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Three Legged Stool of Sustainability

How Communities Fail to Thrive due to the Neglect of Economics

This article first appeared in the Permaculture Activist in August of 2013 and can be seen here


The three-legged stool of sustainability—Social, Environmental, and Economic. Without all three, any business, any system, any community, any relationship is doomed to struggle or fail.

Most of us sit in chairs these days, but if we harken back to the days of milking cows (like this morning in my case), it’s important to know that a three-legged stool will always be more stable. Because the three legs point out at an angle and create a “center,” when pressure is applied, (something about mass and the lack of velocity) the idea is that on an uneven plane, the stool will be flat and thus way more stable. Apparently a feat of engineering, and common-sense among country-folks, the metaphor can be aptly applied to larger systems.

And so it is with sustainability. If one is aiming towards a sustainable system, all three legs are equally important. One less leg and the stool will fall over. One more leg and the whole thing will be wobbly if the flat plane (life) is slightly uneven. No leg should be considered more or less important. And while there’s room for fluctuations, every decision needs to keep all three in mind.

I was drawn to intentional community in 1996 when I was working in a corporate job during the week but doing yoga and reading The Nation on the weekends. I realized that my life was compartmentalized and I searched for more values based alignment. At the time I was in my mid twenties and ripe for adventure, so I quit my job, got the Communities Directory, traveled to and lived in many communities, and finally settled and built a Cohousing Sub-Community within Earthaven Ecovillage.

All along the way I was struck by how little business savvy most of the communities had. I was always being asked to help with the accounting, or to step up into management, or consistently saw huge gaps in what seems like common business sense. Most of the communities I have lived at limped along financially, often with struggling or failing businesses, often with people living on the edge of poverty and very proud of it and mostly with a population of folks who had no interest in, literacy with, or desire for understanding the economics. With a business degree, studies in economics and marketing, and coming from a family that budgeted money to the penny, I found the situation odd and confusing.

Fifteen years later I think I’m beginning to get a sense of the what’s going on. I’ve come to believe that the neglectful approach to the economic leg of the stool is an extreme reaction to a society obsessed with profit only. Because of an national and global approach of economic growth as the primary goal, we have an American culture that has created slavery for profit, wars for profit, corporations with no responsibility, natural resource depletion, vast social inequities, destruction of the environment, and the collapse of many social, equality, and economic justice-driven programs.

Being bright, conscious, and visionary, these counter-cultural folks set out to build a sub-culture focused on the very things that the larger society is forsaking. They have swung in the opposite direction and decided to focus primarily on the environmental and social legs of the stool. Examples:

  1. Our country’s model is to externalize environmental and social costs. The counter-culture tries to internalize them by eschewing chemicals, growing food, creating social systems and using our resources wisely.
  2. First-World countries measure their success by Gross Domestic Product (which drives us towards ongoing consumption and environmental destruction) and the counter-culture’s reaction is to focus on reducing consumption, doing with less, buying local, and trying to value the labor of women, children, and other marginalized populations.
  3. Our society’s focus is on materialism and the counter-culture chooses to focus instead on health, relationships, community, environment, quality of life, and peace and justice.

These approaches are resourceful, ingenious in many cases, and certainly laudable. Thousands of people and the culture at large have been slowly influenced by the opposite view over time, but the change has been achingly slow. Part of the problem in the communities movement is, much to our chagrin, that we haven’t been able to attract enough volume of people in order to make the movement more mainstream and thus viable. We stay on the edge, struggling to survive.

The reason? The sole or primary focus on the social and environmental legs of the stool makes the whole stool seriously unsteady and in danger of falling over. Ignoring economics is a counterproductive approach to sustainable communities. Hoping that the economics would work themselves out eventually mostly leads to them not working out. It leaves a system vulnerable and unprepared to harness human minds, hearts, and efforts for a collective economic good. Because having a source of income, for most people, is a crucial component to making life work. Not intuitive apparently to many community founders, our efforts need to support our lives and the basic functions of our lives.

