Deep Sustainability; the Essentials[1]

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

John Ikerd

Lonnie Gamble and Travis Cox[2]

Note: This paper is a reflection of the work of all three authors. However, I have drafted this initial white paper on Deep Sustainability and accept full responsibility for any errors or omissions. We three expect to continue working on the ideas in this paper over time. We are posting the paper on a website so people who wish to read it or cite it can provide a link to a version of the paper includes our latest thinking. We are copyrighting the paper, not to keep others from copying or sharing it, but to make sure that it stays in the public domain and available for non-commercial uses.

We have been working on the ideas in this paper for quite some time and wish to acknowledge others who have been working on similar concepts for some time as well. For example, Professor Stuart Hill of University of West Sydney in Australia has written extensively of “deep organics”[3] and the “psychological roots of sustainability.”[4] John Foster of Lancaster University in England has written about “deep sustainability” as being predicated on individual “frames of mind and by extension on a society.”[5] Rohana Ulluwishewa has authored a book that addresses “spirituality in sustainable development.”[6] There may be others worthy of mention of which we are unaware. We do not wish to slight the importance of any related work; we simply want to recognize that we know that others are working on similar concepts.

We are committed to the idea of deep sustainability because we believe it is necessary to create a solid ethical, philosophical, and spiritual foundation upon which authentic ecological, social, and economic sustainability can be built. Deep sustainability is rooted in a worldview that is fundamentally different from the conventional worldview that supports contemporary thought and even the instrumental worldview that underpins most public and private sustainability initiatives and educational programs today. The purpose of this paper is to share the progress of our thinking with others and hopefully begin an open exchange of ideas. We believe we must move beyond resource efficiency and substitution, which are necessary but not sufficient. Ultimately, we must radically redesign our economic and social system based on a new worldview and new paradigms to achieve authentic sustainability. Equally important, we believe deep sustainability also will guide humanity to a fundamentally better way of life.

John Ikerd


How can we meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future? This is the essential question of sustainability. Any society that can’t meet at least the basic human needs of everyone without leaving equal or better opportunities for those of future generations is simply not sustainable over time. Everything of use to humans, including everything of economic value, ultimately must come from the earth, and beyond self-sufficiency, must come by way of human relationships or society. If the usefulness or value of the resources of the earth and society are persistently degraded and depleted, as has been and continues to be the case today, there will be no means of sustaining nature, society, and the economy to meet the needs of future generations. Furthermore, even the basic needs of many people of the world, if not most, are not even being met today.

Continual investments in the renewal and regeneration of nature and society are essential for ecological, social, and economic sustainability. Healthy natural ecosystems are capable of renewing and regenerating themselves using solar energy, if they are allowed to do so. Healthy societies need continual social and economic investments. Unfortunately, today’s dominant paradigms or ways of thinking are in direct conflict with the requisites for sustainable natural ecosystems, societies, and economies. Sustainability will require fundamentally different ways of thinking, beginning with a new and different dominant worldview: meaning a new understanding of how the world works and where the human species fits within it.

The challenges of sustainability cannot be met by simply using existing natural and human resources more efficiently. Nor can sustainability be achieved by substituting renewable for non-renewable resources. Furthermore, implementation of resource efficiency and substitution strategies are too often limited to those situations that increase profits as well as enhance sustainability. Opportunities exist for doing well financially by doing good for society and nature, but they are too few and too limited. Resource efficiency and substitution motivated by economic incentives, while necessary, are simply not sufficient. Sustainability will require looking deeper, beyond the current shallow or instrumental approach to sustainability, i.e. beyond using efficiency and substitution as a means of sustaining profitability and economic growth.

Deep sustainability addresses the root causes of unsustainability. It addresses the ethical, philosophical, and spiritual roots of human well-being that must sustain the ecological, social, and economic integrity of human relationships with each other and with nature. Humanity has lost its way on the path of purpose during centuries of spiritual neglect, misuse, and abuse – in a continuing quest for never-ending economic growth and ever-greater economic wealth. Deep sustainability requires new ways of thinking, knowing, learning, and being in the world: ways that are essential for authentic human progress toward a new and better world – beyond economic sustainability to sustainable prosperity and progress. Deep sustainability is rooted in a fundamentally different worldview. Sustainable lifestyles, communities, economies, societies, and ecosystems all emerge and grow, by nature, from the roots of deep sustainability.

Contemporary Worldview

Worldviews reflect specific philosophies or belief systems concerning how the world works, the place of humans within it, and thus, how people should live their lives. Contemporary ways of thinking are deeply rooted in the human-centered, mechanistic, individualistic view of the world that arose with the era of Enlightenment during the late 1700s. The most fundamental aspect of a worldview is its concept of individual identity or self: “Who has the worldview? Who relates to the rest of the world? Who decides how he or she should live?” Rene Descartes, a noted philosopher of the Enlightenment era, wrote: “I think, therefore I am.” This concept provides the philosophical foundation for most contemporary Western concepts of self.

The most common conception of self probably is the cerebral or rational self, where human intellect and rationality are considered the dominant aspect or dimension of human existence or being. The mind, the intelligent self, has the ability to perceive, respond to, and control both physical and emotional feelings – with thoughtfulness and rationality. “I think, therefore I not only am; I am also in control.” Feelings of pain and pleasure are simply mental responses to physical stimuli that can be modified or manipulated by the rational mind to enhance the human experience. Emotions such as love, compassion, fear, or anger are simply mental responses arising from past experiences than can be moderated and controlled by the mind – if one has the self-discipline to do so. “I am a rational, mental being.”

The common contemporary worldview is anthropocentric or human-centered. It views the well-being of humans as the most significant or important aspect of the existence of the earth and the universe. Everything is centered around on and interpreted in terms of human values and experiences. This worldview is instrumental, in that all other living and non-living things of nature are seen as means to the greater end of human survival, well-being, and satisfaction. Nature is seen as a collection of natural resources that can be transformed into things of economic value, rather than natural beings that have inherent value in and of themselves, regardless of their value to humans. The bounties of nature are seen as unlimited or infinite in their ability to meet human needs – if humans fully exercise their abilities to extract and exploit them.

The contemporary worldview is separatist, in that humanity is considered to be separate or apart from nature, rather than an inseparable part of nature. Cause and effect relationships within the contemporary worldview are believed to be linear and sequential. Specific occurrences or effects are the results of previous specific causes. Everything that will happen in the future would be predictable if everything was known about what has happened in the past because all future effects are inevitable consequences of past sequences of occurrences or causes. Humans are seen as having dominion, authority over the other things of the earth, because only humans have the capacity to understand the complexities of nature and to manipulate its complex systems for their benefit. Any apparent limits of nature are but temporary obstacles that can eventually be overcome through human imagination and creativity.

This anthropocentric view of the world provides the conceptual foundation for contemporary “ways of knowing” or understanding the various phenomena encountered during the human experience. Contemporary ways on knowing embrace scientism, which refers to the belief that the “scientific method” is universally applicable to all areas of inquiry. The scientific method, which requires formulating and empirically testing hypotheses is viewed as the only legitimate means of acquiring knowledge or true understanding of reality. Observing, measuring, and empirically verifying cause and effect relationships is accepted as the most authoritative and valuable means of human understanding, to the exclusion of other ways of knowing. Scientism is mechanistic, in that it treats the world as a highly complex, sophisticated system or mechanism with interrelated but separable parts. It is materialistic, in that it assumes that all forces relevant to understanding reality have a material component. It is reductionist in that it assumes all natural, social, and economic phenomena can be completely understood by reducing these complex phenomena to their essential elements or parts and analyzing specific cause and effect relationships. If the results of an experiment cannot be replicated and confirmed by other scientists, any conclusions are considered to be unjustified and thus are not accepted as knowledge or truth.

Table 1.

The contemporary scientific worldview considers reality to be absolute and deterministic. Reality exists as unqualified, unconditional facts or truth. The purpose of science then is to discover absolute truth. Truth is objective, in that it is not subject to individual interpretation and cannot be influenced or tempered by prejudices or emotions. Any alternative perceptions or interpretations of a situation or event, other than the one true interpretation, is inherently wrong or in error. Furthermore, every action or event, including human thought or action, is a predetermined consequence of conditions that existed prior to the event. There is no freedom or freewill to choose one alternative future rather than another. Life, including human life, is nothing more than the predetermined unfolding or realization of a purposeless sequence of chemical and biological reactions that are relentlessly driven by the flow of energy on its inevitable path toward entropy or uselessness. While few ordinary people understand the implications of the scientisic worldview, the value of scientific knowledge rests on this belief in a mechanistic unfolding of absolute reality.

The dominant ways of teaching and learning naturally reflect contemporary ways of knowing. Reality is absolute and science provides the only accepted means of validating reality. The primary objective of teaching is to transfer scientific or expert knowledge from the teacher, who possesses a specific set of knowledge, to the student, who needs this knowledge to succeed in life. The process is linear and sequential – a step by step process not unlike taking students through a mechanistic, industrial assembly line.

