Agronomy and Horticulture Department


Date of this Version



Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 29(2), pp. 186–187; doi:10.1017/S1742170513000112


Copyright © 2013 Cambridge University Press. Used by permission.


Essentials of Economic Sustainability is the latest challenging statement on innovative economic philosophy from an alternative opinion leader John Ikerd, retired agricultural economist from University of Missouri, Columbia. His perspective is that accelerating changes surrounding us require more than small adaptations, but rather a thoughtful reconsideration of basic principles about how the world works and our role in this dynamic reality. Ikerd paraphrases the challenge of the 1988 Brundtland Report of the UN that we must design strategies ‘to meet the economic needs of the present without diminishing economic opportunities for the future’ (p. 1). To fail to meet this challenge is to court instability and political volatility in the short term and to sacrifice long-term sustainability. Unlike conventional economic thinking that begins with labor, land and capital, Ikerd’s focus initially is on energy, and specifically on renewable resources and capture of solar energy and its efficient transformation to sustain human life and the biosphere. He extends the concept of conventional physical energy to meet human needs to an essential corollary of social energy, that which is ‘expended in maintaining positive, productive, human relationships’ (p. 3). Ikerd further describes a dimension beyond the economic and social realms to what he distinguishes as ethical relationships whose value may be deferred to the future, even while they guide decisions today. The author describes the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as the lack of incentive for individuals and single corporations to preserve or protect the collective resources of the overall economy. Closely related is a tragedy of short-term profits, the stated goal of dominant corporations in the global economy that are not rewarded for long-term gains. The real challenge to charting a course to long-term sustainability is to balance short- and long-term returns, economic and social goals, and ethical and moral dimensions that often are not rewarded in conventional economic systems.