Developing an ethic of sustainability

The following may be used in thinking about a framework for an upcoming series of webinars sponsored by the Global Ethics Forum, CatholicNetwork and the Catholic Worker.

From The Ethics of Sustainability

The best known definition of sustainability is the one stated in Our Common Future, more commonly known as the Brundtland Report: “..meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Inherent in this definition is the proposed responsibility of contemporary society for the quality of life of today’s population plus the preservation of resources, the environment, and other ingredients needed for future populations to also experience a good quality of life. This is an enormous and daunting task and requires enormous changes in thinking, policy, and basic assumptions about the economy for its full implementation.

For the present, it would mean that wealthier, more technologically sophisticated societies would have to contribute materially and through a wide range of assistance programs to increase the wealth of poorer nations, to aid them in developing the capability to provide the basic needs of their population. For future generations it means ensuring the availability of a wide range of resources: natural, cultural, mineral, educational, food, clean air and water, genetic diversity, and numerous others that support a good quality of life.

The natural question to ask is: why apply the sustainability framework? In answering this question, vocabulary such as rights, obligations, and interdependence must be used. Everyone on the Earth has a right to having their needs for food, shelter, and clothing met. Present people have an obligation to future generations to provide them an intact and functioning planet in at least as good state as they received it.

And we are all interdependent, present and future generations, but it is the present, wealthier countries that control the fate of everyone else, present and future. The application of the sustainability framework therefore requires a better understanding of the ethical concepts which support it. Among these ethical concepts are the Precautionary Principle, the Chain of Obligation, the Distributional Principle, the Land Ethic, and the Rights of the Other Species.

Through a better understanding of the ethics of sustainability, it becomes clear why the sustainability framework is not only an approach to addressing and solving the many difficult problems facing us, but why it is in fact the right approach, the right thing to do.

The ethics of sustainability provides a clear sense of the principles that make sustainability more than just a simple problem-solving system, but make it an idea that is grounded in commonly understood ethical principles. In short, the ethics of sustainability provide the moral authority behind sustainability as a fair and equitable approach to making the world a better place.

Making Ethical Decisions

Ethical traditions, including religious and secular traditions, are described. An introduction to an ethics of sustainability, based on the three major components – environmental, social, and economics – is provided. Ethical concerns in sustainable decision making are discussed, leading to a fuller understanding of an ethics of sustainability and the start of an articulation of principles of an ethics of sustainability.

Obligations to Future Generations and the Precautionary Principle

The major ethical principles that are the core of the ethical framework of sustainability are obligations to Future Generations and the Precautionary Principle.  The distributional principle addresses the fair distribution of advantages in society.

The principles of the Global Community, Social Justice, and the Distributional Principle link human behavior to the ethical framework of sustainability and focus on the issues of present societies separated from us by social, political, economic, and geographic boundaries, and who may not be capable of actively representing their own interests.

The field of environmental ethics predates the concept of sustainability and has much to add to an ethics of sustainability, especially the ethical dimensions of our relations to other species and the community of life.  Scientific and ecological principles and ideas also have a role in environmental ethics. Additionally it addresses the relationships between social and ecological communities in relation to environmental justice.

Sustainable Economics

Sustainable Economics, describes the relatively new field of ecological economics, together with alternative measures of economic welfare, and several principles that provide the underpinnings of ecological economics. The theory and principles of ecological economics include limits on the scale of the economy, the role of natural capital as a true form of economic capital, and methods for changing incentives and shifting the burden of taxation such that positive outcomes for nature and society are incentivized.

Translating Principles that comprise the ethical framework of sustainability into Practices

The Process of Decision Making, describes this important process, especially its application to applying the principles of the ethical framework of sustainability to decisions about technology.

Turning Ethical Decisions into Professional Practices, discusses how the principles of an ethics of sustainability can be used to improve decision making such that it supports sustainability. It starts with the individual making ethical decisions that strengthen sustainability and shows how group decision making can be influenced to also increase sustainability. Applying sustainability ethics to professional decision making is important, but as important is that the professional applies these same principles in their personal lives and personal decision making.

Personal and Planetary Sustainability, covers this notion and describes how these principles can be applied in a consistent manner to the decisions of daily life.


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