Lesson plans reflect various states or stages in the knowledge transfer process as students move through a given course. Each course builds up on the previous course and degrees are awarded to acknowledge major stages of completion of the process or production of an “educated” student. Instruction is principally a process of indoctrination. Since the specific knowledge needed by the student is known by the teacher, virtually any effective means of transferring that knowledge to the student is deemed acceptable. Students learn as individuals, rather than members of groups or classes, since scientific knowledge is independent of immediate physical or social context. Students may be required to work in groups, but only to train them for group experiences they may encounter after completion of the course or graduation. These ways of teaching and learning essentially indoctrinate students into contemporary ways of thinking that reinforce their beliefs in the contemporary worldview. This worldview is in direct conflict with the worldview essential for authentic sustainability.

Manifestation of the Contemporary Worldview

The contemporary worldview is reflected in decisions and actions that are fundamentally economic in nature. Neoclassical economic theory, which dominates Western society and the global economy, reflects an “economistic” belief system which is rooted in the worldview of anthropocentricism, scientism, and the cerebral or rational self. The economic individual is assumed to make purely rational decisions that maximize their individual, instrumental, impersonal self-interest, unfettered by social relationships or ethical values. Neoclassical economists rationalize that these individual acts of individual self-interest somehow serve the collective or common-interests of society as a whole.

Overall human betterment or advancement is assumed to be synonymous with economic growth or development. All public decisions are assessed in terms of economic costs and benefits. Neoclassical economists assume that all relevant social and ethical values can be “monetized and internalized,” so their economic equivalent can be determined by impersonal markets. Competitive markets are seen as the most effective means of allocating natural and human resources so as to best meet the needs and wants of humans as consumers. Despite the failure of science to accept the existence of purpose or intentionality, contemporary society seems driven by an insatiable quest for material well-being.

In an effort to be “scientific”, neoclassical economists abandoned the classical economic concept of subjective “utility” or satisfaction in favor of objective, observable, replicable consumer behaviors referred to as “revealed preferences.” Consumers reveal the economic value they place on goods and services through rationally consistent choices that maximize their individual self-interests. This quest is rationalized and supported by the neoclassical economic assumptions of insatiable demand for an inexhaustible supply of things that have economic value. The economic well-being of a society is measured in terms of the quantities and prices of things people are willing and able to consume. Increasing consumption depends on increasing employment, since people must earn money to buy the things they consume, and increasing employment depends on economic growth. Profits also depend on increasing returns on investment, which also depends on economic growth. The ability of borrowers in general to pay interest on loans – in addition to repaying their loans – depends on economic growth. In an economistic world, the overall well-being of a society depends on its ability to maintain economic growth.

The natural resources of the earth – minerals, water, air, energy – from which all economic value must ultimately be derived, obviously are limited or finite in quantity and quality. Neoclassical economists rationalize the possibility of unending economic growth through the process of “dematerialization,” meaning the ability to produce more economic value from fewer resources by increasing economic efficiently. However, according to one of the most fundamental laws of physics, the law of entropy, there are natural physical limits to resource efficiency. Everything of use to humans, including everything of economic value, ultimately depends on the use of energy. Whenever energy is used to do anything useful, some of its usefulness is inevitably lost. Thus, unending economic growth actually depends on “ephemeralization,” a term coined by Buckminster Fuller, meaning the ability to do "more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing."[i] In a more general sense, neoclassical economists assume that human imagination and creativity will be capable of finding a substitute for any economic resource that may be depleted and solving any environmental or social challenge that may arise in the pursuit of ever-greater economic growth. This worldview lacks humility and partakes of a technological optimism that is unwarranted if one does even a cursory review of recent history.

Economism is intrinsically materialistic in that it denies the existence of purpose or meaning in human life, in any sense other than animalistic urges to seek pleasure and avoid pain, which are common to all sentient beings. The existence of feelings beyond physical and mental pain and pleasure cannot be proven – meaning isolated, replicated, or validated using the scientific method. Socially acceptable behaviors, such as compassion, are rationalized as selfish acts in responses to, or in anticipation of, positive or negative stimuli from other members of society. Ethical acts or altruism or selflessness are considered to be irrational or metaphysical. The purpose for human actions motivated purely by social or ethical values would have to come from some higher level of organization, meaning from a spiritual or transcendent realm of reality. The existence of such a realm would challenge the economists’ materialistic worldview. Since existence of a higher realm or order of things cannot be proven, is not accepted as reality.

Economic value is individual in that it denies the rationality of choices that do not further individual, material well-being. Economic value is instrumental in that economic choices and actions are always means to an end motivated by the expectation of receiving something of greater economic value in return. Economic value is impersonal. If something cannot be bought, sold, or traded from one person to another, it has no economic value. As a result, there is no economic value in doing anything for the sole benefit of another individual or for society in general. There is no possibility of receiving anything that will provide sensory pleasure in return for such actions – or for their omissions. There is no economic rationality for doing anything for the sole benefit of future generations because there is no possibility of receiving anything of economic value in return. Economic investments made solely for benefit of the greater good of society or the future of humanity are not economically rational. Sustainability is not a rational economic concern.

The methodology or means of pursuing economic growth within the economistic paradigm is through greater economic efficiency of resource use and resource substitution, motivated by the potential for profits. Success is measured in terms of continual growth in the aggregate economic value of production or output, commonly referred to as Gross Domestic Product or GDP. New methodologies are continually evolving that attempt to use existing natural and human resources more efficiency, meaning to create more economic value at a lower economic cost, which also increases profits. The focus is on developing new materials, methods, and technologies that will allow production of greater economic value from increasingly scarce resources. As resources are depleted and become scarcer, they take on greater economic value. This creates economic incentives to find alternative resources that can be used to sustain economic efficiency.

Economism is rooted in the belief that sustainability can be achieved through ever greater efficiently of resource use (dematerialization & ephemeralization), including resource substitution. Economists believe that human imagination and creativity will be capable of finding substitutes for any resources humans might deplete and solving any problem they might in advertently create. The development of new technologies – mechanical, electronic, genetic, even atomic – are seen as the key to unending economic growth. All humans need in order to achieve sustainability are appropriate economic incentives to develop the necessary technologies. These beliefs are manifestations of the conventional anthropocentric worldview. They are beliefs not facts, because no means exist for proving or validating that humans have an innate human capacity to create unlimited economic value in a world of limited material resources.

Table 2.

Strategies for sustaining economic growth are essentially business management strategies. Even government institutions and nonprofit organizations are managed essentially as businesses, focusing on the efficiency with which organizations function. Realizing the maximum possible economic value or usefulness from the limited resources under the control of the organization is the accepted as the measure of excellence. Neoclassical economic theory, which is rooted in economism, assumes that the greatest good for society as a whole can be assured only through the maximum efficiency of individual economic enterprises and organizations.

The cerebral, anthropocentric, scientistic, economistic worldview that has dominated Western thinking for the past several centuries has succeeded in providing levels of material, economic well-being for many far greater than ever before experienced by humanity. The levels of sustained economic growth during the industrial era, and particularly during the last century, are unparalleled in human history. However, much of this growth was achieved through resource extraction and exploitation – the source of growing questions and outright skepticism regarding the sustainability of economic growth.

Virtually every major global corporation has a significant sustainability initiative, if for no other reason than to respond to the growing concerns of workers, shareholders, and consumers. Periodic world-wide gatherings of top international political leaders attest to a growing global awareness of the importance of sustainability. The objective here is not to reiterate or defend the credibility of the large and growing litany of ecological, social, and economic indicators that validate the lack of sustainability of today’s global economy. The primary objective is to explain the ways in which today’s global economy is dominated by the belief system of economism that is rooted in a worldview of rationalism, anthropocentricism and scientism.

The ecological, social, and economic indicators of unsustainability, clearly visible today are the inherent consequences of the dominant contemporary worldview – of current ways of thinking about how the world works and place of humans within it. Guided by an unsustainable mechanistic worldview and the unsustainable paradigms or way of thinking such as scientism and economism that arise from this worldview, people have no means of deciding how to live their lives in ways that allow them to meet their own needs without diminishing the ability of others to meet their needs as well, including those of future generations.

As a result, the productivity or usefulness of both natural and human resources is being rapidly degraded and depleted. There is no commitment to renewing or regenerating natural or human resources as long as the faith persists that humans will somehow find a way to sustain economic growth without radically changing their lifestyles or redesigning their economy and society. Instead of essential resource renewal and regeneration alongside radical economic and social redesign, global society seems trapped in a spiraling process that is rapidly degenerating the resources upon which ecological, social, and economic sustainability all ultimately depend.

