> One of the problems which has plagued many definitions
> of sustainable agriculture is the tendency to conflate
> moral and ethical judgments and ideas with questions
> of practice. Sustainability of agriculture depends on the
> physical/biological constraints on actual production, and
> the social/cultural constraints which define what kinds
> of production will be acceptable. What we judge to be
> ethically desirable in our society is a distinct set of
> concerns which do not necessarily affect sustainability.
> For example it is quite possible to have a sustainable
> agricultural system, which includes long-distance trade,
> reduces species diversity, degrades habitat, is in many
> aspects a monoculture, and is embedded in a hierarchical,
> centralized, bureaucrat, xenophobic, system which
> oppresses minorities and features huge disparities of
> wealth. Imperial China being a notable example.
> It is therefore quite dangerous to conflate issues of
> sustainability with those of social morality or societal
> ethics. I can see how the justification for an extremely
> coercive system could be based on the necessity of
> sustainability, with examples to demonstrate that it
This stikes me as an arguement for considering the ethical and
technical questions together, not subdivided as you suggest below.
> The discussion of sustainability therefore needs to be
> subdivided into its constituent parts, with the ethical and
> other concerns confined to the appropriate context.
> Jonathan Haskett
What is the approriate context and who decides that? Johnathan, you
make some good points. There are biological/technical issues which
can indeed be answered independently of the social/moral/ethical
questions. It seems thats what has been going on in the US for most
of this century and the results have not been all good.
I highly recommend the books of Donald Schon, a practical
philosopher at MIT who critiques the notion of technical rationality,
which seems to be part of what you are suggesting, and has been the
ruling philosophy for much of the higher education system in the US.
My field, engineering, promoted a notion of itself of that of an
applied science, objectively applying science to solve technical
The problem with this approach is that the problems that
engineers and scientist attempt to address are fundamentally value
laden (otherwise they wouldn't bother to address them if there was no
value to them). So the value laden dimension of the problem
definition and proposed solutions need to be addressed together
with the technical/scientific. At every step of a technical and
scientific project there are choices to make. Those choices can be
guided by ethics, convenience, self interest, tradition, etc.. I
think a large part of the sustainable agriculture movement is to make
those choices explicit, ethical, and ecological.
PS: Schon argues that the notion of technical rationality which has
guided higher education in the US was founded on a positivist
philosophy which has been largely discredited. It attempts to
separate the questions of truth from questions of goodness. The
philosopher Bruce Wilshire in his book "The Moral Collapse of the
University" observes that this separation leads to a "tedious breeze
of words and formula." Questions of truth are important, but are
dangerous when divorced of questions of goodness.