The Ethics of Sustainability The Ethics of Sustainability




Sustainability is an important concept that is widely referenced and that has achieved broad support. Yet it remains inherently difficult to implement because of its complexity and due to the enormous shifts in thinking that it proposes. Particularly challenging is the development and implementation of technology, the vast majority of which has significant potential negative consequences for the health of both people and planet. This book provides natural and social scientists, engineers, architects, builders and other technical professionals with a clear description of the meaning of sustainability and a practical guide to the ethical challenges involved in its promotion and achievement. It describes the ethical concepts and principles that are inherent in sustainability and is designed to aid these professions in evaluating and directing their activities, particularly when developing, deploying, and employing technology.


Sustainability is commonly understood to require the balanced pursuit of three goods: ecological health, social equity, and economic welfare. It is grounded on the ethical commitment to the well-being not only of contemporary populations but also the well-being and enhanced opportunities of future generations. The scientific and technical professions have a special responsibility in this regard because the knowledge and technologies they develop and employ have immense impacts on natural environments, economies, and the empowerment of citizens and societies. Moreover, their efforts and achievements can continue to produce effects, for good or ill, well into the future. In articulating the challenge of pursuing both intergenerational and intragenerational benefits for environments, societies and economies, this book grounds practical decision-making in ethical concepts and values. Through exposure to a wide variety of concrete examples, case studies, moral debates, and exercises, readers will gain a nuanced understanding of the ethics of sustainability and develop a set of practical decision skills that may be employed in its pursuit. The book engages a broad range of applications such as nuclear and solar energy systems, biotechnology and genetic engineering, materials extraction, design and production, built environment design and construction, information technology and robotics, nanotechnology and communications technology, agricultural and forestry technologies. While addressing large-scale national and global issues such as climate change, higher energy costs, water and food shortage, poverty, species extinction, and resource depletion, The Ethics of Sustainability also brings home the personal impact scientists and technical professionals can have at the workplace, in their communities, and in their homes.




Sustainability is now a well-known and commonly accepted framework for guiding a wide variety of choices. Sustainability suggests that, in the decision making process, societies that have a good quality of life have an obligation to ensure both future societies and contemporary, less well off societies are also able to achieve a standard of living in which their basic needs are met. The Whistler 2020 (Canada) sustainable community movement describes sustainability as “… a minimum condition for a flourishing planet in the long term.”1 Communities are applying sustainability to solving energy problems, addressing waste disposal issues, developing greenspaces, planning urban areas, and reinvigorating the local economy. Companies are using the concept of sustainability to expand the measure of success for their endeavors from the financial bottom-line to a triple bottom line that adds social and environmental performance to economic performance. Universities are applying sustainability to guide changes to their campuses, curriculum, governance, investments, procurement policies, and relationships to their local communities. In short, sustainability is a framework upon which can be built specific strategies for guiding decision making. For example, The Natural Step, developed in Sweden, is a sustainability-based strategy for making decisions about resources utilization and disposal. Numerous other strategies that have sustainability as their core concept have emerged and are being applied to guide decision making in the private and public sectors.


The future is becoming ever more complex and it is increasingly difficult to safely navigate through the maze of issues that confront us. Humanity faces a future of much more costly energy, potentially catastrophic consequences due to climate change, shortages of potable water, the blowback of effects from the vast array of synthetic chemicals developed over the past half-century, and depleted fisheries, to name but a few. And this is occurring in the face of still rapidly increasing numbers of humans and rising per capita consumption. New technologies abound, from genetically engineered seeds, to nanobots, nuclear fusion reactors, powerful antibiotics, autonomous robots, and a vast web of wireless systems interconnected by data highways. Deploying these technologies has been driven by a cost-benefit calculus that, in light of the consequences of many of these technologies, must be considered obsolete. Sustainability can provide many of the answers to how best to treat new technologies and how to change the basis of decision making such that technological benefits far outweigh the risk, for both the short and long term and for present and future societies.




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.




This book is being written at the start of the second decade of the 21st Century, a time as challenging as any in history, with the world facing some new, previously unknown challenges. The global financial system narrowly averted a total collapse, and although badly weakened and still not fully stable, it was saved by an enormous investment of public funds, particularly in the U.S. Just prior to the collapse, in July 2008, gasoline prices had reached an all-time high, about $4.08 per gallon in the U.S. Climate change continues, perhaps even accelerating, as the North Pole is clear of ice in the summer, enormous glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica break apart at an increasing pace, and island nations of the Pacific slowly sink into the rising ocean surrounding them. Rapidly melting glaciers in the Himalayas portend future enormous floods up to 1,000 kilometers away, and increased devastation for the already poverty stricken country of Bangladesh.


The Himalayan glaciers, which regulate the water supply to these rivers, are believed to be retreating at a rate of about 10-15 meters (33-49 feet) per year.2 In the long term it means the ultimate disappearance of the glaciers supplying the seven major rivers fed by the Himalayas (the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Thanlwin, Yangtze and Yellow rivers) and which provide fresh water for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population. And this is just the current evidence of climate change. The forecasted effects of climate change present humanity with a potential disaster of historic proportions, with rising temperatures, much higher sea levels leading, the disappearance of substantial coastal zones, an inability to grow enough food to meet the world’s needs, the destruction of the ocean conveyor belt of water movement, including the Gulf Stream, and new disease vectors, to name but a few of the effects. And in spite of this threat, the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change resulted in essentially no significant agreement about how to proceed forward.


In addition to struggling with how to address climate change, the U.S. is engaged in a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United Nations is struggling to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by Iran, peace in the Middle East remains as elusive as ever, and the world continues to deal with the aftermath of 9/11 and a global struggle against Islamic fundamentalists engaged in acts of terror. The high gasoline prices of 2008 likely mark the point in time of so-called Peak Oil, the time when oil production peaks and declines thereafter. The price of gasoline will likely rapidly increase well beyond the July 2008 peak due to decreased supplies and rising demand, threatening to dampen economic recovery.


In short, the world faces numerous political, economic, and social challenges that threaten to undermine the welfare of people all over the world. Sustainability provides just the type of approach needed to address these challenges and the ethics of sustainability gives sustainability legitimacy as a framework. 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.


Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • I. Foundations for an Ethics of Sustainability
  • Chapter 1 The Sustainability Framework
  • Chapter 2 The Technology Challenge
  • Chapter 3 Making Ethical Decisions
  • II. The Ethical Principles of Sustainability
  • Chapter 4 Obligations to Future Generations and the Precautionary Principle
  • Chapter 5 The Global Community, Social Justice, and the Distributional Principle
  • Chapter 6 Environmental Ethics: Other Species and the Community of Life
  • Chapter 7 Sustainable Economics
  • III. Translating Principles into Practices
  • Chapter 8 The Process of Decision Making
  • Chapter 9 Turning Ethical Decisions into Professional Practices
  • Chapter 10 Personal and Planetary Sustainability