Instrumental Sustainability (IS)

Over the past few decades, sustainability has evolved from a futuristic vision of a small group of environmentalists to become a watchword of global corporations and governments. The concept of sustainability is generally linked with the concept of sustainable development. A statement in a 1987 United Nations report, commonly referred to as the Brundtland Commission Report, remains the most widely accepted definition of sustainability: “Sustainable development meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs as well.”[ii] In short, sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future.

Since everything of economic value ultimately is derived from nature by way of society, economic sustainability depends on maintaining the integrity and productivity of nature and society. Virtually all corporate and governmental sustainability initiatives include references to the three essential pillars of sustainability: ecological integrity, social equity, and economic viability. No business or government wants to admit that it is not sustainable. With its growth in popularity, however, sustainability has lost much of its initial significance as a fundamental challenge to contemporary ways of thinking, knowing, learning, and being in the world. Essentially, sustainability has come to be seen as “greenwashing” whereby an institution can appear sustainable, or “green,” but not actually have to make the changes demanded by an authentic commitment to sustainability.

Corporations, government agencies, and educational institutions have systematically redefined sustainability to accommodate their ongoing missions. For corporations, this means reframing or repackaging programs that continue to maximize economic returns to their investors or stockholders. For governments, this means policies that incentivize a transition to a “green economy” while stimulating, or at least not compromising, their commitment to continuing economic growth. For non-government organizations, this means focusing on politically achievable policy objectives and promoting individual acts of stewardship. For the vast majority of educational institutions sustainability is just another subject to somehow be accommodated in the curriculum. Such programs sometimes furthers environment protection and social justice, but have rarely been allowed to detract from or even significantly redirect the existing mission of the organization.

Institutional commitments to sustainability reflect a wide variety of priorities. For example, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, states three goals for their sustainability program: “To be supplied by 100-percent renewable energy, create zero waste, and sell products that sustain people and the environment.”[iii] Monsanto, the global agribusiness corporation, defines their challenge in creating a sustainable agriculture as: “Producing more, conserving more, and improving lives.”[iv] Ironically, the Sierra Club, a large U.S. nonprofit organization, also focuses its sustainability initiatives on economic incentives provided by consumers’ buying decisions: “We, the consumers, through our food choices, can stop the practices that harm our health, our planet, and our quality of life.”

More generally, a 2009 book, The Corporate Responsibility Movement,[v] chronicled five years of “World Review” articles published in the Journal of Corporate Citizenship. The authors searched for signs of progress in the sustainability movement in the corporate world. The various initiatives include Corporate Sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporate Environmental Responsibility, and Socially Responsible Investing. The authors failed to see any major changes in corporate outcomes or business practices as result of their proclaimed commitment to sustainability. They concluded by expressing serious doubts regarding the ability of voluntary business action to bring about the needed changes.

In a later book, Healing Capitalism,[vi] the same authors concluded that many of the threats to sustainability are fundamental to capitalist economies. They no longer believe that individual businesses, each pursuing their economic self-interests, can serve the larger interests of society and the long run interest of humanity. The authors apparently saw little hope for economic sustainability unless there is a fundamental change in capitalism, which means a fundamental change in the relationship between government and the economy. They conclude the corporate community must ultimately play a major role in bringing about these changes because of the dominant corporate influence on the economic policies of governments.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows little inclination for changing its relationship to the economy: “EPA efforts in the area of sustainability practices and approaches include labeling green products and promoting green chemistry and engineering, managing materials rather than creating waste, using green infrastructure to manage storm water runoff, and supporting the sustainable design of communities.”[vii] The United Nation’s objective, as stated in their Millennium Development Goals, is a bit more comprehensive: to reverse the loss of environmental resources, significantly reduce biodiversity loss, to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and achieve significant improvement in the lives of slum dwellers.[viii].

Sustainability initiatives in higher education are frequently characterized as “Green College and University” programs, which focus on “green buildings,” energy conservation, renewable energy, recycling wastes, and bringing organic and local foods into campus cafeterias.[ix] Educational programs related to sustainability tend to be relegated to existing departments, such as environmental studies, sociology, or anthropology, where the emphasis of programs reflects their respective disciplines. In addition, only a few sustainability education programs deviate far from the traditional teacher-student relationship or lecture-examination format for learning. There are very few separate departments of sustainability or sustainable living, where the focus in on sustainability in general. The various sustainability educational initiatives tend to focus on one or another of the ecological, social, or economic dimensions of sustainability.

These contemporary sustainability initiatives may be classified as “instrumental,” in that they are all means to economic ends. Virtually all of today’s sustainability initiatives are motivated by expectations of realizing economic benefits or reducing economic costs by responding to public demands for actions in addressing the challenges of sustainability. For nonprofit organizations and institutions this includes not offending economically and politically powerful allies or opponents. All of these organizations knowingly or unknowingly accept the neoclassical economic assertion that market economies are capable of providing adequate economic incentives for sustainability. They implicitly assume that ecological and social sustainability are either supportive or at least not in conflict with reducing costs, increasing revenue, or otherwise increasing corporate profits and aggregate economic growth.

Admittedly, there are increasing opportunities to profit from ecologically sound and socially responsible business practices as consumers and investors reflect their growing concerns for sustainability in their economic choices. As natural and human resources become increasingly scarce, they become more economically valuable, providing increasing economic incentives for resource protection, efficiency, and substitution. While doing things that are good for nature and society that are also profitable are, and will continue to be necessary, they will not be sufficient for sustainability. However, a preoccupation with economic incentives for sustainability has become an obstacle to bringing about the fundamental changes that are essential for ecological, social, and even economic sustainability. The “necessary” has become the enemy of the “sufficient.”

There are simply no rational economic motives for renewing or regenerating the productivity of natural or human resources to benefit society in general or the future of humanity. Since economic value in inherently individualistic and instrumental in nature, there is no economic rationality for making economic investments if the returns on those investments will accrue to someone else or accrue after the investor is dead. Since life is inherently uncertain, the economy places a premium on the present relative to the future in all investment decisions. That’s why markets require borrowers to pay interest and allows lenders to charge interest. For example, at an interest rate of seven percent, a one-dollar return deferred until ten years in the future has a current economic value of only fifty-cents. Fifty cents invested at seven percent compound interest will be worth one dollar in ten years. At rates of return of 10% to 15%, investments double every five to seven years – the common planning horizon of for-profit corporations.

While there are economic incentives for resource substitution and efficiency, or dematerialization, any ecological and social benefits typically have been more than offset by the increasing economic output required to sustain economic growth. Even though resources are used more efficiently, total resource use continues to increase. As indicated above, there are physical limits to dematerialization and thus limits of economic growth. Unlimited economic growth would require ephemeralization – which there is no logical reason to believe is possible. Economic growth can be achieved by creating new products that are that are more valuable to consumers than the products they replace while using fewer natural and physical human resources in the production process. New designs for cell-phones that provide new and better services and are simpler and cheaper to produce provides a contemporary example. However, there are also rational limits to supply and demand for things of non-material value that conceivably could continually add economic value to a finite stock of material resources. [x]

Substituting renewable resources for non-renewable resources, whenever it is profitable to do so, while necessary, will not be sufficient for sustainability. For example, solar energy, while plentiful in total, must be collected, concentrated, and stored before it becomes an effective replacement for fossil energy. Thus, the economic incentives for replacing fossil energy with solar energy will remain inadequate until fossil energy supplies are largely depleted. In addition, substitution of renewable for nonrenewable natural resources does nothing to mitigate the depletion of human resources essential for economic sustainability. If the profits from renewable energy sources are used to enhance corporate profits, rather than sustain healthy communities and societies, resource substitution will do little to create sustainable economies or societies. Resource efficiency and substitution, while necessary, are insufficient for sustainability.

Societies driven by the purpose of economic growth are not sustainable. Resource degradation and depletion are inevitable. As the natural limits of economic growth are approached, and natural and human resources become more limiting to growth in economic output, the rate of resource degradation and depletion actually accelerates. The indicators of unsustainability, such as depletion of fossil energy and loss of biological diversity, become increasingly obvious and undeniable as nature approaches a state on entropy. Fundamental change, change that begins with a change in worldview, is no longer an option – it is absolutely essential.

The sustainability dilemma cannot be resolved by simply trying to help people understand that all economic value is ultimately derived from nature by way of society, and therefore, people must give priority to the productivity of nature and society. Giving priority to the natural and human resources that must sustain the economy, while necessary, is not sufficient. People ultimately must change their ways of thinking. Current ways of thinking about nature, society, and economy are deeply rooted in the contemporary worldview which is in direct conflict with the essential requisites for sustainability. Authentic sustainability will require a fundamentally different worldview.