In a short article called “A three-legged stool: Balancing the three pillars of sustainability” by Paul Hogendoom, he spells out the product/outcome/effect of focusing on only two legs:

Environmental + Economical = Viable
Economical + Social = Equitable
Social + Environmental = Bearable
Environmental + Economical + Social = Sustainable

If we are considering only economics and social aspects, we end up with an equitable solution. If we are considering only environmental and social issues, we end up with a bearable solution. If we are considering only economic and environmental regulation, we end up with a viable solution.

So bearable we are and bearable we stay.

 Earthaven Ecovillage is a rural community located in a depressed geographic region without much industry. The nearby city of Asheville derives much of its economic inflow through tourism. Most of the founders of Earthaven had outside incomes and hoped to bootstrap the whole project through excited friends and lovers-of-the earth types who would donate to the cause ‘just because’ or get excited enough to build second homes here. Most of these now older folks’ source of income is savings, retirement, social security, or outside funding (from families, pensions, etc.).

A few years into the village project, a bunch of young folks came along and hopped on the ideal of a sustainable village. Thus there became a class and age divide. The young people then and now have been living hand to mouth, and trying to piece together a living from here and there. The social and environmental legs of the stool are what drew them here and focused them for a while, as they sought a refreshing refuge from the oppression of our materialistic, profit-driven world. But without a viable economic leg, there has been little personal sustainability for these younger members.

Several business have been founded over the years at Earthaven, started and run by energetic, motivated, idealistic, hard-working entrepreneurial types, who have sought to meet the needs of the villagers by using a three-legged stool approach. Of the five business (by business I mean employing three or more people for a significant length of time consistently) conceived, born, and raised at Earthaven Ecovillage (The Forestry Cooperative, Useful Plants Nursery, Red Moon Herbs, Imani Farm, Round Mountain Builders), all but have either left, are dead, or are struggling to survive.

Here’s my assessment of the main reasons:

The Revolving Door—Many great people are drawn to community. Some of them stay and most move on, often to seek better economic opportunities. Because of the lack of stability in the economic system, the people who are drawn here or who end up staying are under-employable. They are not really willing to commit to work or show up on time, resent having a boss, or just get tired of doing the same thing for a long period of time.

Small Picture ThinkingMany of our villagers go out of their way to support local businesses, and our little valley of 100+ people makes for a remarkable market for small-scale growers, sellers, and services. But still, there’s a long way to go, even for seemingly intelligent folks, to understand that it’s important to pay a little more to support a community business. One example is that a founder of Earthaven still drives to town (50 minutes away) to buy eggs because they are cheaper than the eggs sustainably raised at the community. When business owners are dealing with a limited market, every customer counts and many communitarians still have a small picture of economics.

The Spiritual Dissociation—The idea that anything having to do with spreadsheets, economic analysis, or marketing must be bad drives a great number of people who live in community. There’s one member of Earthaven who views success and a focus on economics as antithetical to spiritual growth.

The Push Back—As an outgrowth of spiritual dissociation, economically minded people, when they venture into community, are often met with suspicion, distrust, and criticism, even if these people have proven to be highly cooperative, socially minded, and ecologically conscious. Attention to the triple-bottom-line (sometimes referred to as people, planet, profit) is seen as less ideal somehow so these folks often feel marginalized.

Lack of Support—So much time, energy, and money go into social programs and environmental regulations with very little training or education, almost no support, and usually great regulatory hurdles in place for economic development. Our community charges four-times the going rate for agricultural leases, implements regressive ownership models of building farm infrastructure, and offers disincentives of all sorts for business owners.

Burned-Out Entrepreneurs—For those who step up to take action in a community setting, there’s a combination of the revolving door, the push back, an inconsistent workforce, and lack of support that often leaves those willing to hold vision and take risk burned out and resentful. This usually leads back to the revolving door of these folks leaving and the cycle starts over.

