.
General Note:
"June, 1989."
General Note:
Paper for the Ethics and Policy Studies Program, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida."

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University of Florida
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oclc - 244249971
lcc - BJ52.5 .B87 1989
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Full Text


Jeffrey Burkhardt
Ethics and Policy Studies
in Agriculture and Natural Resources
Institute of Food and Auricultural Sciences
University of Florida
Gainesville FL 32611

June. 1989cj


Jeffrey B~urk:hardt
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,

and technologies.

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


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
1 0.

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

cultural values:

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;

Press, 1963).

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

this argument.

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
Environmental modification
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
Soil management
Genetic selection of crops tolerant to nutritional differenic~es
or toxicities
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)
Water management

Drip irrigation
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
water content
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-
sification, etc.

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.
Disease management
Resistant varieties, crop rotations, use of sub-optimal furngicide
doses, multillnes or variety mixtures, biological control with
antagonists, multiple cropping and reduced tillage
Weed management
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-
Agronomic systems
Multiple cropping systems: inter-cropping, strip-cropping, ratoon
cropping, relay cropping, mixed cropping, etc.
Use of cover crops in orchards and vineyards
Agro-forestry systems
Cropping systems analog to the natural secondary succession of the