Admittedly, the worldview of “instrumental sustainability” (IS) is somewhat different from the contemporary worldview in some significant respects. However, it fails to address the deep philosophical, ethical, and spiritual roots of unsustainability. Neither does IS reject the mindsets, purposes, motivations, or methods that are driving today’s global society toward an unsustainable future. The IS concept of self at least expands individual concerns to include concerns for communities and social and political groups of individuals within societies. Many of today’s sustainable business initiatives at least refer to “corporate social responsibility” as something more than a purely individual responsibility. Government and non-profit initiatives reflecting the IS worldview often focus on sustainable “communities.”

The IS concept of self might be characterized as an “eco-social self.” The social aspect remains grounded in the belief that the mental aspect of self is in control of the physical self, but it goes beyond considerations of the individual self to value relationships among individuals within families, communities, and societies. Feelings such as love, compassion, fear, or anger are accepted as legitimate human emotions that help guide and sustain relationships among individual beings. “I feel, think, and relate; therefore, I am.” “I am a physical, mental, and social being.” Therefore, I have a responsible to others as well as myself.

Those who have an IS worldview also proclaim an eco-centric or ecological perspective of the place of humans within the larger whole of nature. They understand that human well-being is interrelated with the well-being of the rest of the natural ecosystem but still view the earth as little more than a source of resources to sustain humanity. This view of the world is instrumental in that human relationships with nature are still a means to an end or a goal of sustaining humanity. Likewise, social relationships have little if any intrinsic value but are seen as important means of sustaining communities, societies, and ultimately, humanity. Things of nature have no inherent “right” to exist or purpose apart from its potential usefulness to humanity. There is no value of human relationships beyond their contribution to the long run economic sustainability. The IS worldview is actually anthropocentric rather than eco-centric in that its concerns for the well-being of the earth are essentially “self-centered” because humans are interconnected with nature, therefore humans need the natural world to exist in order for humans to exist.

Table 3.

Unlike the contemporary worldview, the IS worldview recognizes that the resources of the earth are finite and limited and thus the IS worldview accepts limits to economic growth. It also respects the connectedness of humans to nature and each other and thus accepts the necessity of maintaining the productivity of both the natural and human resources. Rather than seeing the world as linear and sequential, IS views the world as made up of interconnected complex systems with countless feedback loops that complicate and obfuscate underlying cause and effect relationships. Everything is connected; you can’t do just one thing. Every effect of a cause is the cause of another effect, which is the cause of another effect, in a circular process that continues indefinitely. It is conceptually impossible to completely isolate specific cause and effect relationship in the IS view of the world.

The IS worldview is typically illustrated graphically as three intersecting circles representing the sets or realms of nature, society, and the economy (Environment, social, and economic in Figure 1). The areas of overlap among the three subsets or realms represents the intersecting subset that is relevant to sustainability. However, large parts of the economy are viewed as being purely economic, rather than overlapping with nature or society. Large parts of nature and society are likewise seen as being unaffected by either of the other realms of reality. Concerns for social responsibility, equity, or justice are limited to the intersection were the economy overlap with society. Concerns for ecological integrity are limited to the intersection where nature overlaps with the economy and society. Concerns for the more-exclusive concept of sustainability are limited to the subset where the economy, society, and nature all three intersect. IS purportedly views the world as inherently interconnected, however, large parts of the realms of nature, society, and economy are typically treated as irrelevant to sustainability.

Figure 1.

Instrumental Sustainability Worldview

In spite of the proclaimed differences between conventional and instrumental sustainability worldviews, there is little difference in the ways of knowing or understanding natural or social phenomena. Despite expressed reservations, the IS worldview accepts the conventional doctrine of “scientism.” In spite of claiming to have an ecological worldview, the IS worldview accepts the conventional premise that the world functions much like a giant, complex machine. Despite claims of an ecological world view, IS scientists either reject or are highly skeptical of claims or conclusions derived from any approach other than the “scientific method.” They even attempt to reduce complex systems to their functional parts, rather than accept them as inseparable wholes. They insist that specific cause and effect relationships, even if complex, must be identified and isolated for purpose of scientific analysis. Credible research results must be replicable if they are to be accepted as valid.

Within the IS worldview, science is a search for an “absolute” reality. The truth exists and the function of science is to discover absolute truth. Facts and truth are objective or absolute and are not subject to individual interpretations or conclusions. The unfolding of reality is mechanistic or materialistic: a mindless, purposeless sequence of chemical, electronic, and biological actions and reactions. There is no purpose of meaning to life other than possibly of fulfilling one’s socially determined role within society. The science that guides instrumental sustainability denies the ability of humans to take intentional actions capable of changing the purposeless unfolding of reality toward a predetermined future. The attention of scientists to questions of sustainability suggests they believe intentional human decisions and actions are capable of leading humanity toward sustainability, which they treat as a worthy purpose for humanity. This belief conflicts with their belief in the scientific worldview of materialism which denies of the existence of either purpose or intentionality.

In spite of their common belief in scientism, methods of teaching and learning are somewhat different between the conventional and IS worldviews. Most advocates of the IS worldview seem to understand there is no comprehensive body of knowledge to be transferred from a group of expert instructors to students of sustainability. They understand the human experience of reality as an unfolding process that is affected by the decisions and actions of humans as well as the other things of the earth. In this respect, the IS worldview again conflicts with the predetermined aspect of scientism, which it continues to embrace in many other respects. They tend to advocate an experiential approach to teaching and learning. Students are placed in situations where they have an opportunity to discover knowledge for themselves. Admittedly, experiential learning is accepted in the conventional worldview as well, but it is less prominent in conventional circles than among those who have an IS worldview.

Within an experiential learning context of IS, teachers and students are guided more by shared experiences than by set lesson plans. Rather than being linear and sequential, the learning process in more accumulative and flexible. There isn’t a specific sequence in which students are expected to learn, instead bits of knowledge are accumulated as the opportunities arise and are synthesized into a coherent body of knowledge. While courses are structured to provide experiences consistent with the overall intent of the course, there is more flexibility in the IS approach to education.

The IS approach to experiential learning goes beyond instruction and indoctrination of individuals. It allows groups of students to interact in ways that allows them to develop new ways of thinking as groups that are more effective than their thinking as a collection of individuals. The students learn from each other as well as their teachers and also from their experiences outside of classrooms. The emphasis on experiential learning rather than knowledge transfer is perhaps the most promising aspect of the IS worldview. Students have opportunities to move their thinking beyond the limited potential of the IS worldview toward the deep sustainability worldview that is necessary for authentic sustainability.

Manifestation of Instrumental Sustainability (IS). The IS worldview is manifested in a definable set of intentions, actions, and consequences. The overarching goal or aim of the IS worldview is different from the goal of the conventional worldview. Rather than economic growth, the IS worldview is oriented toward economic sustainability. The language of the IS movement focuses on social and ecological responsibility and sustainability in general, but concerns for nature and society are limited to those areas that contribute directly to the sustainability of the economy. There is a realization that all economic value comes from the earth by way of society and that natural and human resources are finite. In this respect, the IS goal of sustainability is more farsighted than the conventional goal of economic growth. However when it comes to actual decisions and actions, short run profits and economic growth take priority over long run ecological and social sustainability.

The IS worldview accepts the reality of limits to growth. However, since there is no way of knowing those limits, at least not with certainty, much of the discussion of limits remains conceptual or theoretical. Many IS advocates work diligently to create a social and political environment that recognizes limits to economic growth. However, they recognize little incentive for individual actions unless a sufficient number of others are willing to act similarly to make a real difference in nature or society.

The economic sub-discipline of ecological economics provides the conceptual foundation for economic sustainability within the IS worldview. Most IS advocates accept the ultimately necessity of a steady-state economy, which is a core principle of ecological economics. A steady state economy is one “that develops qualitatively without growing quantitatively… maintained at a level that is both sufficient for a good life and within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the [natural] ecosystem”[xi] They also accept the premise of dematerialization as a means of achieving higher levels of material well-being and periodic economic growth even within a steady state economy. The IS worldview simply considers the potentials of dematerialization to be limited rather than infinite.

Individuals within the economy will always have opportunities for economic progress, even within a steady state economy. Some will continue to get rich as others go broke. At some point, however, humanity will simply have to accept the reality that continuing growth in the aggregate economy as a whole is simply not sustainable. However, IS advocates typically see the end of growth as being in the distant future, rather than within the logical planning horizon or timespan for consideration in current individual and collective decisions and actions.

As a consequence, the motives for decisions and actions of those with the IS worldview continue to be economic in nature, is spite of their growing ecological and social concerns. The IS worldview essentially embraces the conventional worldview of “economism,” in spite of differences with respect to identity, centricity or locus of value, and ways of learning. Within IS, individual and collective decisions must be based on logic and rationality rather than insight and intuition. Actions are instrumental and utilitarian in that they must be a logical means for achieving some useful or economically valuable end or objective.

