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Environmental and Community Sustainability - A Dooyeweerdian Perspective

Sustainability is a major possible application area for Dooyeweerdian philosophy, especially his notion of irreducible aspects. It might be able to offer us:

It recognises the special nature and responsibility of humankind while seeking holistic balance with all the Creation. It promises to avoid the extremes of, on the one hand, 'deep ecology', and on the other, seeing it all in financial terms - or any other extremes that might appear.

For a practical example of how this works out, see Gareth Jones' page on Eemlandhoeve Farm, which tries to run itself by Dooyeweerdian principles.

Understanding Sustainability

John McNeill [2000, 362] is concerned:

"The enormity of the ecological crisis in the twentieth century strongly suggests that history and ecology, at least in modern times, must take one another properly into account. Modern history written as if the life support systems of the planet were stable, present only in the background of human affairs, is not only incomplete but misleading. Ecology that neglects the social forces and dynamics of historical change is equally limited. Both history and ecology are, as fields of knoweldge go, supremely integrative. They merely need to integrate with one another."

He identifies at least three of what Dooyeweerd calls aspects there: biotic, social and formative (to do with history). Other writers and thinkers emphasise the need to integrate ecology with economy, with law, with faith, with attitude, etc. and these too are separate aspects recognised by Dooyeweerd.

The basic notion is based on the Shalom Principle, that if we function well in all aspects, in harmony, then there will be positive benefit for all, both human and non-human, both individual and community/society, both short and long term. If the Principle is valid, then any poor functioning in any aspect will jeopardize overall sustainability.

For example, obviously, if we theaten our ability to feed ourselves or keep healthy then sustainability suffers, if our economy collapses, then sustainability suffers. But, less obviously, if the social climate is one of hatred, the moral climate is one of selfishness, or the community or society has zero morale (respectively, the social, ethical and pistic aspects), then here too perhaps sustainability could suffer.

This is because the aspects:

Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects is his best guess at what the aspects are. We can see how a Dutch farmer has employed an aspectual analysis in devising strategy for his farm at Eemlandhoeve.

Aspects of Sustainability - A Conceptual Tool

Here is an overview of how each aspect might be important in sustainability:

Dooyeweerd's Aspects and Sustainability
Aspect Issues affecting sustainability Aspects of environmental action
Quantitative aspect
(Discrete amount)
Number of species; number of individuals left of endangered species (partly economic aspect) Good use of statistics (also juridical aspect of appropriateness)
Spatial aspect Space to grow; territories
Kinematic aspect
(Flowing movement)
Movement of species; wildlife corridors Travelling to deliver talks (see lingual); movement of belief in importance of environmental responsibility (also pistic and juridical)
Physical aspect
(Forces, energy, mass)
Minerals in land and water, with air, support life; pollutants reduce it; climate influences ecology; climate change Climate change emission of those who travel to deliver talks! (see lingual)
Biotic/organic aspect
(Life, organism)
Life functions; health; enkaptic relationship between organism and environment; species; ecology itself
Sensitive/psychic aspect
(Sensing, feeling, emotion)
Animal responses to environment; seeing and hearing enemies, mates, food, etc.; taste and smell; tiredness;
bird song can be masked by traffic noise
Analytical aspect
(Distinction, concepts
Abstraction, logic)
Distinction we make between kinds of organism helps us understand them, which is foundation of much analysis and planning;
Analysis of ecological situations.
Formative aspect
(Deliberate shaping,
Technology, skill, history)
What we achieve in life affects the natural world directly or indirectly. Technology affects natural world. Human history has largely ignored the planet and natural world. Planning ecological repair etc. Achieving greener living (e.g. prizes given in schools).
Lingual aspect
(Symbolic signification)
Information flows in society: what messages prevail? (This affects ethical and pistic functioning below.) Information available, and its quality;
Discussion of the issues; the role of media; role of education.
(Note: when we travel to deliver an inspirational or informational talk, though it generates climate change emissions, it may be justified on grounds of this lingual aspect.)
Social aspect
(Relationships, roles)
People in community and institutions act more powerfully than as individuals, amplifying the attitudes and beliefs (ethnical and pistic) Networking among environmentally concerned people. Environmental institutions of various kinds have different roles.
Economic aspect
(Frugality, resources; Management)
Limits to growth, limitations on environmental resources; limited number of individuals in endangered species.
Treating animals, plants, the planet as mere resource (also ethical, pistic).
Arguing from resources: be careful, because humanity's economic functioning can overcome limits. Remember that people' patience is also a resource.
Aesthetic aspect
(Harmony, delight)
Disharmony in society and between society and planet. The Renaissance these of 'triumph of art over nature'. Green people seen as kill-joys. Work for harmony among all spheres of the Creation. Ensure the spread of delight in nature etc., rather than being kill-joy.
Juridical aspect
('Due', appropriateness;
Rights, responsibilities)
Laws and policies tend to ignore environmental justice. Environmental justice; laws and policies need to be centred and founded on our environmental responsibility, not just try to bolt it on as an optional or added extra.
Our responsibility to animals and the natural world; Animal 'rights' and human rights
Ethical aspect
(Attitude, Self-giving love)
Self-serving attitudes pervade communities and society, especially through the media (see lingual) We need to change the attitudes of society
Pistic/Faith aspect
(Faith, commitment, belief;
Vision of who we are)
The background assumptions and beliefs in society about what is meaningful and valuable, and to be 'sought' or 'avoided' deeply affect all of human and societal life. What we seek, fight for, give priority to, idolize.
e.g. governments idolize economic growth and technological prowess, corporations idolize profits and reputation, individuals (in West/North) idolize comforts and convenience, or (in other parts of world) avoidance of shame. All these detract from environmental responsibility.

