BY LEE WARREN
Three-legged Stool of Sustainability
For many years, I have taught classes in the basics of sustainability called The Three-Legged Stool of Sustainability, which describes the three main principles, or pillars, of sustainable systems. These three pillars are defined as social, environmental and economic. Also known as “people, planet and profits,” they are sometimes referred to as the “triple bottom line” when used in the context of a B Corp or social enterprise organization. B Corps are legal business entities that show high performance in social and environmental areas rather than a sole focus on the financial bottom line.
Social, Environmental, Economic
The three-legged stool is a metaphor used to represent three components that are all equally important to the structure and function of a coherent system, an apt image for the elements required for long-term continuity. The structure of three legs (as opposed to two or four) create a triangle, which, like a tripod, form one plane, even on a rocky or uneven surface. The three legs, in this context, are both more flexible and more stable. The stool can expand and contract as needed to be adaptable to constant changes and uneven variables. The components of the stool include:
• Social. Represented by livability, which for most of us encompasses health, well-being, community, social systems of support, human rights, labor rights, a fair justice system, cultural connection, cultural celebration, place-based connection, low poverty, low violence and access to a solid education.
• Environmental. Represented by ecological integrity, often described as clean air, healthy oceans and waterways, vibrant soil, diverse forests, species preservation and access to vast and intact wild lands.
• Economic. Implies that the income exceeds the expenses in a given system, which results in a financial benefit. This can be personal income or measured nationally as business revenue, national surplus, thriving businesses, sector diversity, living wages and robust job markets.
To be guided by these three principles when designing a project or system means that the system will be more likely to be carried on into the indefinite future without damage to the social or environmental elements involved. For example, big agriculture and the globalization of food are effective at high levels of food production and somewhat effective at managing the economics of large-scale agriculture. At the same time, these very same industrial systems have brought devastation to farm families and communities (social), increased world hunger (social), damaged the soil and water systems of the planet (environmental), disconnected the average person from regional food (social) and created a food product that is less nutrient-rich and sometimes even toxic (social and environmental).
“We share this planet, our home, with millions of species. Justice and sustainability both demand that we do not use more resources than we need,” emphasizes Vandana Shiva, environmental and agricultural activist, and author of Soil Not Oil and Earth Democracy.
Anytime a nation, corporation, business or project does not take into account all three legs of the stool, they “externalize” the damage, most often to the social and environmental components of our world. This broad-scale problem can be seen in the food, housing, energy, transportation and health care industries. Ultimately, this exporting of damages will cost more and be harder to repair, not to mention reducing the quality of life (and maybe the possibility of life) for all species on the planet.
This means that nonprofits, local communities, individuals and governments are often required to suffer the consequences and repair the damaged systems. We see that in the myriad forms of pollution and poverty everywhere we turn. Yet how can we meet our needs now without robbing the future and destroying our social and environmental systems in the process? And how do we repair the damage already done? Luckily for us, systems and schools of thought are emerging that are going beyond sustainability to actually look at how to restore, repair and create resilience in our damaged social and environmental legs.
Restorative implies restoring the ecological or social systems from degraded, damaged or destroyed ecosystems and communities to alive, coherent and vibrant.
Regenerative, often used as the phrase “regenerative agriculture,” implies systems of farming that value diversity, soil health, watershed improvement, carbon sequestration and reversal of climate change.
Resilience encourages the development of systems that resist, tolerate, absorb, recover from, prepare for and adapt to adverse occurrences that cause harm, destruction or loss.
Repairing local systems
Here in Western North Carolina, there are a number of organizations working to repair our local systems. One is the Foragable Community initiative (foragablecommunity.com), whose Asheville branch is led by program manager Laura Lengnick. What is a foragable community? As noted on the group’s website, it’s a “collective of community members working together to increase the public’s active participation in local foodways in order to enhance the sustainability and resilience of their region.”
Taking another tack on the issue, the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council (abfoodpolicy.org), focuses on food access, with the mission to “identify, propose and advocate for policies, financial appropriations and innovative solutions to improve and protect our local food system in order to advance economic development, social justice, environmental sustainability and community resiliency.”
Meanwhile, the group Transition Asheville (transitionasheville.com) is working on fossil fuel independence and local resiliency. Founded locally in 2011 as the 88th Transition Town in the U.S., its goal is to “serve as a local catalyst: bringing people and organizations together, encouraging the development of an equitable roadmap toward fossil fuel independence, sharing practical skills and creative solutions, and strengthening local resilience.”
On the economic front, the Asheville Grown Business Alliance (ashevillegrown.com) has proven to be a successful force in encouraging support for local independent businesses and our local public school system through its Go Local campaign. Its mission: “Grow a resilient local economy and thriving community, champion the unique character of our region and advocate for prosperity for all.”
Taking back our power
In order to get beyond a balanced stool to a restored, regenerative and resilient community, much is required of us. We must come with humility of thought, an ability to cooperate and a passion for healing our systems. It may seem daunting, but it can be done. In fact, there was a time in the U.S. (and certainly there are many models in other countries) where all three legs were balanced, resulting in a life-giving model of human existence.
As a collective, we must first and foremost focus on relocalizing. We need to have as much say as possible over the decisions that affect our lives, the money that informs our projects, the food that we eat and every system we touch. Relocalizing means taking back our power in every possible way. For example, regarding food and agriculture, it means having a say in all parts of the system — from production and processing to distribution and consumption to waste recycling and back again to land and farmer well-being. With that much engagement, what emerges is sovereignty and sanity.
Lee Warren, executive director of the nonprofit Organic Growers School since 2013, is a sustainability professional with 25 years of experience in visioning, designing and living innovative solutions to organic food systems, community and sustainability education.