Within the IS worldview, the ideal decisions and actions are those that are ecologically and socially responsible that also enhance the economic bottom-line and promote economic growth – win, win, win opportunities. Preference may also be shown for decisions that are good for nature and society, even if they don’t enhance the economic bottom-line, as long as they don’t detract from economic performance or growth. While there is a recognition of the need for ecological and social sustainability, it is not considered rational or logical to compromise or sacrifice profits or growth for the sake of ecological or social integrity. The IS worldview implicitly accepts the neoclassical economic belief that the pursuit of individual, short-run, economic self-interest will somehow promote and sustain the greater good of society and humanity.

Advocates of IS share the conventional worldview that economic incentives are both necessary and sufficient as a means of ensuring sustainability – or at least would be sufficient if “we get the prices right.” They see the fundamental problem of sustainability as a lack of readily available information regarding the economic opportunities associated with growing ecological and social awareness – in terms of both benefits and costs. Many win-win-win opportunities already exist and more will emerge as resources become scarcer and consumers become more aware of the ecological and social consequences of their choices.

Advocates of the IS and conventional worldviews share a common belief the power of technology to resolve the ecological and social dilemmas of sustainability. The economy will provide incentives to use increasingly scarce resources more efficiently, meaning incentives for continued dematerialization of the economy. The economy will also provide incentives to find substitutes for resources that are being depleted and will solve ecological or social problems that may arise. The economy will provide incentives for dramatic breakthroughs in new mechanical, electronic, and biological technologies. The conventional worldview assumes the potential of new technologies is unlimited, whereas the IS worldview recognizes limits to dematerialization and economic growth, but those limits are seen as still far in the future. The primary difference between the two worldviews in this regard is that one sees a need for fundamental change while the other concedes a need for fundamental change but feels no need for urgency in bring it about. While the concerns are different, the immediate consequences of the two worldviews are quite similar.

Table 4.

The IS worldview accepts the premise that some level of government intervention in the marketplace will be necessary to ensure sustainability. In cases where ecological and social costs and benefits are external, meaning not fully reflected in market prices, the ecological and social externalities will need to be internalized through government programs. Economists call such situations “market failures” and admit relatively few. Government “cap and trade” programs that create marketable “pollution rights” are a prime example of internalizing externalities. While the IS worldview accepts personal relationships as being of some value, impersonal market transactions are deemed sufficient to achieve sustainability – if “we get the prices right.” Rather than rely solely on business management or the decisions of individual decision makers, IS advocates believe government programs will be necessary to “get the prices right.”

Differences in ultimate consequences of conventional and IS means and methods are the result of inherent differences between the two worldviews. The rate at which natural and human resources are degraded would be slowed by widespread adoption of the IS worldview because of increased attention given to the economic value of natural and human resources. Although, priority is given to economic value, the IS worldview gives preference to ecological, social, and economic, win-win-win, decisions. IS advocates value the triple-bottom-line, rather than simply considering the single economic bottom-line.

Government policies supported by the IS worldview would also slow the rate of degradation of natural and human resources by reflecting the economic value of natural and human resources in market prices of resources and products. This would enhance the development of human resources that have economic value and slow the degradation of natural resources that have economic value. Obviously, a slower rate of resource degradation would be more desirable that the rapid rate of degradation that is occurring under the conventional worldview. Furthermore, slowing the current rate of depletion will likely be necessary toward authentic sustainability – providing time for authentic solutions to found to the dilemma of sustainability.

The IS worldview, while a necessary step in a positive direction, will not be sufficient to achieve sustainability. An IS worldview would slow the process of entropy – the degradation of the usefulness of matter and energy. But, it would not stop or reverse the current trend toward a global ecosystem lacking in form, structure, organization, differentiation, or life – a state of inert, lifeless uniformity. Slowing this process is necessary, but sufficiency will require a deeper understanding of the roots of unsustainability in order to eliminate the causes rather than simply treat the symptoms. There is nothing inherently wrong with treating the symptom with IS means or methods as long as doing so does not interfere with addressing the root causes. People can do the necessary things by any means available as long as they don’t allow the necessary to become the enemy of the sufficient.

Deep Sustainability

Authentic sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. The worldview of deep sustainability addresses both necessity and sufficiency and thus is essential for authentic sustainability. It accepts the necessity of using both natural and human resources more efficiently, including reducing both the quantity and toxicity of wastes. It also accepts the necessity of substituting renewable resources, particularly solar energy, for non-renewable resources. However, deep sustainability moves beyond IS to address the fundamental changes in human understanding of how the world works and the place of humans within it that ultimately will be essential to sustain human life on earth. It will be necessary to use resources more efficiently and to substitute renewable for non-renewable resources, but authentic sustainability will also require radically thinking and redesign of human economies and societies based on a fundamentally different worldview.

A worldview of deep sustainability ultimately will change virtually every aspect of human life. It begins with a rethinking of the concept of “self.” Sustainability will require intentional actions of thoughtful people who are motivated by something deeper than individual, economic self-interests. If humans continue to behave as other self-seeking species that find themselves in a position of dominance in their natural ecosystem, they will expand their consumption and population until they degrade and destroy their natural environment, ultimately destroying human civilization.

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

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

Our sense of purpose and meaning in life comes from the spiritual dimension of self. We can gain some sense of our place within nature and society through scientific observation and rational and logical analysis of what we see around us. However, we can also gain a deeper sense of our place within nature by totally immersing ourselves in nature – physically and mentally. We can gain a deeper sense of our place within society by totally immersing ourselves within community and society – physically and mentally. However, the purpose from which society and nature gain their purpose and meaning must come from beyond the thing we can see, feel, touch, hear, or smell – from some higher level. This higher level is beyond the realm of direct observation or analysis, which defies understanding through the current approaches of science or logical analysis. Our only means of sensing the higher purpose that must guide intentional actions is our spiritual connection to the higher order, universal consciousness, or God – the quite voice within that helps us to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong.

In the worldview of deep sustainability (DS), a natural hierarchy exists among the spiritual, mental, and physical qualities or dimensions of the intentional self. Higher levels are “higher” in the sense that higher levels define the purpose and principles that guide lower levels. Principles are interpreted at lower levels, but cannot be altered or nullified. At the highest level, the purpose and principles are unchanging and inviolable and thus ultimately require deference and respect from all lower levels. They are the “laws of nature” that define cause and effect relationships in the natural world and “natural law” which defines cause and effect relationships in the human part of the natural world. These basic principles or laws of nature can be denied or ignored but the consequences of their violation cannot be avoided.

The highest level requires deference and respect in all intentional individual and collective actions of humans. However, realization of the possibilities or potentials of higher levels is always dependent on lower levels of organization, including the individual and collective actions of humans. Higher levels give meaning to the realization of the possibilities nature, society, and individuals, and the lower levels allow the realization of those possibilities at higher levels, when guided by true principles. All levels are interdependent and have the potential to be mutually beneficial.

Deep sustainability is co-centric rather than anthropocentric. Advocates of DS are concerned specifically with humanity – the present and future well-being of humanity. However, DS is not anthropocentric or human centered, in spite of its specific concern for the human species. The DS worldview is co-centric in that it recognizes that human well-being and the sustainability of humanity is inseparably and critically interrelated with the well-being of the other non-living and living beings that make up the rest of the natural ecosystem of which humanity is a part.

Nature does not exist for the sole benefit of humans any more than humans exists for the sole benefit of the other things of nature. Humanity is not sustainable unless human societies contribute to the overall health and well-being of the whole of nature of which humans are a part. If deep sustainability were purely eco-centric it would be concerned only with the well-being of nature and would likely view humanity as the greatest single threat to ecological sustainability. Deep sustainability is co-centric in that its concerns for humanity are inseparable from concerns for the rest of nature. Humanity is obviously separate in the sense of being “distinct from” the other non-human elements of nature, but humans and the other non-human things of nature are all inseparable elements of aspects of the same whole. Humans have the ability to act in conflict with the principles of nature, as presumable do other species, but they cannot avoid the consequences of such actions.

The DS worldview may be characterizes by three circles, the largest area or set representing nature, the next largest representing society, a subset of nature, and the smallest the economy, a subset of society (Figure 2.). The economy is not something separate but is a part of society which is a part of nature. There is no part of the economy which exists outside of or independent from society or nature. There is no part of society separate from or independent of nature. Nature, including the human part of nature, is an interdependent, inseparable living ecosystem, which includes human societies and economies.

Figure 2.

Deep Sustainability Worldview

A natural “hierarchy” exists among nature, society, and the economy. This hierarchy might be described more accurately as a holarchy in that it is made up of wholes within wholes rather than simply parts of wholes. Holons, such as economies and societies, are both wholes and parts of nature. Within nested hierarchies, or holarchies, the purpose and principles by which lower levels function are defined at higher levels. The purpose of the economy is to meet the needs of society, and human society finds purpose as a living species within nature and the ultimately of the universe. However, the ability of higher levels to reach their full potential is determined by lower levels. The ability to make “impersonal” economic transactions allows human society to achieve greater material potentials that would be possible with the “personal” transactions of purely “social economies.” Also, if humans fail to fulfill their purpose within nature, the potentials of nature to achieve its full purpose will be diminished accordingly.