The ecological crisis is becoming seen as a crisis of faith.

Seek to inspire. Harness faith, not just reason or resources.

Lombardi's Work

Patrizia Lombardi has undertaken research at the University of Salford, U.K., to work these aspects out in the context of urban planning. In her Ph.D. thesis Understanding Sustainability in the Built Environment. A Framework for Evaluation in Urban Planning and Design (1999), she discusses various approaches to sustainability and then suggests how Dooyeweerdian philosophy could help provide a broader and more robust approach. She ends by setting out specific questions relating to every aspect that may be posed of an urban situation to reflect on its sustainability. She not only used Dooyeweerd's theory of modal aspects, but also his theory of time in order to deal with the notion of (human) 'progress' in the context of sustainability.

Her work has been criticised as lacking empirical basis, and for taking too 'western' an approach. However, Lombardi was a pioneer, and it remains to others to take her work forward.

Her work has now been published as a book by Brandon & Lombardi [2005]. There is some empirical work in that and in subsequent publications.

A Software Tool for Sustainability

Based on Lombardi's work, the Gareth Jones KACTUS project at the University of Salford not only refined her multi-aspectual understanding of sustainability, but also to produce a prototype conceptual tool as a software application for planning and evaluation. This took the form of a knowledge based system hosted on the Internet. Unforunately, it is no longer available.

It makes use of the following table of aspects of sustainability.

Other Ways This View Can Be Helpful

Seeing sustainability as shalomic functioning in all aspects can help separate out issues, and can help us see the contributions and limitations of theories and other proposals.

In separating out issues, for example, the economic issues can be separated from the biotic, which can be separated from those of faith, so that no issue dominates or confuses others.

In seeing more clearly the contributions or limitations of theories: Take for example James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis. This has been hailed by a section of environmentalists as an overarching paradigmatic answer to the problems we find ourselves in. It argues that planet Earth is a self-sustaining system with sufficient negative-feedback to ensure that it maintains its equilibrium. At the behest of William Golding, Lovelock reluctantly named it after the Greek earth-goddess, Gaia, and since then has hailed the Hypothesis' ability to bring together physical and biological issues with religion. But many of a religious persuasion especially do not like this, and there are many non-religious who dismiss the Hypothesis too. So, what are we to make of it? Dooyeweerd can help us.

In such a way Dooyeweerdian aspects enable us at least to begin a debate.


Brandon PS, Lombardi P (2005) Evaluating Sustainable Development in the Built Environment. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science.

McNeill, J. (2000). Something New Under The Sun. Penguin. [thanks to Terry Miller for this]

This page is part of a collection that discusses application of Herman Dooyeweerd's ideas, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Compiled by (c) 2013 Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 15 July 2002. Last updated: 29 August 2013 new intro with McNeill, table of aspects, .nav, .end, rid unet. Rid link to Istar. New headings. Lovelock. 5 September 2013 named GJ.