As one of the very few entrepreneurs at Earthaven, I’m so grateful for the small and devoted market that has grown up around my products and services. It’s a delight to serve the people in my region. There have also been significant obstacles created by the community. The only reason we have survived for years has been through huge personal inputs and sacrifice.

It’s worth noting that the huge inputs and sacrifice have been necessary due to another relevant economic factor. The closer a business is to a land-based livelihood (food, soil, herbs) the harder it is to make a reasonable living, most especially if that business is taking the social and environmental factors into account. And the further one is from a land-based livelihood (banking, media, corporations) the easier it is to make a reasonable living, especially as one rising in the hierarchy of that industry. More to the point, the institutions farthest from the land-base are usually exploiting the very land and people in order to make that livelihood.

So because of these reasons, my land-based life has been a struggle. Recently I’ve decided to close down one of our farm enterprises because it’s been consistently on the edge of folding and my partners and I have grown weary of holding it up. It’s provided part-time income for over 12 residents at its peak but an inability to find a good, committed workforce combined with the burden of low economic return, and having very little acreage to grow the business have left it economically unsustainable.

When I look around at 50+ people in our community and only two or three business owners supporting all the young people, it feels discouraging. We need ten entrepreneurs. Or ten funders willing to support those few entrepreneurs to take their businesses to the next level. But creating successful enterprises is just not the focus of most people here.

So with the loss of the businesses and business owners, there is less draw, less opportunity, less viability, and less life, which ultimately leads to less community. There’s no doubt that we need to solve the social and environmental problems of the mainstream systems, but ignoring the economics is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

And though the reasons are varied, the result is an irresponsible and unsustainable approach to growing communities. When community members minimize, diminish, dismiss, ignore, or undermine “successful” economic base, it robs everyone.

Yes we need to minimize harm to the natural world, create regenerative systems, care for our soil, water, air, and the wild. And…..Yes we need to treat people fairly, create harmonious and cooperative relationships, awaken from privilege to create a more just and socially equitable world. And, YES, ALSO we need to ensure that families and individuals are employed in the good and viable work of food production, small-scale industry, the arts, and services. We need an economically sustainable approach that provides income for all the people of the village—a fair, reasonable, and secure living for all. We need internal kickstart programs, opportunities for people start small businesses without major capital investment, subsidies, support, and training, celebrations for those who take risk, and any number of other creative approaches to a real working village economic system.

In his article, How to Really Support Ecovillages, Enrique Hidalgo, stresses that “The more wealth the alternative movement acquires, the better our builders will be paid, and the better chance ecovillages will succeed and not disintegrate from financial stress, and the faster we’ll see change in the world.”

In order to grow our communities, we definitely need a social focus and environmental values. But in addition we need infrastructure, housing, systems, food, and jobs. Until we really embrace this, we’ll be bearable. At best.


Lee Walker Warren is a homesteader, herbalist, writer, teacher, and visionary. She lives a deeply integrated and authentic life, formed by 15 years of community living, a commitment to regenerative systems, and a drive towards sacred embodiment. Her current projects include Manager and co-founder of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm at Earthaven Ecovillage, Co-founder & Co-director, School of Integrated Living (SOIL), Program Coordinator for the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference (SEWHC), and Co-founder, -designer, and -builder of the Village Terraces CoHousing Neighborhood (also at Earthaven Ecovillage). More information at


Cohousing, Earthaven, ecology, economics, social

Lee Warren

Lee Warren is reclaiming wisdom through conscious relating with self, land, and others. She has 25 years of experience envisioning, designing, and living innovative solutions to mutually empowered relationships, land-based food systems, residential community, non-violent communication, and sustainability education. She is the principle and founder of Reclaiming Wisdom, a co-founder of SOIL, School of Integrated Living, and a proponent of regenerative systems, consent culture, and authentic living. Lee is a writer, teacher, and activist, with an passion for embodiment practices, rural wisdom, sustainable economics, conscious dying, and community of all kinds.

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