The human body is made up nested hierarchies or holarchies. For example, the heart is a holon or subsystem of the circulatory system and circulatory system is a holon or subsystem of the human body. The purpose of the heart cannot be derived from other elements of the circulatory system, from the lungs, for example. The function of the lungs it to supply oxygen that is pumped through the body by the heart. However, they both derive their purpose from the body as a whole, the body’s highest level of organization.

The basic biophysical principles by which the circulatory system, heart and lungs all function are principles that are common to the human body as a whole. The relationships among various hierarchal levels in a healthy body are mutually beneficial, in that the ability of the body to function at its full potential is dependent upon the functioning of the circulatory system, including the heart and lungs. These basic relationships and principles can be ignored or denied but the negative consequences of their violation cannot be avoided. The same type of hierarchal or holarchial relationship exists among nature, society, and the economy. The priorities and principles of laws or nature can be ignored or denied, but the ultimate consequence of their violation cannot be avoided.

Table 5.

The earth is a dynamic, self-renewing, regenerative living system, and humans are a part of an “animate” or living earth. Living system are not complex mechanisms; they are dynamic, self-making, ever-evolving living organisms or organizations. Deep sustainability is not about going back to some pre-science, pre-industry, pre-economy world but instead going forward to co-create a fundamentally better world for the future. It does not reject modern technologies; however, evermore complex and sophisticated technologies designed to conquer nature, make humans independent of nature, or even to remove the constraints of nature, is not the key to a sustainable future. Deep sustainability is about learning to live in harmony with the underlying unity that permeates the universe, the world, and humanity within it. The key to sustainability is to find our place within the underlying unity of the animate, living earth that is our place within the universe.

Deep sustainability rejects “scientism” while embracing the continued use of the scientific method in addressing issues of the non-living world, where it is most appropriate. Scientism has turned the science that has worked reasonably well for nonliving things into a religion that is applied to living and thinking things as well. Unlike “scientism,” deep sustainability is not reductionist or analytical. Living organisms, organizations, or ecosystems cannot be reduced or separated into their components for analysis without losing the essence of the whole. Living systems are holistic. They have emergent properties that are not present in any of their component parts that disappear when wholes are reduced to their component parts. Just as health is an emergent property of living organisms that have physical, mental, and spiritual integrity, sustainability is an emergent property of natural, social, and economic communities and societies that have ecological, social, and economic integrity. Sustainability cannot be found in individual dimensions or parts; sustainability emerges only from wholes.

Living systems are inherently dynamic systems. They are conceived, born, grow, mature, learn from experiences, and evolve to accommodate their ever-changing environment. Actually, everything on the living earth is always changing and evolving; the changes are just slower in the realms of reality known as the nonliving world. In the non-living world rocks are eroding, metals are oxidizing, dead organic matter is decaying. Causes and effects only “appear” to be replicable in the “non-living” world because the slow pace of change results in negligible differences between times of observation and subsequent actions. Regardless, phenomena are clearly not replicable in the living, thinking, feeling world of plants, animals, and humans. Thus an approach to science that relies on replication for validation is clearly inadequate for answering the most important questions of sustainability.

Unlike scientism, deep sustainability does not view reality as absolute or deterministic. Instead reality exists as potentials that can be seen differently from different perspectives and can unfold differently depending on intentional choices of humans. Two people may have very different interpretations of the same phenomena because they see it from different perspectives. The reality of any phenomena includes all of its various potentials. The potentials of reality, however, are not unlimited. Two people look at the same flower and each sees something different, depending on their position in relation to the flower, the lighting, the background, and past experiences with flowers. However, each sees a flower, not a rock, a dog, or a house. Each is experiencing a different potential of the reality of the flower. If they share their perspectives, they gain a better understanding of the reality of the flower as a whole – meaning its potentials.

Reality exists not only in the potentials of phenomena to be seen or experienced differently, but also in the potentials of something to become or evolve into something different in the future. The potential possibilities of the future may well be predetermined to a certain extent, but the specific potentials that will be will be realized in the future depends on choices that are made during the endlessly unfolding present. Deep sustainability views all of the potentials of humans and everything in their natural and social environment as interrelated aspects of the same ever evolving whole. The potentials or opportunities open to an individual person today are not solely a consequence of the past choices of that particular person but also of everything that has happened in the person’s ecological and social environment. The potentials that are feasible or possible for that individual in the future likewise will be influenced by the ecological and social environment in which they continue to live and evolve.

Deep sustainability rejects the worldview of objective materialism. The world of deep sustainability is not made up of meaningless, inanimate, mechanical objects but of meaningful, living, breathing, thinking, feeling, spiritual, subjects. Objects are acted upon and assumed to exist and evolve according to some meaningless, mindless, pre-determined sequence of chemical, electronic, and biological processes – as the universe degenerates inevitably toward a state of entropy. “Subjects” have meaning and have the capacity to act passively, instinctively, or intentionally to fulfill their unique purposes within the greater whole of reality.

Deep sustainability is purposeful. If human life had no purpose there would be no means of discriminating between “good and bad or right and wrong.” If humans had no ability to take intentional actions that could affect their future and the future of humanity, questions of sustainability would be meaningless. Sustainability demands the replacement of the objective-materialistic paradigms of scientism with a subjective-spiritual paradigm appropriate for purpose-driven, holistic, self-renewing, regenerative, living systems. This is not an impossible task. It will just require an intellectual revolution, a fundamental change in dominant ways of thinking, including the thinking of most scientists and academics.

In summary, unlike scientism, deep sustainability accepts that all things on earth, living and non-living, have purposes which are critically interrelated with human purpose. For sustainability, the purpose of all other “beings” must be valued and respected – as subjects, not objects. Concerns for sustainability relate specifically to the sustainability of humanity, of human life on earth. If humanity has no specific purpose for being or existing within the larger whole of earth, there is no logical reason for being concerned about the future of humanity. People may continue to have intellectual debates about the existence of purpose, but sustainability is a rational or logical concern for those of current generations only if those of future generations have some worthwhile purpose to justify those concerns.

If deep sustainability showed no specific concern for humanity it would be indistinguishable from deep ecology. The nature of human relationships would be given more consideration that the relationships among ants or herds of wild animals. The human economy would be given no more attention than bees gathering of pollen and storing of honey. If deep sustainability were not specifically concerned with the future of humanity, the extinction of humanity might be viewed an expedient, if not necessary, means of sustain the health and integrity of the rest of nature. Deep sustainability does not necessarily see the health and survival of humanity as being any more important or essential than any other whole within nature. Deep sustainability simply focuses on the current and future well-being of humanity, while recognizing humans as being critically interconnected with all of the other living and non-living things of nature.

The worldview of deep sustainability also will require new ways of teaching and learning that reflect the concept of reality as potentials to be seen and become rather reality as absolute and deterministic. Everyone engaged in the teaching-learning process has a potentially important perspective of reality. Learning results when these perspectives are shared rather than when knowledge is transferred from teacher to student or gained through individual experiences. Thus the new ways of learning and knowing associated with deep sustainability must be collaborative or co-learning experiences.

While conveners or teachers may have a wider range of experiences, and have valuable perspectives gained from those experiences, each person engaged in the process has a potentially valuable experience to add to the collective or common understanding or knowledge. It will be important that the ideas explored in collaborative learning processes be grounded in physical, social and spiritual reality. The potentials of future realities cannot be validated by statistical inference, mathematical models, or abstract reasoning. Periodic emersions in society and nature and excursions to the depths of consciousness are essential aspects of education in deep sustainability. The students must gain some intuitive or spiritual sense of their place within the underlying unity of all things.

Collaborative learning is an essential means of stimulating and cultivating the new ways of thinking necessary for the radical redesign of current economic and social institutions to reflect the principles of complex, interconnected living systems. Collaborative learning goes beyond “group think,” where groups try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating alternative ideas. It fosters learning by creating a culture of openness and sharing of different perspectives of the present as well as ideas for the future. It encourages self-organization and an open flow of knowledge and ideas both within and among groups of learners. Collaborative learning creates and augments intelligence, involvement, imagination, integration, and intuition. It supports and promotes honesty, transparency, humanity, and harmony. Collaborative learning is essential for the authentic sustainability education necessary for deep sustainability.

Manifestation of Deep Sustainability. As with conventional and instrumental worldviews, the manifestations of deep sustainability evolve naturally from the worldview. Deep sustainability rejects the singular contemporary goal or purpose of economic growth, as does the IS worldview. Advocates of both IS and DS worldviews accept as valid the second law of thermodynamic – law of entropy: Everything of use to humans is ultimately dependent on the usefulness of energy, and whenever energy is used to do anything useful, some of the usefulness of that energy is inevitable lost. DS advocates are not willing to bet the future of humanity on some future nullification of the law of entropy, and see no reason to do so.

Unlike advocates of IS, advocates of DS do not consider limits to growth, or even a possible necessity for degrowth, as being inconsistent with continuing human progress or betterment. The consensus of research into psychological well-being or human happiness indicates that beyond some modest level of economic well-being happiness is related far more closely with the quality of social relationships and a sense of purpose in life than with additional income or wealth. [xii],[xiii] For example, a 2003 article in the Guardian, quotes a “recent British Cabinet Office report” which concluded that “despite huge increases in affluence compared with 1950, people throughout the developed world reported no greater feelings of happiness.”[xiv]

Certainly, people in some areas of the world still need economic growth. However, the so-called developing nations need not aspire to economies needed to support American or European lifestyles. A 2004 review of more than 150 scholarly studies concluded that beyond per capita incomes of around $10,000 to $15,000 in developing nations there is little if any correlation between increasing wealth and the overall happiness or well-being.[xv] There is no reason to believe this relationship has changed in the past decade.

Other research indicates people in nations with less disparity or inequity in income and wealth tend to be happier, regardless of absolute levels.[xvi] Even the affluent are happier in more economically equitable societies. Developed countries might do far more to increase collective well-being or happiness by improving economic equity rather than promoting economic growth. Developing countries could benefit most by balancing their modest needs for economic growth with the need to build more economically equitable societies.

The ability of humans to continue to live well economically in the future will depend on the sustainable use of the human and natural resources necessary to sustain the economy. However, there are endless possibilities for human betterment or improving quality of life even with a sustainable, “steady state” economy. Ecological economist, Herman Daly, defines a steady-state economy as “one that develops qualitatively… without growing quantitatively in physical dimensions; a constant metabolic flow of resources from depletion to pollution maintained at a level that is both sufficient for a good life and within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the containing ecosystem.”[xvii] A steady state economy would depend on qualitative rather than quantitative development to sustain a good life for all.

John Stuart Mill, a prominent 19th Century economist, also believed in the prospects for continuing human betterment within a “stationary state” economy. He wrote: “It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”[xviii]

John Maynard Keynes, arguably the most influential economist of the 20th Century, anticipated such a time back in the 1920s. He wrote, “the economic problem may be solved, or at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not… the permanent problem of the human race.”[xix] Man’s permanent problem will be “how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares… to live wisely and agreeably and well.” As it turned out, Keynes was too conservative, as the research shows the economic problem was solved as early as the 1950s for many people of the world. The challenge for the vast majority of Americans today is not to try to restore unsustainable economic growth, but instead to learn to live “wisely, agreeably, and well.”

The purpose of human life within the worldview of deep sustainability might alternatively be defined as human flourishing: “to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.”[xx] Aristotle equated flourishing with human happiness, which he called eudaimonia – which had important social and ethical dimensions.[xxi] A fundamental difference between moral and social progress and economic progress is that social and ethical progress of human flourishing, or eudaimonia, are inherently nonmaterial in nature. Progress in these dimensions of life require no additional natural or human resources or materials.

Thus, economic growth is not necessary to continue developing human capacities to live more “wisely and agreeably.” In addition, shifting priorities to social and ethical progress would free up vast quantities of economic resources, such as those used for national defense, law enforcement, and civil litigation, which could then be devoted to restoring the integrity of the natural ecosystem and remediating dysfunctional societies. If by chance humanity were to reach a state where people no longer desired anything more of anything – economic, social, or ethical – there would be no need for further growth in any dimension of life.

Deep sustainability respect the importance of individual economic well-being, but rejects the “economism” of instrumental sustainability which raises economics to the level of a religion. Restoring a sense of purpose to life will require a revolution in ways of thinking not unlike the period of “the enlightenment” of the 1700s, when the old religious era was dying and the “age of reason” was struggling to be born. Except this time, the old era is the “age of reason,” which has itself become a religion of sorts.

The new era might be referred to as the “age of intellectual consciousness” – an age of intentional instinct, informed intuition, and intelligent insight, rather than an age solely of scientific inquiry and logical reasoning. In the new age of consciousness, people need not reject science, but they must accept that science can only tell them how to do things but not why they should or should not do things. Economism leaves all such decisions to be determined by economic costs and benefits, as determined by free markets. Intellect of the mind combined with consciousness of the spirit can be powerful, but intellect without consciousness is dangerously potent. In the age of reason, humans looked to science to discover knowledge. In the age of consciousness, humans must look to the spiritual to rediscover purpose and meaning.

This does not in any way suggest a return to religion. Spirituality is not synonymous with religion. Spirituality is the human experience of connection with the numerous mystery of existence. Religion takes these experiences and uses them in service of human institutions. Deep sustainability will bring a return to true spirituality – spirituality in the sense of seeking harmony with the higher order of things. As Rohana Ulluwishewa explains in his book, Spirituality and Sustainable Development,[xxii] the path to sustainability is also the path to deep and lasting happiness, which provides a logical motive for people to choose the path to sustainability. The path to authentic sustainability is a spiritual path – a path of intellectual consciousness.

In today’s modern societies, happiness is pursued through material possessions and indulgence of sensual pleasures and avoidance of sensual pain. However, as Ulluwishewa explains, there is another kind of happiness that is independent of sensual pleasures or pain. “We feel happy when our mind is extraordinarily calm, quiet, peaceful and tranquil, when we help a stranger, when we make someone else happy, when we give love and receive love.” This is the spiritual happiness proclaimed by all major religions, both God-centered and non-God centered. This spiritual happiness is clearly different from worldly happiness; it is the only true and lasting happiness. This true happiness is a by-product of activities undertaken for purely selfless or altruistic reasons, such as making the social and ethical investments essential for authentic sustainable development. The path to sustainable development is a path of spiritual happiness.

Deep sustainability is equitable both within and across generations. It recognizes the importance of people being rewarded economically in relation to their contribution to the economy. However, deep sustainability recognizes that all people have basic human rights that must be ensured regardless of their ability to contribute to the economy. These rights include the right to sufficient food, clothing, and shelter to sustain healthy active lifestyles and the right work that affords dignity and respect. Deep sustainability also recognizes the responsibility of all people to make whatever contribution they are capable of making to the greater good of humanity in return for the assurance of their basic human rights. Deep sustainability extends the Golden Rule within and across generations in that “we should do for others, including those of future generations, as we would have them do for us.”

The worldview of DS accepts the necessity of using limited resources more efficiently and substituting renewable for nonrenewable resources, particularly substituting renewable solar energy for nonrenewable fossil energy. However, as indicated previously, there are limits to resource efficiency or dematerialization. There are also limits to energy substitution. For example a solar energy economy that is extremely efficient economically will not make the long-run infrastructure investments essential for the long-run sustainability of humanity. Economic value, by its very nature, places a high premium on the present relative to the future, as will be explained below.

A society that maximizes even its physical or engineering efficiency in using solar energy will not be sustainable is because it will lack the resilience needed for sustainability. Sustainability requires resilience, and resilience requires diversity and redundancy, which are incompatible with maximum efficiency. Even a solar-based society that balances efficiency and resilience, but lacks social equity and justice, will not be sustainable. Human history has proven that when any society consistently fails to meet the basic human needs of most of it people, those people will eventually rise up in rebellion and destroy the society, no matter how natural resource sufficient or efficient it may be. A society that does meet the social and spiritual needs of its people is incapable of sustaining human betterment or flourishing and thus is not sustainable. Deep sustainability is about meeting the needs of the physical, mental, and spiritual self.

Table 6.

Deep sustainability accepts the necessity of internalizing the economic value of external ecological and social costs and benefits but rejects the reduction or diminution of social and ethical values to their important but marginal economic benefits. The DS worldview instead values social and ethical relationships in terms of their unique contributions to human happiness and well-being. Quality of life is an emergent property of the ethical, social, and economic dimensions of human well-being and has important aspects that are fundamentally non-economic in nature. Deep sustainability calls for going beyond efficiency and substitution to radical redesign of human economies and societies.

The radical redesign must begin with a rejection of contemporary dogma that all value is ultimately economic in nature. DS recognizes the differences among economic, social, and ethical values. Economic value is individual, instrumental, and impersonal, as suggested previously. Economic value is impersonal in that if something cannot be bought, sold, or traded from one person to another, it has no economic value, regardless of how valuable it may otherwise be to one’s overall well-being. In addition, there is always an expectation of receiving something of equal or greater value from an economic transaction or investment. There is no means of receiving an economic return from investments made for the long run good of society as a whole for the benefit of those future generations, and thus no economic value in social or intergenerational equity or sustainability.

Social value is instrumental, in that there is an expectation of something in return from a social relationship. However, the return on a social investment is not specific as to what, when, or how a social act of friendship will be rewarded. Social value is relational rather than individual in that it only exists within a relationships. In addition, social relationships are personal and thus cannot be bought, sold, or traded. Relationships that are social may have some economic value in that it’s easier to do business with people they trust. However, relationships that are purely social, although critical to human well-being, have no economic value.

Social relationships evolve into ethical relationships, which are non-instrumental, impersonal, and communal. As humans learn to relate in ways that sustain social relationships with people they know well, they come to realize that they should relate in similar ways to those they know less well. In other words, people learn how they should relate to people in their communities and societies through social relationships among friends and within families. As their relationships become less personal, they become ethical. They begin to treat people they don’t know with the same kindness and respect as people they know. Ethical values are impersonal because what is right and good for one person is right and good for any other person. Ethical value is communal in that what is right for another person is right for all people, including those of future generations.

As people become more increasingly aware of the ecological and social costs of minimizing the economic costs of production, consumer demand for sustainably produced products will increase, providing additional economic incentives for sustainability. Economic value is a transactions value that is determined by markets. Higher market values will be determined by the ability and willingness of people to pay higher prices, which will be influenced far more by those who have more money to spend than by those who have less to spend. The ethical values of deep sustainability are democratic, in that all people are considered to be of equal inherent worth. Thus, all must be given an equal right to participate in creating an ethical culture of sustainability. Those with the most money are not necessarily those who most value the cultural ethics of authentic sustainability. Sustainability ultimately will depend on democratic governance as well as individual ethics. Sustainability must be motivated by societal and individual ethics, not solely by economics.

When people are guided by concepts and principles of deep sustainability, they see the world differently, they see their place within it differently, and they behave differently in relation to others within society and within nature. They understand that it is not a sacrifice to care for other people in society, even when they have no assurance of receiving anything specific or tangible in return. They need to care and be cared for, to love and be loved, to give their lives purpose and meaning. They understand that it is not a sacrifice to be also be respectful members and participants in nature as well as caretakers of the earth. Stewardship of nature gives purpose and meaning to life. They need to feel a sense of rightness and goodness in the things that they do. The essential dimensions of deep sustainability are the essential dimensions of human happiness.

Once people change their ways of thinking, learning, and knowing they will have the ethical, philosophical, and spiritual foundation upon which ecological, social, and economic pillars of authentic sustainability can be placed. As humanity evolves in wisdom, the spiritual foundation of deep sustainability will align with the fundamental laws of nature. The underlying unity of nature will be revealed through growth in collective consciousness that will support continued flourishing, progress, betterment, happiness, – a fundamentally better way of life.

The new physical, social, and economic structures and organizations built upon this framework will be both necessary and sufficient to meet the needs of current generations without compromising opportunities for generations of the future. Emerging technologies will be utilized as appropriate to support a sustainable, flourishing human society. Inappropriate technologies will be rejected. Choices of technologies and methodologies will be guided by human wisdom, not human ingenuity.

These new structures and organizations will use resources efficiently and will substitute renewable resources, notably solar energy, for nonrenewable resources, notably fossil energy. However, these actions will not be motivated solely by economic values, but as much or more by social and ethical values – by a sense of responsibility for society and the future of humanity. Management strategies in private and public sectors will be holistic, in that they will consider the economic, social, and ecological dimensions of organizations as wholes, not as separate entities to be maximized or minimized separately.

Deep sustainability will result in fundamentally different approaches to business management, governance, and economic development. Businesses will be managed for the true economic bottom line, giving priority to business ethics and then social responsibility rather than maximizing short-run economic returns. Government policies will create an economic environment in which businesses that are resilient and regenerative by choice will not have to complete with other businesses that exploit and extract. Thus economic viability will not need to be sacrificed for the sake of ecological and social integrity. Government policies in general will give sustainability and quality of life priority over economic growth. Market economies will function efficiently, but within the context of a socially equitable and just society that respect the basic laws of nature. Nonprofit organizations will focus on missions of sustaining the health and productivity of nature and society rather than simply sustaining their organizations


The results emerging from the worldview of deep sustainability will be fundamentally different from those of contemporary society or instrumental sustainability. The social and ethical values of deep sustainability will motivate people within societies to join together through systems of governance at local, national, and international levels to make the long-term personal and impersonal economic investments necessary to sustain the health and vitality of nature and society, upon which the sustainability of economies ultimately depends. The results will be renewal and regeneration rather than continued degeneration. Nature and society will be healed and restored rather than depleted. Healthy natural ecosystems and societies will move toward greater abundance and quality of life rather than continue on the path toward lifelessness and entropy.

Investments in society will include a universal commitment to basic ecological, social, and economic rights: The right to a clean, healthful, and productive natural environment; the right to basic education, health care, social equity, and civil justice; and the right to dignity in employment, if able, and to sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and economic necessities to support a healthy, active lifestyle, regardless of ability to contribute to the economy. Perhaps most important, deep sustainability affords equal rights to those of both current and future generations.

Instrumental sustainability, while a step in the right direction, will not be sufficient. Slowing the rate of degradation and delaying resource depletion may be necessary to provide adequate time for radical rethinking and redesign but will not be sufficient to avoid an ultimate state of ecological, social, and economic collapse as the earth’s ecosystems approaches entropy. Economic incentives simply will not provide the motivation for the ecological, social, and economic investment essentials of long-run sustainability. Neglect or denial of the essential social and ethical dimensions of quality of life will not allow for continued human flourishing or societal betterment. The only worldviews consistent with authentic sustainability are those consistent with the worldview of deep sustainability.

Table 7. Comparisons of Different Worldviews

Footnotes Page 1


2014 by John Ikerd, Lonnie Gamble, and Travis Cox

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, Lonnie Gamble and Travis Cox are co-directors of the Sustainable Living Program, Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, IA, USA.

[3] Stuart Hill, “From Shallow to Deep Organics,” http://biodynamics2024.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Deep-Organics.pdf .

[4] Stuart Hill, “Psychological Roots of Sustainability,” http://www.stuartbhill.com/index.php/psychoroots .

[5] John Foster, “Deep Sustainability and the Human Future,” The Trumpeter, Journal of Ecosophy, (2002) ISSN: 0832-6193. http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/view/118/125 .

[6] Rohana Ulluwishewa, Spirituality and Sustainable Development; Toward Happiness-Oriented Development, (London: MacMillan Publishers, International, 2014).

End Notes

[i] Wikipedia, Ephemeralization, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephemeralization

[ii] The World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, ed. Gro Bruntland, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[iii] Walmart, Sustainability, http://walmartstores.com/sustainability/

[iv] Monsanto, Our Commitment to Sustainable Agriculture, http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/our-commitment-to-sustainable-agriculture.aspx

[v] Jem Bendell, et. al., The Corporate Responsibility Movement, Five Years of Global Corporate Responsibility Analysis from Lifeworth, 2001-2005 (Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd., 2009)

[vi] Jem Bendell and Ian Doyle, Healing Capitalism, Five years in the life of business finance and corporate responsibility, (Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd., 2014).

[vii] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Toward Sustainability: Building a Better Understanding of Ecosystem Services,” http://www.epa.gov/sustainability/ .

[viii] United Nations, We can End Poverty, Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015, Goal 7, Ensure Environmental Sustainability, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/environ.shtml

[ix] 15 Green Colleges and Universities, Grist, on-line at: http://grist.org/article/colleges1/

[x] John Ikerd, “Limits to Economic Growth,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 2014. http://www.agdevjournal.com/current-issue/435-ikerd-column-growth1.html?catid=161%3Acolumns.

[xi] Herman Daly (2013, October 29). Top 10 policies for a steady-state economy [Web log post], http://steadystate.org/top-10-policies-for-a-steady-state-economy/

[xii] Bill McKibben, Deep Economy, (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co.), 2007.

[xiii] Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth; Economics for a Finite Planet, (Oxford: Earthscan, Taylor Francis Group Ltd.) 2011.

[xiv] James Oliver, “Children before cash; better childcare will do more for our wellbeing than greater affluence,” The Guardian, May 17, 2003. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2003/may/17/children.healthandwellbeing .

[xv] Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, “Beyond Money,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5 (1), 2004, 1–31.

[xvi] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level; Why Greater Equality Makes Stronger Societies, (New York: Bloomsbury Press), 2009.

[xvii] Herman Daly, “Ten Policies for a Steady State Economy,” Center for Advancement of a Steady State Economy, http://steadystate.org/top-10-policies-for-a-steady-state-economy/ .

[xviii] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, Book IV, Chapter 6, http://www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlP61.html .

[xix] John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, p. 366.

[xx] , B. L. Fredrickson & M. F. Losada, “Positive affect and complex dynamics of human flourishing.” American Psychologist, (2005) 60, 678-686.

[xxi] Wikipedia, “Eudaimonia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia .

[xxii] Rohana Ulluwishewa, Spirituality and Sustainable Development; Toward Happiness-Oriented Development, (London: MacMillan Publishers, International, 2014).